Father Pedro Camps:A True Apostle

by: halsema.org editors

The opening paragraph is from: The Bishops of Florida: Pastoral Letter on the Bicentennial, 1976

This statue is curently in the small courtyard west of the Cathedral Basilica, Saint Augustine, Florida USA.

This statue of Father Pedro Camps and others was presented to the Bishop of Saint Augustine, Paul F. Tanner, by Ferdinando A, Rubio, of Minorca, in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Minorcan colonists in St. Augustine. It was dedicated to the city April, 24, 1975.

Essay Outline:

  1. This image of great suffering in the eyes of God’s servant Fr. Pedro Camps is perhaps symbolic of the suffering endured by the Minorcans who were aboard the ships of Dr. Andrew Turnbull, an English colonist.
  2. The statue is a dedication to the Catholic Friar Pedro Camps, who accompanied the 900 Minorcans, 400 Greeks and several Corsicans and Italians on Turnbull’s ships, which sailed to the New World in early in 1768. During this time of British rule, Fr. Camps single handedly preserved the Catholic Faith in the colony of Florida.
  3. Turnbull, his crew and the other colonists were destined for the New Smyrna Colony, located south of the Spanish port city of St. Augustine.
  4. The colonists arrived in Saint Augustine June 26 of the same year and, after a brief stay there, sailed south to New Smyrna.
  5. The New Smyrna experience was horrific and eventually futile as over half of those who arrived there were dead within 10 years. Fr. Camps kept detailed records.
  6. Of the 900 Minorcans who arrived at the New Smyrna Colony, only 300 remained. Father Pedro Camps, was the spiritual mainstay for the entire community.
  7. The colonists of New Smyrna, in 1777, abandoned their efforts in New Smyrna and walked north to St. Augustine. Fr Camps with no resources, continued on in Saint Augustine.
  8. Once there, they entered the trades of seafaring, net making and, at the same time, established a cultural dimension to the city which still exists today.

The story of the Church in Florida over the course of four centuries cannot be told here in detail. We would be negligent in this review of our Florida Catholic heritage, however, did we not mention a number of other persons who deserve special remembrance. Father Pedro Camps, pastor of the maltreated Minorcans at New Smyrna who successfully kept their faith alive both there and in refuge at St. Augustine in the Revolutionary period.

In the twilight of Fr. Pedro Camps life, the Governor, Manuel Zepedes, of East Florida referred to him as a “true apostle” while begging the Bishop of Santiago de Cuba and the king of Spain to send help. When Bishop Cyril of Barcelona visited the colony of Florida in 1788 he singled out Fr. Camps among all the clerics there for his exemplary service as a “priest of well known merit.” Upon his death bishops, priests, and governors praised him. He spent twenty two years of his life struggling with his people in East Florida. In Church and State in the Spanish Florida’s, Michael Curley writes: “For sheer devotion to a missionary ideal, his record stands unapproached in the story of the Floridas during this period of time.”

Who was Pedro Camps and what was his Apostolic Mission? In order to understand Fr. Camps more fully we must first understand the people he served and the political climate in which he served. To do that we first go to Florida.

The first Mass celebrated on the North American continent (not the Caribbean Islands) was celebrated in Pensacola, Florida, and Florida became a very Catholic colony, but by 1763 the English ruled the area, and one year later, astonishingly, no more than eight Catholics, all lay people, remained.

In 1763, Spanish East Florida was ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Paris which concluded the French and Indian Wars, only to be returned to Spain 20 years later as part of the settlement of the American War of Independence. After the American Revolution, the British retroceded Florida back to Spain (Second Spanish Period: 1783-1821).

So England gained control of Florida in 1763 and held this control until 1783, when Spain regained Florida. It was during this British period, that a Scottish doctor by the name of Andrew Turnbull, a former British Consul at Smyrna, Greece was given a grant of approximately 20,000 acres of land about 70 miles south of St. Augustine, Florida and called it New Smyrna named after Smyrna, the birthplace of his wife. The Spanish had called the area Los Mosquitos, and today the inlet at New Smyrna is still called Mosquito Inlet. Turnbull proposed that the colony would raise cotton, olives, indigo, and make wine and silk.

Unfortunately, for all those involved, the entire experience became a crucible of afflicition. His plantation would not last through British control of the territory.

