Out of Brandon
On October 30 I received an e-mail informing me: “Nativity is celebrating the Golden Jubilee, 50 years of being a canonical Parish. Are you the same Mike Mendl [a friend] mentioned? I found you on the internet and the numbers match but nowhere do you mention Brandon. I am working on the book to celebrate this occasion and would appreciate any thoughts you might offer regarding Nativity on your ‘Journey of Faith.’” So, over the course of a couple of weeks, I composed what follows.
Brandon, Florida, 1957
My family—John and Cecilia and three small kids—moved to Brandon in June 1957, relocating from Tampa's Palma Ceia section and Christ the King Parish. I was the oldest sibling, not yet 9 and fresh out of third grade at CK; Chris was 7, Rita about to turn 6.
Tampa was really not much of a city in 1957, certainly not nearly what it has become. Brandon was positively country, acres and acres of citrus groves and pasture. Hwy. 60 had only 2 lanes from 301 to Vero Beach, and Parsons Ave. had the only stop light between 301 and Bartow.
“Downtown” Brandon didn’t have much besides the post office, some gas stations, Frenchy’s tavern at the southwest corner of Bryan Rd. and Hwy. 60, and Scogin’s department store. For groceries, serious shopping, banking, or Dad’s building supplies and hardware you went into Tampa. Likewise if you needed a hospital. We had 2 doctors in town, a young Dr. Greenwell and the veteran Dr. Ted Grabel. The post office was a tiny place on the north side of Hwy. 60 (I don’t remember exactly where) where most residents kept a box (ours was 194). If the person writing to you couldn’t remember your address, that was all right: your name and “Brandon, Fla.” sufficed to secure delivery. It was a big deal, by the way, when 1st-class postage rose to 4¢. There was also a tiny library of about one room in what had been someone’s house.
It was somewhat exciting when a strip mall came to town, and then the big shopping center, ca. 1960. And then a bank. But as best I can remember, we still had only one traffic light! And we still had too many cows and horses to count, and uncounted acres of orange and grapefruit trees. Around 1960, South Oakwood got paved, and then the old oat field across the street became a subdivision. I earned a few bucks cutting lawns in there when I was about 12.
Dad, a contractor, had built us a house at 309 South Oakwood, a couple of blocks from Hwy. 60, on land that not long before had been part of Mr. Fietz’s goat farm—the Dew Bloom Dairy. Oakwood Ave. was a one-lane dirt road with a house here and there on the east side, on the other side only trees and what had been the goat farm’s oat field. Most of what lay east of Oakwood was just woods and pasture, great spaces for roaming. About where the swim club is now there was a humongous old live oak tree that we called Monkey Island on account of its great low-lying limbs that invited hours of scrambling up, over, and through.
As a builder, Dad was doing his small part to turn Brandon into one of Tampa’s bedroom communities. At first he was an independent builder, but eventually he went to work for Jerry Lane, and later for Mr. Ragsdale (whose 1st name I don’t recall). Mr. Ragsdale built all over the area, not just in Brandon.
But in 1957 the goats were still down the road, and in the little, shaded ravines where they wandered was a kid’s paradise for playing cowboys and Indians or Yanks and Rebs. (There weren’t a whole lot of goats, and Mr. Fietz was a friendly old fellow. One event that stands in my mind is his inviting all the neighborhood kids—through our parents—to come one day and watch a nanny give birth.) I also learned the hard way that it was great soil for contracting hookworm, and more than once Mom had to cart me to Dr. Greenwell for a treatment of ethyl chloride to freeze the little vermin into oblivion. No more running barefoot, as we’d loved doing in Tampa.
There weren’t many kids in the neighborhood. In fact, there were only the Mendls and a passel of Labadies—I don’t remember exactly how many, maybe 6 or 7, all boys except 1 girl. They lived in what’s now Nativity’s rectory, the corner of their large backyard touching a corner of ours.
Now and then I’d be taken to Valrico to play baseball with some friends I’d made. When Brandon got a Little League in 1961 (that had to be the year, because I was 12 and only got to play for one year), I was an eager participant, playing the outfield and catching for a team sponsored by Everina Homes. Our team finished in 1st place. The next summer I played a little, with less success, in some kind of a summer league.
The Church of the Nativity, Late 1950s
Nativity had 5 mostly empty acres on the south side of Hwy. 60 (an orange grove was on the north side), stretching from Oakwood to Bryan Rd. The only building on it was the little mission church—less than half the present social hall (which it has become, after various additions). I don’t know what the seating capacity was—maybe 200. I’m not sure when the little wooden outbuilding outside the front door was added; that was the religious articles store, which Mom looked after diligently for quite a few years.
