Religion is everywhere. It’s in our hearts and in our hands. We see it in coffee shops and on college campuses, on street corners and in the local mall. Religion is everywhere.
It’s even found in deep sinkholes and picturesque beaches in Florida.
This last weekend was Labor Day weekend and my in-laws were in town. Our plan consisted of taking them to a couple of local highlights: the Devil’s Millhopper and St. Augustine. What I did not plan for was the unexpected religious “sightings” that we would find there and have the opportunity to reflect on. These case studies in religious sightings are not only engaging, but provide direction for you to discover religion in unexpected places or on vacation!
The Devil’s Millhopper is a local legend here in Gainesville and home to one of the most famous sinkholes in the state. Designated a National Natural Landmark and Florida State Park, the Devil’s Millhopper has been a curiosity enjoyed by tourists for over 100 years. It is not a large sinkhole, though it is an old one, formed in two stages about 10,000 and 1,000 years ago. It’s a pretty cool place, literally. The Devil’s Millhopper is not only interesting, but cooler at the bottom of its 236 steps because its basin is fed by at least twelve freshwater springs.
Researchers have unearthed a great deal of Florida’s natural history here, but it is the religious folklore surrounding the Millhopper that makes it peculiarly fascinating.
Along with shark’s teeth and fossil remains, there have been some pre-historic human remains discovered in the bottom of the sink. Thus, while the name “millhopper” comes from the comparison of the round-bottomed pit with the bowls millers use to grind grain, it was these remains that helped give rise to the Millhopper’s malevolent moniker and the rumor that the sinkhole was feeding dead bodies to the devil. Local UF students and
The Timucua, an American Indian people, whose territory included much of Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia made up of 35 chiefdoms, have an origin myth for the Devil’s Millhopper that explains much of the above mythos. The story goes:
St. Augustine is a little slice of historical paradise on Florida’s Atlantic coast. Nicknamed “the Ancient City” it is the oldest existent, and continuously occupied European colonial city in the U.S., founded by the Spanish in 1565.
Contested by the Spanish, British, and Americans over the centuries, St. Augustine bears the religious marks of all these influences:
- Nombre de Dios (Name of God) is a Spanish mission station with a distinguishing 204ft cross that was run by Jesuits and Franciscans during the Spanish area and saw some success in reaching out to Mocama and Agua Dulce peoples, both part of the aforementioned Timucua group.
- There are significant churches including the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine (another National Historical Landmark, finished in 1797 after a period of Spanish revival following British rule); Trinity Church of St. Augustine (the oldest Protestant church in Florida with beautiful stained glass); and the Henry Flagler-era churches Grace United Methodist Memorial Presbyterian, and Ancient City Baptist (all built ornately to cater to the northern elite Flagler, a partner of John D. Rockefeller’s, attracted to St. Augustine).
- The most obvious landmark in St. Augustine, however, is Castillo San Marcos, a strategic fort for the Spanish, British, and Americans, which is home to the oldest chapel in the U.S. — St. Mark’s, in one of the theaters of the fortification.
With all this religious history, it might be easy to miss the subaltern voices of St. Augustine, the religious history of social groups who are socially, politically, and geographically outside of the dominant power structure of the colony (the Spanish, British, and American powers).
The Timucua are not the only people to feature in the religious, or native, history of Florida. Nor are the infamous Seminoles. And, unfortunately, if the story of the Devil and the Indian princess is only myth, there are far more diabolical stories about American Indians in the Sunshine State. Only, in these stories the Indians were thrown into hellholes in forts by U.S. soldiers.
The casement immediately adjacent to St. Mark’s chapel at Castillo San Marcos is a nondescript coquina-walled room where several displays explain the American Indian history of the space. It is a disheartening room to experience, as U.S. forces imprisoned American Indians who resisted replacement and subjugation under the advance of American new-colonial forces. Imprisoned next to the citadel’s chapel, trapped in their own “Devil’s Millhopper,” these Kiowa and Southern Cheyenne men etched the dreams of their freedom into the walls even as they became a tourist trap to northerners vacationing in St. Augustine, including missionaries and teachers who tried to “help” them assimilate by teaching the prisoners English, Christianity, and other elements of “American” culture.
Their religious graffiti featured the Kiowa Sun Dance — outlawed by the U.S. government. The Sun Dance was the premier religious ceremony for the Kiowas, similar to other plains Indian People. Typically, it was performed annually during the summer, and provided a time for ceremonial and religious celebration and supplication. It was also a socio-cultural re-union providing an opportunity for the sharing of news, healing, and self-renewal among kin.
Engraving this into the walls, and performing it in the courtyard of the Castillo San Marcos, acted as a form of protest against their imprisonment and subjugation — especially since the Sun Dance was an agonizing ordeal for those who performed it and it in some way mirrored the torment of the imprisoned plains Indians.
Then there is the Huguenot Cemetery, which recalls the slaughter of Huguenots in St. John — French Calvinists who fled to Florida to escape persecution in France — just 26 miles North of St. Augustine.
These tragic testaments can make it seem as if the subaltern stories form St. Augustine are solely sad ones, but this is not always the case.
Tourists traipsing down St. George Street are so easily drawn to the restaurants and shops there that it is easy to walk past the National Greek Orthodox Shrine of St. Photios without noticing it.
The shrine is unique in the Western Hemisphere with its dozens of Byzantine frescoes, beautifully highlighted with gold leaf. Surrounded by the subdued sounds of chants used in the Greek Orthodox Church and a coolness that is a strange departure from the outside temperature, the visitor experience includes a walk down a candle-lit corridor to a beautiful grotto.
But what is it doing in St. Augustine? According to the documentary video in the chapel, St. Augustine is Greek-Americans’ ‘Plymouth Rock.’ Forced out by poverty and land-locked farming scenarios from their Mediterranean home, the first Greeks to arrive in the New World came by ship to St. Augustine in 1768. From here, they traveled south to work as indentured servants at an indigo plantation. While they suffered there, they remember St. Augustine fondly and have enshrined it in their national psyche naming the chapel after St. Photios the Great, a 9th-century patriarch of Constantinople, the seat of power and nationalism for the Greek Orthodox.
This beautiful shrine is open to the public, but very few enjoy its splendors or explore its history. The same goes for the Kiowa engraving or the Huguenot cemetery. Missing these subaltern sites means failing to see the whole story of a place, a time, and a people.
What can you do to make sure you don’t miss the story? Open your eyes to the wonderful world of religious sightings, study up a little beforehand, and go spiritual site-seeing.
You’ll be surprised what you find.