Although the English occupation of Florida was to last for twenty years, catholicity was reborn in the province only five years after its sudden disappearance. The rebirth was worked by a remarkable priest, Fr. Pedro Camps, at the head of an equally remarkable people. The story begins at the port of Mahon on the east side of Minorca, east of Spain in the Mediterranean. There, in 1767, this Scottish physician turned colonizer, Andrew Turnbull, began collecting colonists his projected colony in East Florida. Although Mahon was at first only a collection point for the Greeks and Italians that Turnbull preferred, it eventually became the principle source for his company. By April 1768, Minorcans formed the overwhelming majority of the 1403 who had signed on as indentured servants.

In 1768, Turnbull collected about 1,403 people from the Mediterranean to colonize and work on his project. One hundred ten of these were Italians recruited in the port city of Livorno, Italy. They were ensconced at the port city of Mahon, Minorca, the second largest of the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain. He then sailed to the port city of Smyrna and the surrounding Levant to collect several hundred Greeks For eight months, Turnbull sailed the Mediterranean and Aegean seeking Greeks and others, although the majority who signed on for his venture would be Minorcans. When Turnbull finally returned to Mahon he found that nearly all of his young Italians had married or were betrothed to Minorcan girls. The Minorcan families of these girls appealed to be included in the proposed British Colony. Other Minorcan families pressed to go also. Consequently, other than a few hundred Italians and Greeks, the final group that sailed in eight ships, totaling 1,403, was largely Minorcan, whose ancestry was mostly Roman and Latin. So some 400 Greeks, 900 Minorcans and a few dozen Corsicans and Italians comprised the initial group.

The voyage was difficult and many died. Still 1255 men and women did arrive in St. Augustine which was to date the largest colony of Europeans to come to Florida at one time. Colonel James Grant, governor of the British province of East Florida (1764-1771), in a letter to the Count of Shelbourne in England on July 2, 1768, wrote, “This my Lord, I believe is the largest importation of white inhabitants that ever was brought into America at a time.”

After four months at sea, the eight ships reached St. Augustine, and later, arrived at Los Mosquitos Inlet (New Smyrna ). They arrived on June 26,1768, in St. Augustine to collect provisions on their way to the New Smyrna Colony. Interestingly, the Greeks were from Smyrna (Asia Minor), Mani (Peloponessos), Santorini and Crete, and since the Ottomans did not allow a Greek Orthodox priest to accompany them, their religious and spiritual needs were administered by the Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Pedro Camps, from Minorca.

Andrew Turnbull’s wife, Gracia Dura Bin, was Catholic, and she took it upon herself to enlist the services of two priests for the colony, Father Pedro Camps, a thirty eight year old Roman Catholic secular priest from Mercadal, Minorca whose zeal and skill at preaching was widely respected on Minorca and Father Bartolome Casanovas, an Augustinian. After some political wrangling (Minorca was under English rule but Mallorca the diocesan seat was under Spanish rule.) both priests were commissioned as apostolic missionaries which gave them wide privileges for their work. Fr. Camps kept extensive vital statistics records which he called the Golden Book of the Minorcans and later he began the Cathedral Parish records in St. Augustine.

His pains taking efforts in recording baptisms, marriages and deaths give us an excellent background for many of the families’ histories. The original Golden Book of the Minorcans of Father Camps is still in good condition and several handwritten copies are on file at the Historical Society Research Library in St. Augustine. Microm films of the original document is also available at teh Research Library. The original, at the diocesan archives, is kept along with other important documents in a special room under prescribed temperature to aid preservation.

The Minorcans’ contract with the British colonizers came under the Indentured Servant Law. Each was to serve 6 to 8 years and at the end of that time, would receive 50 acres of land, plus 5 acres for each child. There were a few who had negotiated written contracts, some were oral .

