St. Anthony school founder honored at Tampa cemetery
TAMPA - The cemetery wasn't revealing its secrets and Father Len Plazewski was growing frustrated. The Catholic priest and historian had arrived at St. Louis Cemetery in downtown Tampa in September to search for the graves of five priests, three of whom died of yellow fever in the 1880s. The priests and their graves were proving elusive, though. It didn't help that St. Louis Cemetery adjoins Oaklawn Cemetery and there is no clear demarcation between the two. Plazewski decided he needed guidance. "After awhile, I said, 'Let me ask for St. Anthony's help,' " he said.St. Anthony is the patron of lost things. Moments later, the cemetery revealed a secret. It wasn't the one Plazewski had come looking for, but it was just as good. Plazewski had discovered the grave of Cecilia Morse, the widowed mother of six children who founded St. Anthony Interparochial Catholic School in the Pasco County community of San Antonio 125 years ago. "I knew immediately who it was," said Plazewski, a former St. Anthony student. "It was emotional for me." None of the current residents of San Antonio had known what became of Morse, who is hailed as a pioneer of Catholic education in Florida. St. Anthony Catholic School's history and Morse's pivotal role in it actually date to before the school officially opened in April 1884. Morse and her children arrived in San Antonio in 1883 and she saw immediately that the tiny town needed a school. When town leaders didn't act quickly enough to suit her, she reportedly said, "The minds of the children here now will not wait." She began teaching her children and eight others in her kitchen. Now that her final resting place had been found, Plazewski was determined that it stay found. So Friday afternoon he and dozens of other people with connections to the school or the Diocese of St. Petersburg gathered at the cemetery to dedicate a historical marker at the foot of Morse's grave. They prayed, sang songs and listened as Plazewski, who is director of vocations for the diocese, revealed bits of Morse's life story that he patched together from census records, newspaper obituaries and burial records. She was born June 3, 1838. Her given name was Charcila Cecilia Moore, but she went by the name Cecilia. She and Charles N. Morse were married for 16 years until his death. She lived in several states, but it's unclear why she decided to move to Florida in 1883 and settle in San Antonio, where she raised citrus. Morse taught for several years at Saint Anthony Catholic School. Sometime before 1900 she moved to Tampa, possibly because a freeze in 1897 destroyed many of the citrus groves in San Antonio, Plazewski said. She died on June 13, 1926, the feast day of St. Anthony. Five of her six children are buried in graves that surround hers in St. Louis Cemetery. The sixth, a World War I veteran, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Plazewski said many of those gathered in the cemetery Friday were, in a sense, also Morse's children. After remarks by other speakers, Plazewski handed Josephine Gosselin Shafchuk, class of 1936 and St. Anthony's oldest living graduate, a rose that she placed on the historical marker. Then others also placed roses or carnations on the marker, covering it until the words were no longer visible.
Reporter Ronnie Blair can be reached at (813) 259-7065.