A SHORT HISTORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO AREA
by William G. Dayton
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On February 15, 1882, two men walked up a pine covered hill in what was then the southern part of Hernando County. From the hilltop they looked down upon a large and exceptionally clear lake. Government surveyors in 1845 had missed the lake altogether and the area was virtually uninhabited so the men probably felt that they had discovered the lake. One of them drew a latin prayer book from his pack and read that the day was the feast of St. Jovita. He accordingly named the lake in honor of that early Christian martyr. The two men proceeded around the lake to the hilltop where St. Leo Abbey now stands and one of them decided that he would reserve that land for himself.
The travelers were Edmund F. Dunne, former chief justice
of the Arizona territory, and his cousin, Captain Hugh Dunne. Judge
Dunne was one of the attorneys involved in negotiating the Disston
purchase of 1881, when Hamilton Disston of Philadelphia purchased
four million acres of state owned land at twenty five cents an acre,
thereby providing Florida with enough money to avoid default on the
interest due on state bonds. Dunne took his attorney's fee in the
form of an option to develop a tract of one hundred thousand acres.
Remembering the discrimination which Roman Catholics had experienced
in Ireland and many parts of the United States in the nineteenth century
and still smarting from the antiCatholicism he had experienced in
Arizona, Dunne envisioned the land as a "Catholic Colony", a settlement
dominated by Roman Catholics, a center of Catholic civilization in
Judge Dunne placed the center of his colony a short distance to the southwest of Lake Jovita. There he carefully planned a town, named "San Antonio" to honor St. Anthony of Padua in acknowledgment of an answered prayer. For the City of San Antonio he reserved a full section of land, plotted streets and residential lots and set aside property for schools, a monastery, a convent and an orphan's asylum. In the middle of town he laid out a public square in the European style.
in a couple of years but the villages of St. Thomas and Carmel lasted until the turn of the century, each with a post office and small church. St. Thomas also had a Negro mission, connected with a nearby all black settlement called "Possum Trot".
By 1883, the town of San Antonio was well established
with several stores, a barn-like church with a resident priest (Father
O'Boyle) and a school taught by Mrs. Cecelia Moore. In 1884, Dunne
started publication of a newspaper, The San Antonio Herald. The
early settlers of the colony included the McCabe, Gailmard, Hand,
Carroll, Bischoff, Freese, O'Neal, Weaver, Liles, Quigley, Flannigan
and Corrigan families. Most of the early settlers were of Irish decent,
as was Judge Dunne himself, a papal knight and heir to ancient Irish
titles of nobility.
Until the late 1880's San Antonio, like the rest of Hernando
County, was quite isolated. Long journeys by wagon or ox cart were
required to reach the nearest port (Tampa) or railroad station (Wildwood)
. After 1887, when the South Florida Railroad passed through Dade
City, things changed rapidly. Pasco County was formed out of the southern
end of Hernando. The Orange Belt Railroad was constructed, passing
through San Antonio on its way to St. Petersburg. Crops could now
be shipped quickly and efficiently to northern markets. Many new settlers
arrived and, to accomodate the prosperity which followed the railroads,
the Bank of Pasco County was established in Dade City in 1889.
During this period the Order of St. Benedict began
to make its mark on the developing community. Father Gerald Pilz,
0. S.B., succeeded Father
01 Boyle as parish priest and a group of Benedictine sisters
arrived to manage St. Anthony's School and found a private girl's
school at their convent, Holy Name, then located in the former Sultenfuss
Hotel at the north end of the square. The building was moved in 1911,
by an elaborate system of ox-powered pulleys and winches, to the hilltop
where Holy Name Monastery now stands.
In addition to providing priests for the churches of the Catholic
Colony, the monks established Catholic parishes in Dade City, Zephyrhills,
New Port Richey, Brooksville and Crystal River. St. Leo continued
to supply priests for Catholic congregations throughout Pasco, Hernando
and Citrus counties until the last decade of the 20th Century.
