The St. Photios Shrine

May 9, 2012 Length: 16:22

Fredrica interviews Polly Hillier, the Director of the St. Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine in St. Augustine, Florida, about the story behind the shrine.





Frederica: I’m in St. Augustine, Florida today at the St. Photios Shrine. And a little bit of history that I never knew, we just had the first, hopefully first annual, women’s retreat here at the shrine. We had a wonderful time this Saturday. It was a lot of fun.

But I had heard, “How did Orthodoxy come to America?” A lot of people point to St. Herman, and more recently there’s been talk of a Virginia gentleman before the Civil War, who apparently was a convert to Orthodoxy. A story went around the Internet last summer that the first shot in the Civil War was fired by the little girl who is the daughter of this gentleman.

Polly Hillier: How exciting. That’s your claim to fame.

Frederica: But this is actually earlier. This is 1763. So tell me the story.

Polly: Because of 1763, the Treaty of Paris, Britain was given Florida. They gave up Cuba. And Spain, after almost 200 years, had to get out of Florida, and they took Cuba. And so this city, which historians like to say was going through its third urban renewal at the time of the pilgrims, actually became a British city.

So what the government, what the Crown did, was encourage entrepreneurs to create plantations to fuel the Industrial Revolution of England, because the tariffs and taxes were so high, they thought, “Let’s get it in from our own land, and it will be good.” Well, they tried to actually settle Florida with Northern Europeans.

And there was a bit of animosity between the Church of England and the Papacy. And the Catholic Church had a big stronghold here.

Frederica: Of course, because a lot of the Spaniards were still living here. They didn’t just leave.

Polly: Well, the churches were established. They didn’t want to bring in more Catholics to perpetuate Catholicism, but to establish the Anglican Church here in the Colonies.

So when, Andrew Turnbull the Scottish physician, who was actually a British envoy to Asia Minor, heard of this opportunity he was seeing that his compatriots were not able to get people to say yes to coming to Florida. And he thought, “I know the Mediterranean people, especially the Greeks, and they are hard workers. Let me see if I can fill some ships and go over to America.”

The capital of the east Florida province of Britain was St. Augustine. It was Pensacola in the west and St. Augustine in the east. So he actually used Mahon, Menorca as his port of call. He had eight ships altogether, heavily funded by the crown. And he brought over altogether 1,403 people on the ships.

The one ship got lost. They all arrived June 26, 1768 except that eighth ship that arrived in August. They registered in here, and he was given the land tract 75 miles south of here in Mosquito Inlet. He named it New Smyrna colony after the birthplace of his wife, who was Orthodox. His son Nicholas was also baptized in the Church.

Now you have to understand, he tried to bring an Orthodox bishop and two priests with him. You see a mixed story that they were decapitated at the wharf after the blessing was given to them, but they were thwarted from coming.

Frederica: By the Turks?

Polly: By the Turks, right. I learned this after coming to the shrine. What happened was the Ottoman occupation of all of the Mediterranean but Morocco didn’t happen 1, 2, 3. It was the Venetian and Genovese holding out, holding out, holding out.

But as these towns like in Coroni Mani and the Peloponnese, which was one of the ports of call for Turnbull in Crete, that’s why we have these beautiful Venetian castles throughout the Mediterranean. They were strongholds against the Ottoman Empire.

But as they fell to the Ottomans, the Turks were very understanding until you sided with the wrong person. So what happened was as Turnbull was gathering the people, they’re actually from the 1740 dispersion into the diaspora. There were Greeks from Corsica who met Greeks from Greece, and they said, “Wait, your name is Juan Yatrokos. Well, my name is Giovanni Medici.”

The same name in two different languages. They had the same grandmother, but the parents dispersed into the diaspora. This is why the story really is an unbelievable story of immigration due to this. It was really looking for economical freedom and political freedom versus our Puritans and pilgrims coming in for religious freedom.

