History of The Cathedral

A detailed and fascinating history of the founding and growth of our church throughout the years.

The original wood church building.

The original wood church building.

Florida was admitted to the Union in 1845. In 1867, the population of the entire state was approximately 150,000. Orange County had about 1,500 concentrated mainly in the two villages of Mellonville (now Sanford) and Orlando (originally called Jernigan until 1857). Most of the homes and stores in Orlando were located between Lake Eola and Lake Lucerne.

The faith community of St. Luke’s originated in the home of Francis Eppes (1801–1881), who was the grandson of Thomas Jefferson and an ardent Episcopal churchman and lay reader.

Francis Eppes moved from Virginia to Tallahassee in 1826 and then to the sparsely settled town of Orlando in 1869. Episcopal settlers in Orlando gathered in his home for services of morning and evening prayer with occasional visits from The Rev. Francis R. Holman of Longwood who held services in the town’s Free Church/School building at the intersection of Church Street and Main Street (now Magnolia Ave.). The stained glass window in the narthex of the Cathedral depicting St. Luke honors the memory of Francis Eppes and his contribution to the establishment of the Episcopal Church in Orlando.

Several years later, The Rev. Lyman Phelps made the “long” ride from Sanford in a horse-drawn buggy over sandy roads to hold a monthly service in the town’s first court house. The Eppes, Shine, Summerlin, Westcott, and Greetham families formed a faithful group which became the nucleus for the formation of St. Luke’s Mission, which formally organized in 1881 and achieved parish status in 1884.

The Rev. C.W. Ward, who resided in Winter Park, served as the church’s first rector from 1883 to 1885. The tract of land upon which the Cathedral now stands was purchased for $300 in 1882, and a small frame church was constructed within the year. The first act of the vestry after St. Luke’s became a parish was to enlarge the building. It was consecrated on March 18, 1892, by the Bishop of Florida, The Right Rev. Edwin Gardner Weed.

In October of 1892, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church partitioned the Diocese of Florida at Bishop Weed’s request and formed the Missionary Jurisdiction of Southern Florida. The House of Bishops elected The Rev. William Crane Gray, the rector of Church of the Advent in Nashville, Tennessee, as its first bishop. Fresh from his consecration, Bishop Gray arrived in Orlando on January 5, 1893, the day and the place appointed for the meeting of “The Southern Convocation.”

The year 1902 was especially significant in the history of St. Luke’s. In that year, it became more than a parish church – St. Luke’s became a cathedral. A cathedral is the principal church in a diocese where the bishop has his cathedra (Latin), meaning “chair.” This seat symbolizes his authority. Although Southern Florida was to remain a missionary jurisdiction (a precursor to a diocese) for still another 20 years, Bishop Gray still envisioned what he called “The Cathedral System” at St. Luke’s. Early in his episcopate, he had chosen Orlando as his “see” city since it was the most thriving and growing one in the central part of his territory, and St. Luke’s was the natural choice for a cathedral.

Interior view of the Cathedral in 1910.

Interior view of the Cathedral in 1910.

The vestry asked the bishop to pursue the necessary arrangements as quickly as possible. On March 17, 1902, the Charter of the Cathedral Church of St. Luke was signed into law by Judge of the Seventh Judicial Circuit, the Hon. Minor S. Jones of Titusville. The Rev. Lucien A. Spencer was appointed the first Dean of the Cathedral.

At the time it would seem that Bishop Gray’s vision was somewhat grandiose since St. Luke’s was a simple wooden board-and-batten structure seating 200 people—hardly the image most people had of a cathedral. The bishop explained that his idea of a cathedral was not necessarily just “a large, fine church building” which he expected would come in due time, but rather that it be “the centre of manifold work and energy, reaching out in every direction – schools, hospitals, a staff of missionary clergy, daily morning and evening prayer and constant communions in the cathedral church, a vested choir … and a high standard of services which might be a model for the churches throughout the jurisdiction.”

After long, faithful and tireless service to the large jurisdiction, Bishop Gray retired in 1910. But before that, he had fulfilled much of his vision, including establishing a school for girls in 1900 that was originally called the Pell-Clark School for Girls, then the Cathedral School for Girls, and then the Cathedral School. It operated until 1968. He also oversaw the formation of Orlando’s first hospital—called the Church Home and Hospital—in 1895. It became St. Luke’s Hospital in 1915 and finally closed in 1918 when Orange General opened. On Ascension Day 1910, Bishop Gray presented a processional cross to the Cathedral as a thank offering which is still in use. The carved oak pulpit in the
Cathedral is a memorial to Bishop Gray. At the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1922, the Missionary Jurisdiction of South Florida was admitted as a Diocese—the Diocese of South Florida—and the first Diocesan Convention was held in the Cathedral in January of 1923.

Ladies of St. Luke's women's in 1944. 

Ladies of St. Luke's women's in 1944. 

