SOUTHEAST FLORIDA: Presiding bishop celebrates small church's ministries, helps sea turtle go home

December 23, 2010

"Keep telling the stories" about how and why your church began, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told parishioners and guests on Dec. 19 at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the consecration of the church building at St. Columba Episcopal Church in Marathon, Florida, a small community in the upper Florida Keys.

"Those stories are filled with hope," she said during her sermon. "You give evidence of hope for those who aren't members of this intimate group by your remarkable growth in this place, and by your attention to those far beyond these islands."

The small Diocese of Southeast Florida congregation -- about 100 people during "season" (the winter months) and sometimes as few as 25 in the summer -- has a schedule of ministries out of proportion to its numbers.

St. Columba provides space for Al-Anon groups, Weight Watchers, yoga classes, Boy Scouts and the private counseling offered through Marathon's domestic-abuse hotline. The church works with Habitat for Humanity, the Grace Jones Community Day Care and Keys Area Interdenominational Resources, which provides a food pantry and other emergency services for individuals and families in crisis, and has taken over the operation of the Higher Love Mission for Homelessness.

In addition to these community ministries, in the past three years parishioners have taken mission trips to Sudan, Honduras and Madagascar.

"We thought that the presiding bishop might be interested in St. Columba, because we are a small but growing church; we have a large community and international outreach; we have really pretty gardens; we have an art gallery and a working art guild with nationally known artists; we do lots of interesting things for and with the community; and we have interesting hurricane-resistant glass windows -- including one with the Loch Ness Monster," said St. Columba's priest-in-charge, the Very Rev. Debra Andrew Maconaughey.

The rather cheerful-looking "Nessie" depicted in the window is a nod to the congregation's Celtic namesake; the sixth-century missionary from Ireland to Scotland, Columba or Colmcille, was said to have saved a swimmer from the monster.

Jefferts Schori said that Southeast Florida Bishop Leo Frade encouraged her to accept St. Columba's invitation. "He really celebrates the growth of this congregation over the past couple of years," she said.

"God is continually doing new things, and they often come in unexpected forms or surprising places," she told the congregation in her sermon at the morning's festive Eucharist, citing the Keys' not-entirely-joking "declaration of independence" as the Conch Republic as an example with "some of that hopeful flavor -- no imperious outsiders are going to squeeze the life and unique gifts out of the people who dwell here."

At a brunch following the service, parishioner Mike Puto presented Jefferts Schori with a certificate proclaiming her an "Honorary Conch," and on behalf of the congregation Andrew Maconaughey gave her a gift membership in Marathon's Turtle Hospital.

Jefferts Schori later joined him; retired Bishop of Southeast Florida Calvin O. Schofield, Jr., and his wife, Elaine; and parishioners Franklin Greenman and Anne Morkill; and Turtle Hospital staff on a Coast Guard boat to return a rehabilitated turtle to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

As everyone else held onto whatever was at hand for the bumpy ride, former oceanographer Jefferts Schori stood comfortably in the middle of the deck, conversing with Turtle Hospital director Richie Moretti.

"I love being out on the water," she said, "and I don't have much opportunity to do this."

Moretti explained that the young (approximately 10 years old) green sea turtle had been in the care of the Turtle Hospital for more than a year for removal of tumors caused by a viral illness called fibropapilloma.

Covered with a damp towel, "Tammy" rode in a large plastic tub in the stern of the boat to a site about eight miles offshore, where Moretti said she would find ample sea grass for food and would not be likely to come back to shore looking for hand-outs.

Both bishops laid their hands on the turtle, blessing her for her journey, and Schofield offered a prayer for the animal and gave thanks for those who had cared for her. Then the presiding bishop and Moretti tipped the turtle into the water, where she quickly disappeared, then crested, still swimming hard -- going home.

The presiding bishop beamed. "This says so much about our whole ministry of healing," she said.