Florida Keys News
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
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Passingon legacies
Protecting historic documents in a safe environment

Sarah Curry was moved to tears Monday after seeing her own and her sister's original marriage documentation from St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Key West.

Curry, the past senior warden of the church, was reviewing a book of marriage records the church recently gave to the Key West Library. The book was included in three bankers' boxes of historical documents detailing the births, deaths and marriages of church members dating back to the late 1800s.

The church wanted to make sure the records were maintained in a climate-controlled facility in order to preserve them for future generations, Father Rick Effinger said. The records had been stored in the church's parish hall and were beginning to succumb to the island's tropical conditions.

"This was done for Sarah's and others' children and grandchildren to look through," Effinger said. "My primary concern is keeping them safe."

Curry, church Senior Warden Calvin Allen and Effinger with Florida Keys historian Tom Hambright on Monday at the library to review all the documents. Hambright oversees the Florida History section of the library.

"Lord Jesus, have mercy," Curry said after looking at her own, her sister's and their husbands' signatures in the marriage book. "Isn't that something. I am full today."

St. Peter's is the oldest historically black Episcopal church in the state. In 1872, a group of black Anglicans immigrated to Key West from the Bahamas, but they found no church in which they could worship in the way they were accustomed to.

"They didn't want to have to sit in the back," said Effinger.

St. Peter's flock worshipped from house to house until 1873, when they received permission from the school district to worship in a classroom.

By 1889, the members had their own church, and membership increased from 32 to 211. However, all was not well within the church. The flock's priest left for another appointment within the diocese, and many began to leave the church.

Rev. Shadrach Kerr from the Diocese of Haiti took over the parish. He was the first black priest to serve at St. Peter's. He brought many of the departed members back to the church.

Kerr would be one of the church's most influential leaders until the arrival of Father John Reece Jr. in 1950. Reece would serve at a time of great unrest in the country when it came to racial issues.

Reece, who presided over the church until 1975, made a point to educate the younger members of the flock. He offered summer school studies every year to help the youth with math, science and English.

To help motivate the students to enroll, he offered them a free trip to the Bahamas following the summer session, Curry said. The church has since started a Father John Reece Scholarship Fund.

"He is a fascinating character," Effinger said. "He was responsible for making sure a whole generation went on to earn degrees and advance degrees."

The library is currently indexing the birth, death and marriage records of St. Peter's into its databases.

"There has been a large resurgence in genealogy," Hambright said.

"Genealogy is one of the fastest growing hobbies, second behind gardening," said Anne Layton Rice, library administrator.

tohara@keysnews.com

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