by Tim Gilmore, 6/21/2015
On that early April afternoon in 1963, when the Baptist preacher pulled his Volkswagen Beetle into his church parking lot, he barely had the strength to get out of the car before he bled to death.
And that’s after the Associated Press reported, a decade before, that George Hodges had thumped his chest before his congregation of around 2000 at Beaver Street Baptist Church and said “his enemies didn’t ‘have the guts’ to bomb his church.” The Ku Klux Klan had begun to bomb and threaten to bomb black churches, and Hodges roared every Sunday against integration and communism. The AP reported he’d begun stationing 18 armed guards around the church.
Sara Luckie’s neighbors had heard the gunshot. They saw the preacher stumble violently out her front door and across the porch.
Police found him lying in a pool of blood in the parking lot where the great flying windows of a strange church sanctuary looking like a cross between a toadstool and a flying saucer soon would rise.
The Reverend George Hodges was the pastor of Beaver Street Baptist Church, whose total membership of about 5,000 made it one of the largest Baptist churches in the South. It was bigger at the time than Trinity Baptist Church, just over a half mile away on McDuff Avenue, which soon eclipsed it. Hodges had founded Beaver Street Baptist in the 1930s and had its new midcentury modernist sanctuary completed in 1955.
Working-class Woodstock Park was a white neighborhood, and Hodges ranted about the evil threats of integration from his pulpit. Today, Woodstock Park is industrial, mostly black, and the former Beaver Street Baptist Church is Cathedral of Faith Church of God in Christ, a historically black congregation.
Frances King sits across from me in a rocking chair with the steady rhythm of her oxygen machine beating its metronome behind our conversation.
“I didn’t believe it for a long time,” she says. “He was a good preacher, a strong man of God, but finally there was just too much evidence not to believe, just like Pastor Bob Gray at Trinity who molested all those children.”
* * *
Though Beaver Street Baptist was slow about offering police their knowledge of Reverend Hodges’s murder, in the days that followed, the case looked stranger and stranger.
Two months before Sara Luckie fired the one bullet that killed Hodges, church officials had asked her to withdraw her membership, but wouldn’t tell police the reason.
By early May, the newspapers were calling Luckie a “plumpish housewife” and Pastor Hodges “her lover.” Hodges had begun by offering Luckie “marital counseling,” and ended up secretly marrying her while she was still married to the father of her four children.
When Luckie admitted in the packed courtroom that she’d been secretly married to the minister she’d murdered, her husband, John Luckie, promptly keeled over and suffered a heart attack. He was rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital and court was adjourned.
Hodges, himself married and a father of seven children, had officiated over his and Luckie’s marriage himself, with only the polygamous newlyweds present, in the parking lot of Baptist Memorial Hospital, on Christmas. Luckie said the two had been lovers for four years.
* * *
The variously shaped panes glitter blue and gold and silver and burgundy in the windowed buttresses that rise four stories off the weary sun-baked June pavement. Looking straight down on West Beaver and Superior Streets from the sky, the church looks like a circular folding fan with 15 distinct folds, or a wheel with 15 spokes.
When engineer Dole Kelley designed the “midcentury modern” sanctuary, it was the largest dome of folded plate concrete in the country. Balcony beams cantilevered 28 feet without columns to create space for 1500 congregants.
Now the strange and beautiful structure sits as beaten as the rugged asphalt, the painted brick warehouses, the sodden strip clubs around it, but it still looks like it alighted from the sky and its strange colors yet scintillate.
In 2010, the Jacksonville division of the American Institute of Architects held a symposium on Mid-Century Modern architecture here at the Cathedral of Faith, with a special focus on the six decades of Jacksonville architect Robert Broward’s designs.
* * *
Sara Luckie testified that the preacher regularly beat her. The afternoon she shot him, she said, “He was forcing and jerking and tearing off my clothes.”
Pastor Hodges had called her that morning and said he wanted to meet her later that afternoon. She said she was tired of their relationship’s drama and wanted to end things. Then she hung up the phone.
Among the many things Sara’s husband didn’t know was that Hodges had his own key to the Luckies’ house, and he entered the house on his own after boiling in anger for hours, then flew at her and chased her back into her bedroom.
Though Luckie said she’d only grabbed the revolver to scare Hodges, that the gun accidentally discharged during their struggle, Mrs. Quinton Swinford, Hodges’s sister and secretary, said Luckie had threatened to kill him before and that Luckie’s problem was nothing more than “juvenile infatuation.”
