There can hardly be a single educated person of Greek background, who has not heard of Thomas Bruce – not by that name, but by his title: “7th Earl of Elgin”. It was he who, during his tenure as Ambassador to the “Sublime Porte” (the government of the Ottoman Empire, in Constantinople), removed the series of Ancient Greek marbles from the Parthenon in Athens. Although he claimed to have received a “firman” (permit) by the “Porte,” no such document has even been produced. Elgin’s tenure as the Ambassador at Constantinople was only from 1799 to 1803 – although his acquisition of Ancient Greek relics continued, as best can be established, into 1812.
Our story begins about half a century earlier. Sending Ambassadors and Consuls, to represent their country’s interests in foreign lands was and continues to be, the standard of diplomacy in modern times. Elgin was only one of a series of diplomats sent by Great Britain to the “Porte.” Another British diplomat, a Scot doctor by the name of Andrew Turnbull, served as British Consul in the major port city of Smyrna in Asia Minor. There, he met and married Maria Gracia, the daughter of a French/Greek Businessman, but it’s his later endeavors that make up our story.
In the 18th Century, the New World was beckoning all Europe as a new land full of promise, and Turnbull decided to “Go West.” Securing a grant from British authorities (who had acquired Florida from Spain three years earlier, in 1763), he traveled to the Mediterranean. He managed to persuade – with some difficulty – some 1400 people to follow him and establish a colony in Florida. Most of these people were Greek, about half of them from Smyrna, Mani, and several Aegean Islands, and a goodly number from the island of Minorca, many of whom were also of Greek ancestry. So in 1767, they crossed the Atlantic, in the galleons of the time, and established a new colony, which he called “New Smyrna,” no doubt as a reference to the city of his wife.
History records both successes and failures in human endeavors, and the “New Smyrna” was not a success story. Friction with the local native labor and hostilities ensued, along with tropical diseases, and the colonists were unhappy with Trumbull. In 1777, only ten years after its establishment, the remaining 700 colonists obtained a welcome and promise of protection by the British governor of Saint Augustine. They collectively marched the 62 or so miles North to that city. (After a while, Trumbull left his now empty colony and relocated to Charleston, South Carolina, for the remainder of his life.)
So, the primarily Greek Orthodox colonists thus found a refuge in the British – previously Spanish – Saint Augustine, only to suddenly find themselves part of the Spanish empire, when Britain returned Florida to Spain in 1783, only six years later. And then, to become part of the United States, when Spain ceded Florida in 1819. So, in 52 years, within the living memory of the younger colonists, these Orthodox Greeks went from having Muslim or Catholic overlords in Europe to Protestants to Catholics to Protestants again! A difficult time, to not only stay alive, but to prosper, and somehow retain their faith.
To preserve their faith, they were able to use a building in Saint Augustine, a modest affair (as they all were, at that time) named Avero House. This house was purchased in 1965 and has been, through generous donations, transformed into what is today a Greek Orthodox Shrine of Saint Fotios, open to visitors year-round since 1981. The Shrine consists of exhibits relating to the early colonists, and to the expansion of Greek Orthodoxy in the United States. It is located on the main tourist pedestrian walk in the center of Saint Augustine, and is aptly called “The Jewel of Saint George Street.” So, we have a congregation of saints: In the City of Saint Augustine, there is a Saint George Street, and in Saint George Street, there is a Shrine of Saint Fotios (or as they spell it: “Photios”). One can see the historical time-sequence of the names: San Augustino (Spain), Saint George (English), and Saint Fotios (Greek).