Eventually the parish leaders—Fr. John Lima and I don’t know which men and women—decided the church needed a social hall. Someone arranged for the parish to buy an old barracks from MacDill, and the men converted it into a hall down about where the drainage pond is now.
Nativity was a mission of St. Clement in Plant City, where Fr. Lima lived by himself. With no resident priest, the Blessed Sacrament couldn’t be kept in church after the second, and last, Sunday Mass. So after the sermon (there were few homilies in those days before Vatican II) Fr. Lima or the “Sunday supply” priest had to count who intended to receive Communion and put that many hosts into the ciborium; any that were left over had to be consumed at the end of Mass. Of course, with only 100 or 150 people in attendance, getting a reasonably accurate count must not have been too much of a challenge.
Sunday supply came mainly from the Salesians at Mary Help of Christians School, but occasionally from the Redemptorists at Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) in Ybor City or even as far away as the Benedictines of St. Leo’s Abbey. Every other Sunday, one of these visitors would be in Brandon while Fr. Lima said the Masses in Plant City. The next Sunday they’d switch. Our family became friendly with most of these visitors, often inviting them to lunch after the 2nd Mass, which was convenient since we were only a couple of hundred yards down the street. We had Fr. Lima over often, as well, and his old friend from his Maryknoll days, Fr. William Fletcher, when the latter would come south on a vacation. The only parishioners who were closer to the church were the Savoies (Frenchy, of the tavern) and the Labadies.
I don’t remember when I decided I wanted to become an altar boy; probably in 5th grade, ca. 1958. I was soon a dependable regular, along with the Walden boys, Kenneth Davis, Steve Brannigan, the Martins, and a little later, the Grabels and my brother. We were happy and proud to serve at the altar, to master the arcane movements of the missal and the bows and the ringing of the bells (in fact, for a long time we didn’t have bells at the altar, but a small chimes set—bong! bong! bong!), and of course all the Latin responses. Fr. Lima treated us well, and so did his eventual successors, Fr. John Linnehan and Fr. David Cronin. When I had a Sunday “off,” I was always on the lookout to see whether one of the assigned boys had failed to show, so that I could fill in for him. (Need I say that there were no altar girls way back then? Totally unthought of.) Whenever our family traveled, I’d do the same thing, and so I wound up serving Masses in a church in Atlanta once and even in the lower church of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C.
Catholics in Brandon were few and far between, certainly in contrast with parts of Tampa. In 1957 some of the locals may not have been certain that we didn’t have tails and horns. Not only was Nativity a fairly new establishment, and not a parish, but of course there wasn’t a parochial school.
Going to School
In fact, Brandon, which registered only 5,000 people in the 1960 census, had only 2 schools, period: the elementary school, Walter S. Yates, and the high school (now the McLane Middle School). Horace Mann Junior High opened, at the site of what’s now the high school, the same year we came to town. With no Catholic school option, we 3 Mendls went to Yates, where Frances Studstill was my 4th grade teacher, and a very fine one whom I remember very fondly. Rita had Frances Gunn in 1st grade, likewise an excellent teacher who also became a family friend—because her husband Donald ran the gas station that we patronized, and her sister, Evelyn Clites, eventually became my grandmother’s landlady in Limona. (I have no recollection of who Chris’s 2nd grade teacher was.)
Most days I think Mom took us to school by car. What is it from South Oakwood to Yates? Maybe a mile? And most days we had to walk home, down Morgan St. to North Oakwood, which also was just a dirt track, thru the orange grove, and across Hwy. 60. Hard to imagine a 4th grader doing something like that nowadays! Of course, Hwy. 60 also is a LOT harder to cross now than it was in 1957-58.
There was a big old farmhouse at the end of North Oakwood, amid the orange grove. I think the family who lived there was named Mays. I became friendly with one of the boys, and sometimes we played together. It was a sad day, I’m not sure when, when their house burned down.
How rare were Catholics in Brandon? As I remember it, there was only one other in my class, Mike Potter. But there was still a religious feel to public education in the ’50s. Every day began with a Bible reading, and the students, at least in Mrs. Studstill’s class, took turns saying grace before lunch. Despite all that, we got a great education!
Across the street from Yates was Brandon’s one public park, which was a good place to hang during the summer, playing Monopoly or other games in the rec building, or baseball outside. Next to Yates was a well shaded pasture occupied by Dynamite, a donkey who was something of a hero to us kids. He loved to be petted and scratched, and occasionally he’d treat us to a nice bray.
Some of the Catholic parents wanted a Catholic school, however. Fr. Lima was more than willing, but the main obstacle—as hard as it is to imagine today—was finding sisters to staff it. He wrote request after request, and many families had finding sisters in their daily prayer intentions. Ours were addressed to St. Jude!