And like Australia being the primogenitor, because we always thought it was the convicts that settled there. Well what was it? It usually was because people in a family system had to leave because there was no inheritance for them. If they didn’t inherit they had to get out. They broke a spade? That was a crime. Get out.

Well, here it was for that economic freedom. It was a great plan, but there was one clergyman who made it with them from beginning to end. It was a Catholic, and he’s the hero of this story. His name is Fr. Pedro Camps.

So that’s why people say, “How can you say that the Orthodoxy began with the Shrine?” I never said Orthodoxy began with the Shrine. I say the first Greeks who came to America en masse actually were in 1768. It was larger than Jamestown and Plymouth colonies put together, and they were assimilated into the Minorcan, which was Fr. Pedro Camps’ actual heritage.

But once Britain got out; they were only here for twenty years, he was persona non gratis. He came without papers. He left Minorca without his permission from Madrid, because Minorca is a Balearic Island. We hear of Majorca. Well, Minorca is the smaller one. Mahon is three miles inland. It’s a harbor town; very protected. He left without permission, so he was actually to all of those people who came with the Turnbull colony.

The Spanish were phenomenal record-keepers. In The Golden Book, when it was an Orthodox, he doesn’t put down Orthodox, he puts Greego. We know who the Greeks were not from ship manifests, which were lost, but from his entries. He married them. He actually buried them, and they assimilated in.

Because you see what happened was, New Smyrna Colony didn’t last. After 9 years, it fell. There were only 300 people left out of 1400. All of them perished. And famous people are from that. Most people have heard of Stephen Benet, the poet. He is a Minorcan. The oldest wooden schoolhouse in America, he was a Greek from Corone, Mani. These people, for such a small group, were the only survivors. What happened was three of them had escaped in 1777, they came here – three of them.

Frederica: You’re saying escaped. They were free, weren’t they?

Polly: They were indentured servants. They signed on for seven years of labor for 50 acres of land and one British pound sterling. And what happened was every time they would petition, they were told no.

Frederica: Because they couldn’t read or write. “Aren’t we through with our seven years?” And they’d say, “No.”

Polly: And I tell the fourth graders who visit here, because it’s part of their curriculum here, that it was far better to be a slave in 1776 than it would have been to be an indentured servant. Because a slave was your property and you wanted to take care of it, and it to be productive. But with an indentured servant, you wanted to use him until he could perish. Then, you wouldn’t owe him anything.

And that is what happened. And I’m not saying it was Andrew Turnbull necessarily, because he said that it was seven years from the time the land turned a profit. And it actually took nine years altogether. But it was more valuable than gold. Indigo was worth its weight in gold. There were lots of indigo plantations.

If you go up to the national park Fort Caroline, north in Jacksonville, you learn that the life expectancy of someone who worked in indigo was like the tanners in Morocco – seven to eight years. The chemicals and the plant are just so toxic.

So the three escaped – Juan Genopoly, his friend Peter Stefanopoulos, and Francis Pelasur. They told the governor of the east Florida province and what was going on. Patrick Tonyn knew all about it. There was a bit of animosity between him and Turnbull. He was from Ireland, and he didn’t like the way the Scottish physician held himself in Parliament. So he said to them, “Get them all here. I will give them their freedom papers. I will give you twenty schillings each, and I will give you a place to be.”

And where we’re sitting right here, it was the two-story house. It was the Avero House. It was their house and their sanctuary.

Frederica: It was here in 1777?

Polly: Well, it was brought down to the ground. It was an archaeological dig, and they reconstructed it to the exact specifications. The architect Ted Pappas won all sorts of lauds, and then he became chancellor of Architects for America. And actually, it was his doctoral dissertation and the archaeologist Kathleen Deagan and the historian Epimenides Panagopoulos and they did such research and this site was their doctoral dissertation.

Frederica: Really? So this is all a new building, but an exact replica?

Polly: Yes.

Frederica: I saw some wonderful things that were found when you were doing the archaeological dig.

