Friday, August 6, 2010

Unlike yesterday's serendipitous adventure, today I had a fieldtrip with a plan.  I went to a site that I love to visit, even though I don't get there often: the St. Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine.  I enjoy visiting the Shrine for a number of reasons--it has beautiful artwork, shares the history of the first Greek immigrants to Florida, and it has strong ties to archaeology.  Beyond those reasons there's one more, and it's admittedly pretty silly.  My older brother married a first generation American whose parents moved to the U.S. from Greece several years ago.  Floating somewhere in my head is the silly notion that the Greeks who traveled to British Florida in 1768 just may have known some of my sister-in-law's ancestors.  "Oh, they're from Greece?  I wonder if they know the Theofilopoulos family."  In any case, the Shrine somehow helps me feel connected to a part of my family that lives all the way across the country, silly or not.

St. Photios stands in a historic structure at 41 St. George Street, called the Avero House.  It is both a modern religious site and a place that commemorates the Greek, Minorcan, and Corsican people who traveled to Florida in search of a more prosperous future. 

The story of their journey begins with Andrew Turnbull, a Scottish doctor who decided to start a plantation in Florida after it became British territory.  He traveled to Italy, Greece, and Minorca looking for people to become indentured servants in the settlement of Smyrnea (modern day New Smyrna Beach).  He was only looking for about 400 people.  Due to hard conditions like drought in Minorca and Turkish aggression in Greece, Turnbull ended up taking 1400 people to Florida in 1768 as indentured servants.  They agreed to work on his plantation for 6-8 years, after which they would receive freedom and land. 

Despite Turnbull's intentions, things in Smyrnea did not go according to plan.  People still debate whether he truly abused his indentured servants or whether he simply was unequipped to care for the needs of that many people.  In any case, a situation that began badly ended in disaster.  During the voyage over, 148 people died on the crowded ships.  Once they arrived, Turnbull faced an endless string of financial troubles, and his indentured servants sometimes ran out of supplies like food and clothing.  The colony faced unexpected challenges in growing indigo and mistrust from the Creek Indians.

Living under harsh conditions took its toll on Turnbull's workers.  After a failed revolt only months after their arrival, three of the immigrants were tried and convicted for the uprising.  Two were put to death.  It would be nearly 10 years before the indentured servants tried again to seek freedom.  In 1777, Turnbull returned to England to pursue financial help.  After he left, some of the people walked 75 miles from Smyrnea to St. Augustine to ask Florida's governor for help.  Governor Patrick Tonyn granted Turnbull's workers freedom and gave them small parcels of land.  Many of them traveled to St. Augustine to make their homes.

Artifacts from the Avero House
The Shrine tells much more of the story in its display, sharing historical accounts and even letters written by Turnbull's workers petitioning the governor for freedom.  It also features a display of artifacts recovered from the Avero house itself.  The house is one of the oldest in St. Augustine, and was chosen for the site of the Shrine because it was given to the Minorcans and Greeks who escaped from Turnbull in 1777 as a temporary place of worship.  When the building was restored and made into the Shrine in the 1970s, excavations there yielded artifacts that tell us about the lives and spirituality of the people who worshipped there.

Photo courtesy of
Aside from sharing the history and heritage of an immigrant group often overlooked in St. Augustine, the Shrine is a beautiful tribute to the Greek Orthodox faith.  It features Byzantine-style frescoes with 24-karat gold highlights on the walls and ceilings of the chapel.  One room is dedicated solely to collections of religious art, some more than 300 years old.   

If you visit St. Photios, you can also watch a video that shares more of the history of the Minorcans, Greeks, and Corsicans who traveled to Florida.  There's also a gift shop with great books and items reflecting Greek culture and the Greek Orthodox faith.  And I found out it's okay to ask questions--the staff there is friendly and seems to know just about everything there is to wonder about the site!

St. Photios is open daily from 9am to 5pm.  For more information, visit

If you would like to visit a Turnbull site in New Smyrna, check out

To go on your own archaeology fieldtrips all over northeast Florida, get our free map:

One Response so far.

  1. It was a joy to meet Amber - her blog is not only accurate but it is also interesting :) All the best as you travel through Florida's First Coast!

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