|Written by WIlliam Dayton - reprinted with permission
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 Florida.
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.
Original Layout of San Antonio Surrounding San Antonio, he planned a series of villages and set aside portions of land to be kept in forest. Due north of San Antonio would be the village of St. Joseph. To the northeast would be San Felipe, and to the northwest, St. Thomas. South of San Antonio would be Villa Maria and, farther south, the village of Carmel at the end of a roadway lined with lime trees and castor bean trees, called Palma Christi, grown from seeds which had been shipped to Dunne from Egypt. Villa Maria and San Felipe disappeared 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.
The colony's medical doctor was Dr. Joseph Corrigan, a wealthy and well educated man, brother of Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York. The doctor acquired a large tract along the east side of Lake Jovita and built a palatial three story home. The house, with its private chapel, burned in 1913 but some of the palm trees which lined roads on the Corrigan estate and on the Jovita golf course which occupied the property in the 1920's and 30's can still be seen. The colony's Justice of the Peace, Judge John Flannigan, lived in town in an elegant Victorian structure (now the Arnade home) . Judge Dunne himself resided in a book-f illed cabin on the hilltop where St. Leo Abbey now stands. His wife, Josephine, who played an important role in organization of the colony, died in 1883.
Before the arrival of the Catholic Colony, the San Antonio area was largely uninhabited, save by the Osburn, Tucker, Wells, Kersey, Ryals and Wischers families. Before 1882, the Wischers were the only Catholics in Southern Hernando County. The small groups of protestant "crackers" in the area generally accepted the arrival of Catholic neighbors and even attended church with them on occasion. A French visitor to San Antonio in 1885 counted some sixty non-Catholics at the Easter Mass. 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 1889, Judge Dunne conveyed his own lands to the order of St. Benedict and a small party of monks led by Father Charles Mohr, O.S.B., arrived to establish a monastary and Catholic school and to f ound the town of St. Leo. The monks added to the groves planted by Judge Dunne and built a large frame structure to contain monastary, school and church. In the early days, St. Leo provided instruction which would now be considered at both high school and junior college level and granted a degree called "Master of Accounts." It was a military school at first but the military aspects were slowly abandoned during the early part of the twentieth century. The monastary was elevated to an Abbey in 1902 and Father Charles became its first Abbot. 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 "boom-time" modernism.
In the 1920'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.