The Nuns of the Indian River Lagoon

The nuns of Mount Elizabeth, St Joseph's College, 1964. (Photo Aurthur Ruhnke, Thurlow Historic Archives.)
The nuns of Mount Elizabeth, St Joseph’s College, 1964. (Photo Aurthur Ruhnke, Thurlow photo archives.)

In the 1960s and 70s, when I was a kid sitting in my parents’ car, watching the world go by,  I often saw a sight along Indian River Drive that even today, I can clearly bring into my mind’s eye: the nuns of the Indian River Lagoon.

It was a striking image for a child. The nuns in their black veils in the 90 degrees weather walking in unison under the royal palms, the sparkling river in the background…

St Joseph’s College was founded in 1890 and the branch that was located at today’s Indian Riverside Park, along the Indian River, opened in 1966.

The story of how the nuns got there is a rather ironic one, and today I will share this story.

First let’s set the stage…

The lands where the nuns lived was originally an ancient Indian burial mound, and in 1855 was included in the 100 acres of land purchased by wealthy gentleman, Henry William  Racey whose son Charles Henry Racey eventually built a beautiful home atop the 4000 year old Indian mound; the site became known as “Mount Elizabeth,” shown below.

The Racey home on Mount Elizabeth, ca. 1892. (Photo courtesy of Thurlow photo archives.)
The Racey home on Mount Elizabeth, ca. 1892. (Photo courtesy of Thurlow photo archives.)

Later, the property was purchased by Judge Edward Swann, and next in 1936, by Coca-Cola heiress  Anne Bates Leach and her husband Willaford. Their home was named “Tuckahoe,” or “welcome” in the ancient tongue of the once proud and strong  native peoples. The estate was spectacular, as seen below.

The Leach Estate, Tuckahoe, 1948. (Photo Aurthur Ruhnke, Thurlow photo archives)
The Leach Estate, Tuckahoe, 1948. (Photo Aurthur Ruhnke, Thurlow photo archives.)

During the 1940s, the Martin County Commission had “allowed” Francis Langford and her husband to dredge a marina and construct tourist cottages on their property immediately south of the Leach estate and “tourist camps” had sprung up along the Indian River shoreline from Jensen Beach to the northern boundary of Tuckahoe.

According to Sandra Henderson Thurlow’s book “Sewall’s Point, A History of a Peninsular Community on Florida’s Treasure Coast,”

“The Leaches felt that the value of their property was greatly diminished and they were infuriated when the county refused to lower their taxes. To “get even” they vowed to sell their property to an organization with a tax-exempt status…”

which they did….

The property was sold to the Catholic Church for $75,000 and in 1950 the estate became a novitiate for the Sisters of St Joseph. 🙂

Nuns in front of the former Leach mansion, Tuckahoe.
Nuns in front of the former Leach mansion, now with dormitories, Tuckahoe. (Photo Aurthur Ruhnke, Thurlow photo archives.)

As we know, the campus of St Joseph eventually became the Florida Institute of Technology, a school that has created many of our local ecologically minded business leaders. After hard financial times the institute closed in 1986, and sat deserted for many years.

Then, through the very hard of work of a “redeemed Martin County Commission,” the land blossomed into “Indian Riverside Park,” a gem of our Treasure Coast.

When one looks at the history of the property, it is hard not feel like somehow, we’ve been blessed.

Tuckahoe today is a popular site for weddings and meetings. (Photo Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, 2014.)
Tuckahoe today is a popular site for weddings and meetings. (All photo by Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, 2014.)
Oyster and clam shells thousands of years old form the mound, the "mount" of Tuckahoe.
Oyster and clam shells thousands of years old form the mound, the “mount” of Tuckahoe.
View along the boardwalk of Tuckahoe.
View along the boardwalk of Tuckahoe.
Historic marker for Mount Elizabeth.
Historic marker for Mount Elizabeth, telling the story of the Ais Indians,   Riverside Park.

_______________________________________________

Tuckahoe, Martin County Commission: (http://www.martin.fl.us/portal/page?_pageid=354,4190284&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL

Florida Institute or Technology and St Josephs College link/Wikipedia:  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florida_Institute_of_Technology_(Jensen_Beach_Campus))

8 thoughts on “The Nuns of the Indian River Lagoon

  1. Jacqui, great info. In the 1970’s I was an “adjunct” Professor at FIT but never new the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Thanks, jkc

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      1. I believe it was 1977-79 time frame. It was a great experience, and when we take our dogs for a walk at Indian Riverside Park I can’t help but think about the enjoyment I received from teaching my course, “Environmental Economics”. It was held in the circular building that is now the Children’s Museum. The administration and full time faculty had their offices in the old mansion overlooking the river, and the student dorm was across the street at the site of what is now Emeritus at Jensen Beach. Your article was so cool about the locations history.

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  2. Jacqui, great info. In the 1970’s I was an “adjunct” Professor at FIT but never knew the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Thanks, jkc

    Like

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