In the meantime, some of the parents decided to get the kids to Catholic school if a school couldn’t come to Brandon. So the Mouchas and the Mulligans and the Mendls (3M?) arranged a carpool that would haul 8 of us to OLPH every day. I think the Grabels got involved too eventually. I guess we must have used 2 cars; even the proverbial 1950s station wagon would have been a squeeze for 8 children and a parent. But maybe we did squeeze. It seemed like a long ride—yes, even tho we were on our way to school, it seemed long—but it was only about 12 miles, with few stop lights till you got into the city. And that went on for 4 years!
Except that eventually OLPH began to send a bus to Clair-Mel City (a section on the east side of Tampa); that was closer for our carpool than going all the way into Ybor City, so our parents would drop us and pick us up there. That might have been for my 7th and 8th grade years.
At OLPH we had the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who were wonderful. Most of them, anyway. There were a couple who sort of scared us, perhaps unjustifiably. They’d also been the CCD teachers at Nativity back when we were going to Yates, and I suppose they continued to do that ministry after we were no longer involved. (It must have been a challenge to conduct CCD classes all over the church, because that was the only building in 1957-58.) The SSNDs were competent and, mostly, friendly. I had Sr. Mary Timothene for both 7th and 8th grades (not simultaneously!)—it was quite a shock to us when she was “promoted” along with us. For grades 1-6, OLPH has 2 classes at each level. Not so for grades 7-8. So Sr. Timothene got all 70 of us, in one room. And she taught, and we learned!
The Redemptorists at OLPH were an occasional, friendly presence too. One of my classmates, Don Roth, became a Redemptorist and a missionary in South America. Two vocations from the class speaks well for the training we got at school, as well as from our families and our parishes.
By the time I had reached 8th grade, Nativity had found sisters for a parochial school. I’m not sure whether Fr. Lima was still pastor at that point, or had already been succeeded by Fr. Linnehan. In any case, the Trinitarian Sisters had agreed to come and staff a school, and a 6-classroom building was put up behind the church. Before that building was ready, in 1961 the school opened with grades 1-6 in the old barracks, which the men of the parish had divided into classrooms. One grade was added each of the following 2 years. Which meant that Chris and Rita could go to Nativity School, but I couldn’t. So that commute to OLPH via Clair-Mel City continued for some of us.
I completed 8th grade at OLPH in June 1962. What next?
Meeting the Salesians
As I said, our family had become friendly with many of the Sunday supply priests. We became closest to Salesian Fr. John Masiello, who was newly ordained in 1958, young, darkly handsome, and lively. Plus he came from Queens, where Dad had grown up. In fact, much to everyone’s surprise, we discovered that Dad’s older brother had once worked for Fr. John’s dad (before World War II, I guess). On one of our family vacations back to Long Island, the Masiellos had all of us over for a big Italian dinner.
I don’t remember whether Fr. John ever sounded me out, but I was open to the idea of being a priest. (I was also open to being a baseball player and in 7th or 8th grade wrote an essay about that.) But unbeknownst to me, he sent my name in to the Salesians’ vocation office when I was in 7th grade (it could even have been earlier), and soon I was getting promotional literature. It was a big, happy surprise when I even got a hardcover book in the mail, a life of Don Bosco (which had been printed at the school in Tampa, no less!). Such bounty! Such generosity!
So by the middle of the 8th grade, I was giving serious thought to going off to New York for high school seminary, to become a Salesian. My parents let me apply, and I was accepted. I also took the entrance exam for Jesuit High School and was accepted there. But Jesuit was never really in cards; it was too far away, too difficult to get to. I never heard Mom and Dad say anything about the tuition, and I have no idea what it was in 1962. OLPH was an option; they had a parochial high school, one floor above the grammar school’s two floors. But I didn’t want to continue there (Chris and Rita later did go to high school there, until it was closed, and then they finished at Brandon High).
I decided to go to the seminary, Salesian Junior Seminary in Goshen, N.Y. We made grand plans for another northern family vacation in August that would culminate in dropping me there. Of course, as a 13-year-old I wasn’t sure I wanted to be priest. But a good education would do no harm. I said as much to some family friends, and word got back to Dad, who must have had his own doubts all along. About a week before we were to head north, he decided that I was too young to leave home, especially since I wasn’t sure of my vocation. No discussion. Mom cried. I was much disappointed.
So I was promptly enrolled at Horace Mann, with school to start in a few days. Word got to Fr. Masiello, who was at the house in a day or two. He offered to get me into Mary Help of Christians, which had grades 5-9 at the time. They took day students (in fact, there was but 1 in 1962-63, out of about 145 students), but if I wanted to board it would be a “training” year for living away from home, yet not very far. Parents and family could visit any Sunday, there were monthly weekends at home—and I’d be in a Salesian environment and could find out more about who these priests and brothers were, what they did, what their lives were like.
