By Sandy Arpen
“… Sister St. Bernard and I left St. Augustine the 3rd of February ; we took our departure about 8 o’clock in the morning and we reached here [Loretto/Mandarin] at nearly 9 o’clock in the evening. If time permitted, there would be many things to tell you about those thirteen hours of journeying through the woods without meeting a single human being; we were on a cart pulled by a horse whose emaciation filled us with pity, having for a guide only one of our pupils, a black boy, who didn’t know the road any better than we.”
This description of their first journey to Loretto was written by Sister Marie Julie Roussel, Sisters of St. Joseph. Her letter to the Motherhouse in France paints a scene that we can hardly imagine in the 21st century as we drive to St. Augustine in 30 minutes on roads filled with traffic.
The Sisters of St. Joseph started an educational mission in 1868 in the area where St. Joseph’s Church complex now stands. Their mission was to bring education to African-American families in the area and in 1898, a new one-room schoolhouse was built for their black students. That schoolhouse, the only remaining one-room schoolhouse in Duval County, now resides at the Walter Jones Historical Park.
The saving, preservation, restoration and conversion into an interpretive exhibit was made possible by a coalition of public and private support, led and organized by the Mandarin Museum & Historical Society. Now, 15 months after this historic structure was moved down San Jose Boulevard and under the majestic oaks of Mandarin Road, it is ready for the public to enjoy.
This special building will serve the community as an educational venue illustrating the historic aspects of this one-room schoolhouse and others like it that are now gone, tell the fascinating story of the French Catholic Sisters who came to America in 1866 to serve, and honor African-American families and children in the area who had a hunger for learning that surpassed all challenges put before them.
The community celebration and grand opening of the St. Joseph’s Mission Schoolhouse for African-American Children will be held on Saturday, April 30. The schedule for the opening ceremony is:
10 a.m.: Grand opening remarks by community leaders
10:35 a.m.: Performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written by Jacksonville native James Weldon Johnson, by the Philip R. Cousin AME Church Choir
10:45 a.m.: Blessing of the building by Father Thanh Nguyen (St. Joseph’s Catholic Church) and ribbon cutting by Sister Thomas Joseph McGoldrick (Sisters of St. Joseph)
11 a.m.: Music by the Philip R. Cousin AME Church Choir
11:30 a.m.: Music, poetry and dance by the children of the Don’t Miss a Beat All-Star Performers.
The schoolhouse will be open from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m., as will the Mandarin Museum and all of the historic buildings in Walter Jones Park. Refreshments and a grand opening cake will be served. Parking will be across the street from the park at Mandarin Presbyterian Church.
Walter Jones Historical Park is located at 11964 Mandarin Road. For more information, visit www.mandarinmuseum.net or call (904) 268-0784.
Sandy Arpen is President of the Board of Directors of the Mandarin Museum & Historical Society.
Photo courtesy Mandarin Museum & Historical Society.
The St. Joseph’s Mission Schoolhouse for African-American Children will be ready for the public on April 30.