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Wild isle
Local educators experience the rare blend of nature and history that is St. Catherine’s Island
Educators examine the old Spanish mission of Santa Catalina de Guale - photo by Jim Morekis

AFTER 400 YEARS on this lonely island, it’s still a church.

The thatched roof is long gone, replaced by open sky. Carefully planted palm trees mark the perimeter, where wooden beams and walls once stood. An oak stump marks the old entrance.

Underneath lie the reinterred remains of 437 Native Americans — the first Catholic converts in Georgia.

This holy ground on St. Catherine’s Island is a combined sanctuary, cemetery, and important archaeological site.

This is Santa Catalina de Guale, a former Spanish mission that was the first Christian gathering place in Georgia and one of the oldest in North America.

There are no bells, no hymnals, no little envelopes for donations. But as the small pews in the open air within its imaginary walls indicate, it’s still a very real place of worship.

St. Catherine’s Island, a short boat ride from Midway, Ga., is full of such amazing and surprisingly little-known treasures. This summer a group of coastal Georgia educators went there to take part in a totally unique program, the fruits of which they’re passing on to area children as we speak.

Open to math and science teachers from all grades — including elementary school teachers, who by definition teach all subjects — the program’s intent is to spark new ways to teach and motivate their students.

The two-week, grad-level, total immersion course brings math and science teachers together with professors from Armstrong Atlantic State University and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography in an effort that combines history, mathematics and the natural sciences.

“We wanted to develop a course that would give interdisciplinary outreach for high school, middle school, and elementary teachers from the coast that would help them teach math, science, technology, and engineering better — no matter what age their students are,” says Charles Belin, biology professor at AASU.

“And the barrier islands are our laboratory.”

So what do the history and culture of St. Catherine’s Island have to do with math and science? Grant administrator Sabrina Hessinger, a math professor at AASU, explains that there was enough “wiggle room” in the grants for the coastal group to think outside the box.

“We knew we wanted to involve the barrier islands, so we thought, let’s just have the thread be history, and pull the math and science in underneath the history,” Hessinger says.

“That was a creative aspect that we came up with. We wanted to try something different. This is definitely unique to Savannah.”

Over the summer, Dr. Peter Verity and the folks at the Skidaway Institute invite me out to join the group of educators on St. Catherine’s — which feels much farther away from the mainland than it really is.

The island once belonged to Mary Musgrove, Oglethorpe’s interpreter, and after that Button Gwinnett, signer of the Declaration. For a brief time it was the fiefdom of self-described “emperor” Tunis Campbell, a freed slave who claimed it as his own following the Civil War.

After that bizarre interlude, it followed a typical path for Georgia barrier islands: A hunting and vacation playground for wealthy northern industrialists, whose elite exclusivity ironically allowed it be protected from overdevelopment.

Currently it’s owned by the St. Catherine’s Island Foundation, which runs a number of environmental and cultural projects in a relaxed and rustic outdoor-laboratory setting.

Our tour guide for most of the day is Royce Hayes, a jolly, knowledgeable fellow — a forester by training — who’s lived on St. Catherine’s Island as its superintendent for the past 30 years:

As we stand beside the hallowed mission site in the island’s interior, Hayes explains its origin: In 1566 a leader of the local Guale tribe (pronounced “wallie”) met Pedro Menendez, who was on his way from St. Augustine, Fla., to destroy a French settlement at modern-day Parris Island, S.C.

The history can get tricky, due in part to the custom of Creek Indians of the time to name just about everything after their chief.

“The leader was called Guale, they also called this island Guale, and the region between the Ogeechee River and the Altamaha was called Guale,” laughs Hayes. “So when the Spanish write, ‘We stopped at Guale and talked to Guale,’ it can get pretty confusing.”

After several abortive attempts, by 1590 Franciscan monks had firmly established the mission.

“Somehow, two barefoot monks, with no weapons and no garrison to protect them, managed to create a Christian community here” Hayes says.

“There must have been something in their message or something in their demeanor that created trust with the local people,” he says. “There’s evidence in the archaeology that there was a cooperative, benevolent relationship.”

However, disputes between the Spanish and Indians occasionally got ugly, resulting in the death of those first two monks — among the first martyrs in the New World.

“In 1597, the two monks were quartered with their own axes, and the mission was burned,” Hayes says.

