When the Rev. James B. McConnell signed on as Vicar of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in 2006, he found a church that served a rural community in a county that had steadily lost population in the 1980-1990 decade and had not recovered by the mid-2000s.
But in recent years, the population of the county has increased 10-15 percent per year and attendance at the little church shows signs of keeping pace.
On Sunday, Feb. 10, about 30 attendees – young and old, local and “snowbird” alike – turned out to St. Ann’s for the visitation by Bishop Greg and Laura Lee Brewer.
Fr. Jim recently baptized two sets of twins and welcomed them and their young families to regular attendance, and blessed another expectant mother.
Bishop Greg's Sunday visit saw the confirmation and reception of seven new members: Skyler Detrick, Gabriel Willis, Kiersten Detrick, Aaron Detrick, Patricia Palmer, Amanda Cruz and Victor Cruz. Mr. Cruz also has been tapped to serve as Junior Warden.
“Fr. Jim is doing a wonderful job here,” said Dot Overby, whose expertise on the church’s organ filled St. Ann’s with graceful and compelling hymns for the 10 a.m. service. Mrs. Overby also serves St. Agnes, Sebring.
“I like to say St. Ann’s is in the heart of the diocese and in the heart of Wauchula,” Fr. Jim said.
The community’s history bears out the “heart of Florida” designation.
In the book Al Burt’s Florida the author suggests we “fly over the great ranches and prairies in the southwest. Ride into cattle country and see the Florida cowboys, from Kissimmee and St. Cloud down to Wauchula and back over to Fort Pierce.”
Wauchula is a town of just over 5,000 population by the most recent count (2011). It is the seat of Hardee County, one of the least populous of our diocesan counties, where cattle and citrus are still the economic mainstays.
The county was named for a former Governor of Florida, Cary Augustus Hardee. State Attorney, and renowned as a political genius, Hardee had been elected Speaker of the Florida House even before he took the oath as a member, and served in that capacity for two consecutive terms, a rare occurrence back in 1915 and 1917.
During his administration the state banned income and inheritance taxes, as well as the leasing of convicts to private interests, a monstrous system that the Bishop of South Florida, Cameron Mann, protested vehemently after he visited one of the prison camps and saw the appalling way in which the prisoners were treated.
There is a difference of opinion with regard to the meaning of the name “Wauchula,” but none as to its Indian origin. “Sandhill crane” is one of the accepted ones. The town grew up around a military post, Fort Hartsuff, built to protect settlers during the Seminole Wars. It sits astride a route of historic significance, the Florida Cracker Trail, which runs from Bradenton on the Gulf Coast through Hardee, Highlands, Okeechobee, and St. Lucie counties. It commemorates the pioneers and Florida cowboys who tamed the wilderness, cultivated the soil, raised cattle and drove them to loading areas where they helped to feed the armies during the Seminole Wars and the War Between the States.
Wauchula is in an agricultural area that has been known as the nation’s cucumber capital. Some years ago the frog-leg industry was also a source of income, with northern markets taking all they could get of these amphibious creatures caught at night in the surrounding creeks and swamps.
The Episcopal church building in Wauchula dates from 1948, although a mission was started there as far back as 1906 and lasted for about six years. In early December of the latter year, Bishop William Crane Gray went to Wauchula, a journey he described as “tedious, waiting for trains far behind time, getting in very late.” He was delighted to find a number of Episcopalians there eager to organize a mission. He preached in the evening at a service in the public hall to a well-attended congregation. He then appointed officers for the new mission and acquired two excellent lots for the church they hoped to build in the near future.
At about the same time the following year, the bishop again took the train to Wauchula to look into the financial status of the mission, now named “Epiphany,” his special concern, the church lots he had chosen the previous year and not yet paid for. At the evening service he noted it was “very cold and no means of heating the temporary place we have put up. I therefore had short sermon and confirmed one person.”
When the bishop arrived in Wauchula in 1908 he was disappointed to find only a few church families there. Like other towns in the phosphate region of the Peace River the industry gave employment to many workers. The national panic of 1907 had made serious inroads on the financial health of many Florida industries, and Wauchula did not escape its effects. By 1910 the mission numbered only ten baptized members and after 1913 it ceased to exist.
It was not until 1948 – three and a half decades later – that the Episcopal Church again had a presence in Wauchula. The announcement of a new mission congregation, to be known as St. Ann’s, was made at the Diocesan Convention that year. During the more than half a century since its founding St. Ann’s has built a church, a parish house and Sunday school classrooms, despite severe property damage from Hurricane Donna in 1960.
(Additional material from the Diocesan Archives)