Begining in 1883, the Barthle family led a number
of Catholic immigrants from the German Empire into the area (by way
of Minnesota) and founded St. Joseph, the last and only survivor of
Dunne's planned villages. A little board- and-batten church was built
there in 1888 and dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The whole area was permanently affected by the steadily
increasing number of German settlers. By 1896 San Antonio's Newspaper
was no longer The Herald but the Florida Staats Zeitung.
Undaunted by the great freeze of 1895, which severely damaged
the citrus industry and caused the demise of many Florida towns, German
families experimented with a wide variety of crops and, for a time,
made the Catholic Colony a center of the strawberry industry.
San Antonio and the surrounding area maintained a
distinctly Germanic character until the era of the First World War
when Florida was convulsed with an unprecedented wave of AntiGerman
feeling combined with a strong Anti-Catholic movement led by the state's
governor, Sidney J. Catts. Governor Catts was widely quoted (and widely
believed) to the effect that the "German" monks at St. Leo had an
arsenal and were planning to arm Florida Negroes for an insurrection
in favor of Kaiser Wilhelm II, after which the Pope would take over
Florida and move the Vatican to San Antonio (and, of course, close
all protestant churches) . A number of German settlers moved away
to friendlier parts of the country. Others stayed and took the pressure.
Abbot Charles of St. Leo published several dignified responses to
the extravagant claims about Catholic "plots" and many local protestants
made a point of appearing in public with their Catholic neighbors.
When Catts visited the Pasco County area, he generally omitted the
antiCatholic portions of his speeches.
During the first two decades of the century, the Benedictines
constructed the f irst concrete block building in Pasco County. St.
Leo Hall at St. Leo was begun in 1906 and completed at the end of
World War I. St. Scholastica Hall at Holy Name, was completed in 1912.
The architect for these structures was Brother Anthony Poiger, O.S.B.
He designed the buildings and, using a mailorder kit, worked out the
process for making the "Palmer" blocks used in their construction.
St. Scholastic Hall was pulled down in 1978, but St. Leo Hall still
stands, a monument to the industry of Florida's Benedictine pioneers.
In 1926, during the Florida land boom, San Antonio
was reorganized as the "City of Lake Jovitall and its boundaries extended
a considerable distance. In an effort to "modernize," Judge Dunne's
street names were changed: Sacred Heart Street becoming Rhode Island
Avenue, Pius IX Avenue becoming Curley Street, etc. The land boom
ended abruptly in the same year, causing bank failures throughout
the state. The Bank of Pasco County was the only local bank and one
of the few in Florida to survive the "bust" of 1926 and the stock
market crash which folowed in 1929. When the Great Depression made
it clear that the "boom" would not revive, the town changed its name
back to San Antonio and withdrew the city limits to the section lines
where Judge Dunne had put them in 1882 and where they largely remain.
The secularized street names are about the only remnants of San Antonio's
In the 19201's, the Jovita golf course, built on the
former Corrigan property, attracted internationally known golfers,
including Gene Sarazen. The golf course did not survive the Great
Depression but has been rebuilt and expanded in the 1990's with the
development of the Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club.
St. Leo functioned as a college preparatory school
for boys into the 1960's. Holy Name Academy functioned as a private
girl's school during the same period. By 1965 St. Leo and Holy Name
had closed the secondary schools in order to make their facilities
available for St. Leo Junior College, later a four year college and
now a university with a graduate degree program.
A community with deep roots in the past and strong agricultural ties, Judge Dunne's Catholic Colony is now comprised of the Cities of San Antonio and St. Leo, the unincorporated village of St. Joseph and miles of orange trees and pasture lands. The central role played by the Catholic church in the life of the community and the deep commitment to agriculture by generations of residents are, like San Antonio's town square, reminders of what Judge Dunne envisioned in 1882.