Still, their seeds of goodwill stayed alive. A few years later the Indians rebuilt the church and sent emissaries to St. Augustine. Their message to the Spanish:

“Send more monks — we’ve been five years without Confession.”

Thus began the golden age of Spanish missions in Georgia, much longer and wider in scope than the more well-known mission period in California and the Southwest.

The beginning of the end came in 1680, when seven soldiers and 14 Indians successfully held off a combined force of over 300 British and Indian slavers from Charleston — “pirates, really,” Hayes says.

Despite their heroic victory, the monks ordered the mission’s abandonment. Under pressure from the British, the Spanish would eventually retreat entirely to Florida and points beyond.

What became of the Guale Indians, who so devoutly worshipped a new God on this remote barrier island?

“In the early 1700s, the Spanish and their allies evacuated under threat from the north to Cuba,” says Hayes. “So if there are any Guale Indians left, they’re Cubans.”

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Santa Catalina de Guale was the site of the one of the most groundbreaking — no pun intended — archaeological digs in history. It was the first to use ground-penetrating radar and the first to use advanced soil analysis.

But before advanced technology came into play, a team of archaeologists, led by Dr. David Hurst Thomas of New York’s Museum of Natural History, spent three years gridding the island in the most primitive way imaginable.

“You had 11 archaeologists and somebody working a compass. Everybody walked even with each other, and every other step each person stuck a metal probe into the ground,” Hayes says. “And they got really good at hearing a tree root – thunk – an oyster shell – dink – a piece of metal – ping – whatever. They got to where they knew if they were hitting a site or hearing something organic.”

As test pits were dug, the archaeologists found treasures of Indiana Jones-level drama all around the church and surrounding village. In addition to pottery, bricks, and pieces of metal, they found 67,000 rosary beads — including two that sailed on Columbus’s third voyage to the New World.

“How they got from Dominica in the Caribbean to coastal Georgia and onto a rosary, we don’t know,” says Hayes.

Another interesting find was, of all things, a toothpick.

“It wasn’t Christian, it was Moorish,” says Hayes. “It was a fist clutching a sword — the hand of Allah.”

Hayes speculates that because Spain had only recently thrown off the rule of the Moors, one of the Spanish sailors might have been a secret Muslim.

Apparently, there were even Stations of the Cross in the church. Clay faces have been discovered, which were probably stuck on the mud-and-marsh walls, with figures then painted around them.

“The archaeologists had been talking about Guale Indians for five years and suddenly they found one looking back,” Hayes says of the clay faces.

(Many of the millions of artifacts discovered here are on display in Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum of Natural History.)

When the mission’s cache of buried bodies was found — including what are the likely remains of those first two monks, horribly butchered — a moral dilemma ensued. Because this dig happened before a slate of repatriation laws in the ‘90s, the question begged itself:

What to do with all the bones?

“Dave Thomas contacted the bishop of the Savannah diocese, and said, ‘Look, archaeologists usually keep the bones of people who have no descendants,’” Hayes relates. “He told the bishop, ‘There are no Guale Indians left, so by tradition we can keep the bones.’”

But, Thomas concluded, there are lots of Catholics in Georgia. So in a sense, many descendants of those Indians still live here — if not genetically, certainly culturally and spiritually.

Unbeknownst to Thomas, the Vatican was at that very moment working to have the five Georgia martyrs, including St. Catherine’s founding monks, beatified. Thrilled with the coincidence — or was it the hand of God? — the bishop reportedly told Thomas:

“Dig, young man, dig, and prove these men holy.”

In 1984, the mission was reconsecrated, and the decision was made to reinter all the bodies underneath. Palm trees were planted in the old postholes, and pews were added so weddings and ceremonies could again be held within its phantom walls.

And what of the rest of the village? Like the bodies, it was reburied — under a foot of sod so that grave robbers couldn’t tell where to dig.

“Dave dug only enough to answer his research questions. We’re not only trying to conserve native habitats and wildlife here, we’re also trying to conserve archaeology,” concludes Hayes.

“It’s all underground waiting for somebody else who has another question and a new technology.”

St. Catherine’s is famous for another unique aspect that’s wholly in the now: a colony of ring-tailed lemurs occupying the middle of the island.

Brought from Madagascar to preserve the species from extinction, the lemurs run completely free, though the mature ones sport small ID collars.

As we drive up to visit the lemurs, we notice the staff has containers of fruit. That’s all it takes. Literally coming out of the woodwork, little lemur forms take shape as they crawl down from the trees, long bushy tails waving in the air.