After arriving, the first priority was to clear the land of pines, live oaks, cabbage palm, palmetto shrub, and, drain the marsh. Conditions were wretched and never improved: Unbearable heat and humidity; scant time to gather food; inadequate clothing; palm-thatched huts for living quarters; disgusting stench of indigo culture; miserable sanitation; disease; unending planting and tending crops; cruel treatment. Promised lodgings had not been built. The settlers were forced to seek shelter as best they could while their overseers pressured them to start the backbreaking work of producing indigo

Food was difficult to come by and a rebellion insued on August 20 which was brutally crushed. Food ran low, clothing and shelter were very poor. Many began to die, sometimes as many as 15 per day. 450 died the first year. A cycle began of sickness, death, protests, punishments and brief periods of relief until the colony’s eventual collapse in 1777. Incredibly, between 1771 and 1777, the hard working beleaguered colony exported 43,283 pounds of indigo with other crops were from the wharves of the New Smyrna plantation. After a while, Father Pedro Camps stood alone shielding the Minorcan settlers from Turnbull’s intimidation, terrorism and even murder while trying as best he could to provide spiritual relief.

Father Camps and Casanovas were hard pressed to keep courage and hope alive among the people. They built a crude hut for a church and called it San Pedro (sometimes referred to as St. Peter). Fr. Camps was no minimalist. He was a real spiritual leader and advisor for his community. He continuously catechized his people and preached every Sunday with special services during Lent. He was universally accepted even by the English who agreed to pay him $300.00 per year, although that did not occur on a regular basis. In 1774 Fr. Casanovas was deported by Turnbull for alleged insubordination to colony officials. Fr. Camps made repeated attempts to communicate with Minorca and Havana to secure another priest for his maltreated people, but English authorities blocked all attempts because many of the colonists in New Smyrna were unhappy and wanted to escape to Cuba. Hence, English officials under Turnbull’s command forbade communications with Havana.

Father Camps had been told by the Holy See in 1768 to make contact with the bishop of Havana in Cuba which was almost impossible because of the English. In October 1769 camps talked two Cuban fishermen into taking a message to the bishop of Santiago, asking for Holy Oils and other necessities. Since this bishop knew of no Catholic colonies in Florida, he sent the message to Spain which eventually had to go to Rome for validation. This process took two years.

Fr. Camps was warned at one point for interfering in “temporal” affairs when he presented to the governor a memorial in which he stated the grievances of his poor maltreated people. Turnbull warned him to avoid temporal concerns or suffer the fate of deportation.

With the Beginning of the American War of Independence in 1775, life in the colony became more difficult as supplies were more scarce and the death rate soared. 1777 the Minorcans determined that Turnbull would not grant them land for their indentured servitude, so two colonists made their way to the governor. Ramon Rogero, and Francisco Pellicer, Sr. undertook to build a makeshift boat so they could get to St. Augustine to report conditions to the governor. This was not the first time the Minorcans had begged the Governor to intercede on their behalf. Instead of reaching St. Augustine, the two men were picked up by a British ship sailing to Baltimore. From there they worked their way back down to St. Augustine on foot and horseback.

They reached St. Augustine and met with the governor, who showed great empathy for their plight. He sent soldiers to the colony and took numerous depositions (all a matter of recorded history) from a number of the colonists. Governor Patrick Tonyn issued orders releasing from their contracts all that had been mistreated or signed on under legal age which meant the virtual dissolution of the colony. Turnbull gave these half starved people four days to get out. Fransisco Pellicer, head carpenter of the settlement, led the Minorcans out of bondage to the city of St. Augustine, Florida. They marched on foot. The women, children, and aged walked in the center while the men, armed with stakes, took up the flanks. Three days later they were in St. Augustine.

After nine years of exploitation, deprivation and broken promises, Turnbull’s colony failed and the entire group of Minorcans, Italians and Greeks walked the King’s Highway to freedom in St. Augustine. 1777 was the end of Les Mesquites as the colony was also called. In the face of extreme adversities, the colony had lasted nine years. Scorching heat, disease, deaths, menacing Indians, inadequate shelter, lack of food, insufficient clothing, but most of all the cruel treatment by Andrew Turnbull and his overseers.

As a result, the governor permitted the colony to come to St. Augustine “en masse” which they did in July 1777. The total number of Minorcans (now a collective name for the diverse cultural group) that arrived in St. Augustine was a far cry from the number left Minorca nine years prior. There were 1403 that left Minorca in those eight ships and in the ensuing nine years 930 died. With new births in that same period, there were 600 who fled to St. Augustine in 1777.