Polly: They found over 2000 artifacts, and some of the things were like a 1712 flint lock from a certain musket. Things, that people who are into that, they are in awe. And they make sure I know that the Shrine owns it, not the University of Florida because most of the things are in drawers in Gainsville.

But people request to see them. And they’re doing studies or some kind of paper on something and research. And I give them permission to go to the drawer number, and they study them. So it’s been quite an experience for me.

Frederica: So this building here, the Avero House, it was not owned or built by Greeks. It doesn’t really have a Greek connection except that this is how they won their freedom.

Polly: Right, the Avero House is on the National Registry of U.S. Sites in America. It was a Spanish home that was owned by the Avero family. They actually owned a smaller house that was burnt to the ground when there was a great fire in St. Augustine, just before 1740. They built the original house in 1740, but they abandoned it in 1763 and went to Cuba.

And you would have been able to see the fort from the backyard, and it was protected by the city gates to the north. So you had the city and the fort to the east, and then you were part of the Colonial Spanish Quarter, which was on the south and west of the side. So it really was a real neighborhood.

And it really was the sanctuary of those 291 people who walked the 75 miles to get here. The last one to leave was Fr. Pedro Camps. It’s documented. He was the last one to leave. And he was the last one to leave this house. And it became known that this was the Greek chapel or the Minorcan chapel because the language which was so odd to the British here.

And it was their chapel for quite a while – until 1783. Then, after Fr. Pedro Camps passed away, they buried him in the Tolomato Cemetery, which was owned by the basilica, but it was for people outside the Church so to speak. It was not a potter’s field, nothing like that at all. But it was a place of honor for a priest.

Frederica: Why?

Polly: Because he came with out papers, persona non grata, and what was he doing here? And what does he know? And he speaks a very strange language.

Frederica: He sounds like a very wonderful pastor, and it’s a very touching story.

Polly: But they exhumed the body; they buried him in the basilica, and they put a statue up in his honor. So I tell the teenagers that come to visit, the eighth graders, that if you just hold on and do what is right, your day will come. You may have your body exhumed and put into a basilica.

But it’s an unbelievable story, but by no stretch of the imagination, Orthodox America happened in Alaska first. The first Greek Orthodox Church in America was in New Orleans – Holy Trinity. But this story to me is a phenomenal story of our faith. Because it really is my responsibility now, as director of the Shrine, to never forget those colonists.

They may have died without Communion from an Orthodox priest, but they will be remembered until eternity. As long as we have the voice to do it, because they are part of the Church triumphant. We are the Church militant. There’s a responsibility we have to one another. And so I hope that our prayers for them; that they’re able to pray for us as well.

And that they are remembered with a pride; that we are not just an immigrant group that came over post-World War II or post-famine or as sponge-divers, but we are part of pre-Revolutionary American History and to know our place.

And being that I’m an immigrant, my dad was from Cyprus, but my mom’s family came over with the ships right after the Mayflower. And my Nana was in the DAR and Jonesboro Society. But I have a pride on both sides, and they’re such a part of our American history, but more importantly a part of our Orthodoxy.

Frederica: And you know I think I forgot to introduce you. Your name is Polly Hillier, and you are the Director of the St. Photios Shrine. It’s a wonderful building I have to say. Anyone who is in St. Augustine, Florida should come by. The chapel is amazing.

Polly: And we are open Monday through Saturday, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, and Sunday 12:00 PM to 6:00 PM. And anybody who knows they are going to be here later or earlier, just give us a call ahead of time. And we’ll be sure that it’s open for them.

Frederica: And there’s a lot to see online. What’s the website?

Polly:, and you can “like” us on Facebook.

Frederica: So a lot of the story is online and photographs. It’s just a wonderful place. Thank you so much for having me here today.

Polly: And thank you for being our first retreat leader for our first, hopefully annual, Pan-Orthodox Women’s Lenten Retreat. Thanks, Frederica.

Frederica: Thanks, Polly.