Mothers carry a baby or two on their backs. The males occasionally snap at each other. Some lemurs nonchalantly climb up on the hood of a jeep.

But Lemur Nation is united in its shared passion for fruit. As the containers are put on the ground, they begin eating as fast as their little hands can carry food to their little mouths. Grapes, melon, bananas, it’s all good.

They’re totally unintimidated by us, so we walk right up to them as they eat. They just give us sideways glances with those bright yellow eyes, their mouths filled to bursting.

In order to get the fruit down their throats they have to lift their heads and straighten their necks, making them resemble baby birds. They look up at the sky, chewing open-mouthed as fruit occasionally dribbles out onto the ground — or onto a nearby lemur who, also eating, doesn’t appear to notice.

When the food’s gone, they disperse in a gluttony-induced daze and do whatever it is that lemurs do when they’re not stuffing themselves silly.

Somewhere along our journey we make a stop at a massive bird rookery in a freshwater pond in the middle of the island. Several large trees stand amid the algae-encrusted water.

Hundreds of waterfowl of probably a dozen species are nesting, eating, calling, courting, and generally carrying on. It’s a ruckus, is what it is.

Here and there, cutting through the green crust on the water, are the telltale eye and nose bumps of alligators.

Charles Belin explains how to tell the size of an alligator when all you can see are those scaly little bumps in the water.

“The length in inches from his nose bump to his eye bump is roughly equivalent to his body length in feet.”

In that case, there are a couple of pretty big gators trolling here. Why then do the birds seem so complacent?

Belin says it’s all part of nature’s plan:

“The alligators, the water level, the trees, the birds, the meteorology, are all in balance here. If the water levels are up and the alligators are patrolling, they’ll pick off any little bird or egg that falls off a branch into the water, no doubt about it,” Belin says.

“But the primary predator of the birds is not the alligator — it’s raccoons. The raccoons will not go in here because they gotta go past the alligators,” he says. “But if the water level drops, all bets are off. If the trees fall down in a storm, all bets are off.”

Several years ago, during a particularly bad drought, the inland ponds on St. Catherine’s dried up.

“With no water, the alligators can’t move as fast as the raccoons. No birds fledged that year,” Belin says. “Then the rains come back, the water level goes up, the alligators are back, boom, the bird population goes up.”

And how. The gators seem patient. They know it’s only a matter of time before they get lucky, and one of these hundreds of birds runs out of luck.

All nature’s plan.

The end of our sojourn is a trip to “Boneyard Beach,” with its driftwood and famous 30-foot bluff, an almost unheard-of feature in the flat-as-a-pancake coastal region.

Before we actually hit the beach, Belin talks awhile about the maritime forest habitat on the bluff. About 50 feet away stands one of the so-called “tsunami towers,” actually a high-frequency radar system that measures surface currents on the Atlantic, beaming the results back to the Skidaway Institute.

The trees, mostly large oaks with a short understory, are all bent back due to the constant winds off the ocean.

“The maritime forest is within about 20 miles of the Atlantic, from about Myrtle Beach down to St. Augustine,” Belin says. “That’s the only place it’s found.”

He points out the noticeable lack here of nesting shorebirds like herons or egrets, who prefer freshwater ponds. They’re obviously all back at the rookery dodging alligators.

Out on the beach, there’s a minor commotion as someone discovers a loggerhead turtle nest. The mother has just been here, and we can see the fresh, unmistakable tracks: short, slanted lines where her fins transported her, and scallop-shaped marks inside them where her shell dragged in the sand.

Belin was right: This is a living laboratory.

Color me impressed, but it doesn’t matter what I think. What’s important is what these school teachers think of their day on St. Catherine’s Island.

On the way back to the dock for our ride back to the mainland, I ask a couple what they got out of this program.

“I definitely understand the coastal region, and I’ll have a lot of perspective and sights and sounds that I can relate to my students,” says Cynthia Elliott of the Bryan County school system.

Tracy Fettinger of the Camden County schools says:

“I feel like I’ve had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’ve seen lemurs on TV, but I never thought I’d get to see them in person and feed them,” she says as we walk.

“The diversity of this ecosystem, and seeing all these things and how they’re interconnected, makes it a whole lot easier to teach than just seeing a picture or reading paragraphs in a book.” cs