Father Camps stayed behind with the sick. He was held a virtual prisoner there by Turnbull, he was refused his arrears in salary and the use of any sacred vessels because he refused to counsel his people to live and work in the bondage of New Smyrna. He was held in New Smyrna and was not released until November of 1777 even though the sick had already been sent to St. Augustine by ship. There he began a new parish, the only one in St. Augustine at the time, on the ground floor of a residence by the city gates and called it San Pedro.

He made the following entry in his Golden Book:

On the 9th day of November 1777, the church of San Pedro was translated from the settlement of Mosquito to the city of Saint Augustine, with the same colony of Mahonese Minorcans which was established in the said settlement, and the same parish priest and Missionary Apostolic, Dr. Dn. Pedro Camps. (Dr. Pedro Camps, Parish Priest.)

Fr. Camps was in ill health and had been sending messages to the Bishop of Havana for three years asking for help. Finally in December of 1778 the king sent two Irishmen, but war had broken out, and Florida was blockaded by the English. The first of the priests did not arrive until June of 1784 when the Spaniards once again took formal possession of the colony of Florida. Fr. Camps had petitioned to retire, but was keenly aware of the plight of his Minorcan speaking people among an English speaking clergy. He had been promised retirement in Mallorca as a canon of the Cathedral of Mallorca, but he refused to leave as long as there was no other priest who spoke the native language to replace him. Although two more priests who spoke Spanish were eventually sent, they did not understand the Minorcan dialect or culture, and the Minorcans were the bulk of the population at that time in Saint Augustine because the English left en masse after the Spanish took over. In 1787 the first free school, in what is now the United States, was opened for the Minorcan children.

On May 19, 1790 Father Pedro camps died. Not only the Minorcans, but the entire Spanish population of the area mourned him.

After so many years of pleading for help, Fr. Camps was replaced posthumously by an order issued 21 May 1791. A copy of that order written in November of 1791 reads:

A copy of the royal order of May 21, 1791 addressed to Florida; to replace the late Father Pedro Camps a Minorcan religious or one who knows their language will accompany the three Irish priest to minister to the large number of families from that Island established in Florida since the British domination, and since His Majesty has decided that two hermitages be built in the district of St. John and St. Mary where two of the Irish priests chosen by Trespalacios or his Vicar in Florida with the accord of the Governor, will reside continuously, teaching and preaching. These priests may not permit clandestine marriages or “English style” (marriages). This is a true copy of the original, Estevan Manuel de Elosua certifies.

Some additional information on the Island of Minorca and their descendants in Saint Augustine:

Minorca is the second largest of the Spanish Balearic Islands, which at the time of the New Smyrna project was under English control. The islands are 50 to 190 miles off the coast of Spain. Together, they form a province of Spain. Minorca is about 30 miles long and 10 miles wide. The primary town is Mahon, considered one of the finest deep-water ports on the Mediterranean. The immigrants would sail from this port, for the Florida Colony.

Some of the more notable descendants of the Minorcan group who went to New Smyrna were the Benet brothers, Stephen and William, both famous poets, Stephen the better known of the two. Also, Judy Canova, the famous comedian and Hollywood star of the thirties and forties. There were also two Bishops, Bishop Manucy and Bishop Pellicer. Both served in the Confederate army as Chaplains and were later assigned to the diocese of Mobile, Alabama and San Antonio, Texas.

The Minorcans got along fine with the English, but they were happier to see Spain regain St. Augustine in 1783. They were very much at home with their Latin cousins. They intermarried with the Spanish families and those of the English who remained in the area. It is safe to say that in the veins of all St. Augustine native families runs the blood of the Minorcans.

Minorcans are primarily of Catalan descent, Catalonia being a province in the northeast section of Spain, with Barcelona the principle city. The slingshot was invented by the Minorcans and they were famous as “stone slingers” in the armies of Julius Caesar. Mayonnaise was invented by the Minorcans during the French occupation of the island and carried back to France. Admiral Farragut’s father settled in Tennessee from Minorca in 1783. He was the famous admiral who is known for his alleged cry, “Damn the Torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

The Minorcans were a close knit group, they settled close together in what is now the historical district of St. Augustine, frequently called the Minorcan Quarter. Many of them worked farms a few miles out of town, but returned at night to the protection of the nearby fort. There were frequent encounters with the Indians initially, but as they became less frequent, the farmers went further and further out from town.

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