During the episcopate of Cameron Mann, Bishop Gray’s successor, came the Great Florida Land Boom which lasted from about 1922 to 1926. The bishop beheld the craze with astonishment and predicted that it could not last. Just before it started, the Cathedral Chapter had decided that a new cathedral building had become a necessity and engaged the architects of Washington National Cathedral to plan the new structure. The plans submitted by Frohmann, Robb and Little of Boston in 1925 for an elaborate Spanish Gothic church were accepted, but the collapse of the boom and the Great Depression that followed left the Chapter with insufficient funds. So, it was decided to build only the nave. The cornerstone was laid on Easter Monday, April 13, 1925, and the nave was dedicated the following year on Easter Eve by Bishop Mann. Although it was only part of what the Cathedral had hoped for, it was still a very beautiful part—the rich, Gothic entrance with its great stone portals, arches, tracery and carvings giving a glimpse of what might have been and was still to be.

The ensuing period after the construction of the new church building presented severe economic hardships. Members of the Cathedral parish made significant sacrifices to keep and maintain the properties they had worked so hard to obtain. The Rev. John Durham Wing was elected and consecrated as Bishop Coadjutor on September 25, 1925. He succeeded Bishop Mann in 1932, and his installation service was held in the Cathedral on May 12.

The Rev. Melville F. Johnson, student pastor at the University of Florida, became the sixth Dean on January 1, 1931, and served for twenty-two years. He led the construction of the L-shaped educational unit, which stands behind the present Chapter House. It is a memorial to members of the Cathedral who died in World War II. Dean Johnson was well-loved by the Cathedral congregation and highly respected in the Orlando community.

The Rev. Osborne R. Littleford became the Cathedral’s seventh Dean in 1952. Under his leadership, the present Chapter House was erected and the Cathedral’s membership grew steadily. At this time several suburban Episcopal churches were planted, and many Cathedral families transferred to them to help form a foundation for their growth. In 1959, the Rev. Francis Campbell Gray became the eighth Dean and guided the destiny of the Cathedral family for twelve years. During his tenure, communicant strength reached a new high.

The Right Rev. Henry Irving Louttit, who had served as Suffragan Bishop from 1945 to 1948 and as Coadjutor from 1948 to 1950, directed the Diocese of South Florida during its greatest period of growth and expansion. New parishes proliferated. Diocesan communicant strength tripled. As he approached retirement, the wheels were set in motion through Convention to study the possibility of dividing up the expansive Diocese of South Florida into several smaller, more manageable dioceses. This was accomplished in 1970 when the old Diocese of South Florida was divided into three dioceses—Central, Southwest and Southeast Florida.

St. Luke’s continued as the Cathedral Church for the Diocese of Central Florida. Bishop Louttit served very briefly as its first Bishop, succeeded by The Right Rev. William H. Folwell who retired in 1990. The Right Rev. John W. Howe followed Bishop Folwell and was the 3rd Bishop of the Diocese of Central Florida. The Right Rev. Gregory O. Brewer was consecrated the 4th Bishop of Central Florida after Bishop Howe retired 2012.

In January, 1971, The Rev. Charles T. Gaskell became the ninth Dean of the Cathedral, serving until his consecration in June, 1973, as Bishop Coadjutor of Milwaukee. Under Dean Gaskell’s leadership, the renovation of the Cathedral nave with the erection of the choir gallery over the narthex and installation of the 88-rank pipe organ was achieved.

In September, 1973, The Rev. O’Kelley Whitaker, Rector of Emmanuel Church, Orlando, became the tenth Dean. With Bishop Folwell’s encouragement and under Dean Whitaker’s leadership, the Cathedral grew as a strong downtown parish, becoming a center for Diocesan functions and an example of excellence in worship, liturgical arts and music. Dean Whitaker resigned after his election as Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of Central New York in November, 1980.

The Rev. Harry B. Sherman, rector of St. Paul’s Church, Patchogue, Long Island, and Dean of Suffolk County in the Diocese of Long Island, accepted the call to become the eleventh Dean of the Cathedral, beginning his ministry at the
Cathedral on September 1, 1981. He served until 1992 and oversaw the “completion” of the Cathedral’s Gothic-revival building in the spirit of the original vision from the early 1920s.

The completed Cathedral, 1987.

The completed Cathedral, 1987.

On October 18, 1987—the Feast of St. Luke— the “completed” Cathedral was dedicated after two years of construction which resulted in the glorious Gothic-revival structure it is today with a fully formed apse, a new bell tower, flying buttresses, pinnacles and finials, enlarged sacristies, an ambulatory and Chapel of the Resurrection, a redesigned St. Mary’s Chapel in the enlarged south transept, and a renewed sanctuary and nave.

The Rev. Dr. G. Richard Lobs III was called from his post as rector of St. Mark’s, Geneva, Illinois, to become St. Luke’s twelfth Dean in 1993 and served until his retirement in 2006. Dean Lobs brought the Cathedral’s worship to new heights of glory and ushered in an enduring era of excellence in preaching and teaching of God’s Word.

The Cathedral Church of St. Luke continued to flourish under the leadership of its thirteenth Dean, The Very Rev. Anthony P. Clark, who was installed on December 16th, 2006.

The 14th Dean, The Very Rev. Dr. Reggie Kidd, was installed January 29th, 2017. The Cathedral’s worship, teaching and music programs thrive and it continues to reach out to the wider Orlando community with compassion and the hope of the Gospel. Throughout the decades, the Cathedral has remained a sacred space in which the Lord is worshipped in the beauty of holiness and scripture is preached, taught and held as the highest authority.