Another witness, Mrs. Evelyn B. Dye, said the preacher regularly and stealthily visited Sara Luckie at the insurance company where she worked.
Dye said, “Rev. Hodges drove into a parking lot behind the office, motioned for Mrs. Luckie to follow him and Mrs. Luckie drove off behind him in her car.”
* * *
Hodges’s sister and secretary had reported other telephone threats in the past, though none of the threats were ever corroborated or substantiated.
Frances King remembers Hodges preaching powerfully against the “twin evils” of Communism and Integration. He told his congregation that he personally had received bomb threats due to his stance against integration.
In 1952, the Associated Press reported, “The Rev. G.E. Hodges, whose secretary said Friday an anonymous caller threatened him and his church with ‘the same thing…as happened in Mims, Florida,’ has been given police protection.”
What had happened in Mims was that civil rights leader Harry T. Moore and his wife were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan when a bomb exploded beneath their house on Christmas.
A half dozen police officers guarded the January Sunday-night service, “where 2,000 crowded into the Beaver Street Baptist Church to hear the Rev. Hodges give his promised answer to the threats.”
Frances King was there that night, but she doesn’t remember what “promised answer” Hodges preached. “I just kept wondering if this was the night the church was gonna get bombed.”
* * *
Though The Evening Independent of St. Petersburg, Florida headlined the AP photo of Sara Luckie shielding herself from photographers, “Unlucky Day for Mrs. Luckie,” her fortunes continued to tank.
After multiple inquests and testimonies and private shames made public, Judge Hans Tanzler, three and a half years before he became the mayor of Jacksonville, ordered Sara Luckie to undergo a psychiatric examination after which Tanzler ruled that “she is incompetent and unable to make a rational defense against a manslaughter charge for the fatal shooting of Reverend George E. Hodges.”
When one psychiatrist was asked in court if Sara Luckie had “a history of violence,” she cried aloud, “It’s this Beaver Street Baptist bunch that’s sending me off like this! I can’t stand it!”
Dr. William H. McCullagh called Luckie a paranoid schizophrenic and said she “suffered from a persecution complex,” while Dr. William Ingram said she believed “she has had visits from Rev. Hodges since his death.”
* * *
After Reverend Hodges’s scandal and murder, the old white church in which he’d preached gave way to this strange mid-20th-century-space-age-fantasy sanctuary, the home for Jacksonville Baptist Temple and its Kingergarten-though-12th-grade Temple Christian School. As Beaver Street Baptist had before it, Temple rivaled Trinity Baptist Church, which left its inner-city location just as Temple began to thrive there on Beaver Street.
But a schism soon split Jacksonville Baptist Temple and Temple Christian School into Bible Baptist Temple, in a Westside semi-rural / suburban location near where I grew up (I attended Temple Christian School from first through fourth grades) and First Coast Christian School. Temple closed its doors for good in 1990, but First Coast Christian School continues.
* * *
The psychiatrists said Sara Luckie wasn’t certain Pastor Hodges was dead. He visited her sometimes in jail. She had seen him in Heaven.
But, suspiciously, her state-accorded mental incompetence not only lessened her crimes, but her pastor’s sins as well. Despite several eyewitness accounts of Hodges and Luckie trysting away together, Dr. William Ingram proclaimed that “much of what she said” about her sexual relations with the preacher “was a delusion.”
As evidence against her competence, Ingram mentioned Luckie’s 1961 suicide attempt, when she took an overdose of sedatives two years into her relationship with Reverend Hodges. Ingram noted it was Hodges who called in emergency services after her overdose.
Ingram did not mention that symptoms of withdrawal from tranquilizers like Valium, which “hysterical” women were often prescribed in the 1950s and ’60s, can include panic attacks, hallucinations, cognitive difficulties, and psychosis.
“Pastor Hodges was the most wonderful man of God,” Frances King tells me, “but the Devil goes hard after men of the Lord, and even Christians can fall into sin.”
Meanwhile, 52 years later, I scurry about the rooftops of the strange toadstool architecture of the sanctuary built against the Devil, Communism, and Integration, though its odd radial fins of glittering windows now house a black Pentecostal congregation.
I look down across the palm trees and colored tiles and cantilevered walkways and sparkling glass and oddly-angled circular-fanned wings, and I wonder where, precisely, down on the pavement before me, Reverend George Hodges stepped outside of his car and bled to death in 1963.