It was really a decisive intervention. I went to Mary Help as a boarder, came home many Sundays for a few hours, and on those monthly weekends. My career as a Nativity altar boy continued in these intervals. At Mary Help I became quite close to several of the Salesians besides Fr. John—to native Tampan, former football star, and war hero Fr. Orlando Molina in particular. So did my family. Eventually—after I had really left for the seminary—they became heavily involved in Mary Help and sometimes had all the Salesians over to our house for a pool party and dinner. (Mary Help had no pool at the time, and the students, but not the staff, swam in East Lake.)
And in the spring of 1963, with Dad’s approval, I reapplied to Salesian Junior Seminary. I looked forward to a summer of playing baseball in a local league and was all set for that, when another Mary Help intervention came, an invitation to be an unpaid staff member at the summer camp, continuing to board at the school. I accepted, with mixed feelings (I really did love baseball, and had just earned my way onto a team).
In late August we finally made that trip up to Goshen. From then on, I’d see Brandon and Nativity only for a week of Christmas vacation and three weeks of summer vacation, and once I entered the novitiate in August 1966, even less than that. Fr. Linnehan and then Fr. Cronin were very encouraging of a young seminarian.
Research has shown that religious and priestly vocations generally grow out of the soil of a devout and encouraging family (and the grace of God, of course). It was true in my case. Mom and Dad were churchgoers, and we prayed as a family. They were, moreover, heavily involved in parish life at Nativity in the various social activities. Earlier I mentioned Mom’s running the religious articles store. She was active in the women’s club, and Dad in the men’s club. Both contributed a lot of work for the early parish carnivals, annual affairs that were the forerunners of today’s Novemberfest (although I don’t remember what month they were held in)—with games, rides, food, and a lot of fun for both kids and grown-ups. These usually lasted about three days, I think. After the liturgical renewal of Vatican II, Mom and Dad took on additional roles in the parish: she as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, he as a lector. Dad also served on the parish council. Both were highly respected because of their generosity and practical experience, and my father in particular was more than ready to speak his mind whenever he thought it necessary (sometimes to the chagrin of Fr. Lima or Fr. Lara, as I understand it, but not in a way that violated charity).
Good parishes help too. Nativity has been recognized in print (Paulist Press) as an outstanding parish. I don’t know the exact count, but quite a few vocations have come from there, maybe as many as a dozen. I hope that the parish’s golden jubilee history will have further information.
One story that has always stuck in my mind comes out of the preparations for Nativity School. When the convent was being planned, the pastor of the time invited some of the men who were knowledgeable about buildings to review the blueprints (I don’t know whether women, also, were consulted). Someone—not my father—eventually said something along the lines of, “Father, either the sisters are more angelic than any of us realize—or your architect has forgotten bathrooms.” That got around the parish pretty quickly! A great example of why pastors should always consult lay experts, too.
Around 1960 my widowed grandmother, Rita Hirsch, moved to Brandon from New York. She lived briefly with us, till we found her a place of her own in Limona in a neat little cottage on the property of Raymond and Evelyn Clites (sister of Frances Gunn, as I mentioned above—and both of them were Lumsdens, members of a prominent Brandon family). (Limona used to be a separate hamlet with its own post office.) “Nana Rita” played her own part in the parish’s senior circles, especially contributing her amateur musical talent as a pianist. She was noted for her ability to play almost any popular song (of her era, not of the ’60s!) by ear. She was, in addition, a beloved nanny for the three Clites kids, her memory still very much cherished in the family. She remained a Brandon resident and Nativity parishioner until her death in 1980, although that occurred while she was on an extended visit with my Aunt Felicia up north. Her funeral took place in our family’s former home town of Bellmore, N.Y., and she was buried next to her long deceased husband.
As it turned out, after I made my religious profession (Aug. 15, 1967), I had 2 summer assignments to the camp at Mary Help, in 1968 and 1969. So I saw a bit of Brandon and Nativity still, and got some vacation time with the family, as well. There were further short summer vacations in 1970 and 1971 after I graduated from Don Bosco College. And then Mom and Dad moved to North Carolina. I would seldom see Brandon again—a family trip or two, plus my grandmother’s 75th birthday surprise party in April 1975, another summer camp assignment to Mary Help in 1975, my first Mass in June 1978, thanks to Fr. Lara’s graciousness—until I was assigned to Mary Help as a priest in 2002 and, most happily for me, sent on Sunday supply to Nativity with some regularity until Fr. Provincial called me back north in 2004 to my present ministry of communications and publishing for the province.
For more about "old" Brandon, see http://www2.tbo.com/news/community-news/2012/feb/29/brnewso14-brandons-beginnings-and-earliest-residen-ar-363399/ (a Tampa Tribune article dated 2/29/12)