Chasing Tarzan at the St. Augustine Seminary
Divine Word Missionaries’ St. Augustine Seminary was founded as a seminary for men studying to be missionary priests. It is located on a huge tract of land bordered by Ulman Avenue (formally US Highway 90) on the south, Second Street to the east, and runs beyond highway 90 into the swamps on the north.
The seminary was established in 1923 to train black missionary priests. It was a totally self-sufficient community of priests, brothers and seminarians in my youth. They raised their own food, including fresh vegetables, pork and chickens. Religious retreats were also held there.
Growing Up Downtown
I don’t know how it came about, but the seminary became a refuge for the crew of kids that I ran around with in my youth. My best friend, Billy Shumski, lived on Carroll Avenue and his mother’s property ran all the way back to Ulman Avenue, about a half block away from the main entrance to the seminary. This, I suppose, is how we began to hang out at the seminary. The priests and brothers always seemed to enjoy having us hang around and they were our friends. They never seemed to tire of having us around.
Our crew loosely consisted of myself, The Shumski brothers, Billy and his older brother, Butch (now Dr.Edward), The Gavagnie brothers, Donald and older brother Bobbie, the Pursley brothers, Johnny and Pauley, Ronnie Genin and sometimes Ree Elliott. We used to assemble at the Shumski home about 8:30 on Saturday morning with backpacks, bag lunches and all our gear and head out for a day of adventure.
Click on the images below for captions and to enlarge!
There were two large clay mine pits where clay fill-dirt had been mined for the “new” section of highway 90 when it was constructed. The pits had filled with water and were home to fish, turtles, snakes and even a few alligators. Pine saplings had grown on the sloped sides of the larger pit.
Over on the Ulman Avenue side, there were three or four large growths of clumping oldhami giant timber bamboo. We loved playing and climbing up in these growths of bamboo. This was all happening during the late 1950s and early 1960s, so tales of the Vietnam War were starting to drift into our lives. Much of the seminary grounds were very much like we imagined the jungles of Vietnam to be, and of course we all loved Tarzan movies and the “Ramar of The Jungle” TV shows. We’d go on safari every Saturday!
Since the seminary was self-sufficient, the brothers grew much of what they ate. This included a diet of primarily pork that they raised and butchered themselves. They had a huge hog pen where they raised and fattened up the pigs. Some of those hogs were huge, weighing in at four or five hundred pounds. We used to hang around back by the hog pens and chase the piglets and jump on the big old sows’ backs and ride them like bucking broncos. I don’t ever remember getting in trouble for doing this, but I’m pretty sure we weren’t supposed to be doing it!
Another one of our favorite hangouts over there was the shoe repair shop run by Brother Joseph. Brother Joseph (Maddox) had a complete shoe repair shop and could actually make shoes from scratch. Although primarily for the benefit of the seminary, some of the local townspeople brought their shoes to Brother Joseph to be repaired for a modest fee. This brother was such a kind, loving old guy and would let us kids make our own little leather projects and help us whenever we needed help with them. He was always very jovial with a big friendly smile on his face and very glad to see you.
The brothers also used to collect newspaper and recycle it long before recycling became fashionable in our vocabulary. There was a big tin shed and people from everywhere would save their newspaper and when they accumulated a good bit, would bring it to the seminary and drop it off in this tin shed. Whenever the shed got filled up with newspaper, the brothers would sell it and start collecting it all again. It was just one more thing contributing to their self-sufficiency.
Brother Lawrence Morton, SVD, another of our kind benefactors at Saint Augustine. (Courtesy Robert M. Myers Archives Society of the Divine Word)
As I mentioned earlier, we would go into the seminary at eight or eight-thirty on Saturday morning and come out of there at around four-thirty in the afternoon. We’d be dirty, wet, covered in mud and completely worn out from a hard day’s play. Many evenings I was hosed off at the back door before my mother would let me come in the house to take a shower and eat supper. Usually I’d be so worn out that I’d go to bed right after I ate supper. Our parents didn’t worry about us at the seminary and knew that we were having fun and being taken care of. Other than Ree Elliott falling off his skateboard and breaking his arm, I don’t ever remember anything bad happening playing around the seminary. These are some great memories for me. Definitely another day and time!