In the 45 years since its founding, the St. John Historical Society has published books, restored a cemetery, led field trips, presented lectures, sent historic bronze sculptures to Denmark, funded archaeological research, and built a website that gives public access to a rich collection of photographs and historical information.
In order to support its next round of ambitious projects, the St. John Historical Society will hold a fundraiser at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, April 7, at Lucky Chops Restaurant in Cruz Bay. The event, titled “Past, Present & Future: Honoring Our Heritage,” will include a cocktail sip, silent auction, and celebration to honor four community members who helped build the organization.
Tickets are $45 and available at Connections or by calling 340-344-4303.
The organization suffered setbacks from Hurricane Irma, SJHS Board President Lonnie Willis said.
“We’re still in recovery, so we scaled back from our annual gala to a cocktail sip. We didn’t want the year to go by without showing appreciation for all the people who have done so much for us,” Willis said.
The four senior members being honored are Elroy Sprauve, Andromeda Childs, Margaret Labrenz and Beverly Biziewski.
– “Mr. Elroy,” as Sprauve is commonly known, was born in Cruz Bay and served as the principal of the public school named after his father, Julius E. Sprauve.
“He has a wonderful memory,” said Willis. “He has always brought personal artifacts, like his parents’ wedding dishes, and a family rocking chair, and shared stories about them at our presentations.”
– Andromeda Childs became the curator of artifacts “back in the day” when they were displayed in the jail cells at the Battery, and later at the Elaine I. Sprauve Library and Museum of Cultural Artifacts.
Born at the heart of Cruz Bay at what’s now the site of The Landing restaurant, she spent 30 years in New York before returning to her native island to help preserve its cultural traditions.
– In addition to serving as SJHS’s president and treasurer, Margie Labrenz played a critical role in saving the group’s priceless archives by securing them in her office at Cruz Bay Realty while her own home sustained damage from Hurricane Irma. After living on St. John for 40 years, Labrenz relocated to Florida following the storms of 2017.
– Beverly Biziewski is “one of the bedrocks” of the organization, according to Willis. The former nurse joined “every community organization – Lioness, BPW, AARP, the Nazareth Lutheran Church, the Audubon Society and the St. John Singers” over her more than 40 years on St. John. Working with Labrenz to set up chairs for events, prepare food, or sell tickets, Biziewski did it “with more energy than could be imagined,” Willis said.
Sprauve and Biziewski are expected to attend the event held in their honor.
The St. John Historical Society has never had a home of its own, but Willis is hoping this will soon change. Almost ten years ago, it secured a lease for 99 years for 6,000 square feet of undeveloped land in Estate Bellevue.
The property is part of a tract owned by the St. John Community Foundation that was originally bought by Reliance Housing when the company was constructing the adjacent Bellevue Village Housing Community. Because the tract is laced with significant historical ruins, including a village for enslaved Africans, it was deemed unsuitable for a housing development and was subsequently deeded to the Community Foundation.
Now the Historical Society is starting a campaign to raise as much as $1.5 million to develop the design and construct the building which will serve as a museum, archive, and meeting place. Using his knowledge of design that has historically withstood the ravages of hurricanes, architect Doug White has already completed a plan for the exterior of the building.
Willis said the proposed design includes a display area on the top floor and a “hardened” space downstairs where artifacts can be moved when a storm approaches. The structure, which will hold 60 or more people, is similar in size to the meeting hall at Bethany Moravian Church, where the Historical Society has met for the past several years.
Finding a permanent home for the organization’s archives and artifacts is critical, Willis said. Many of the artifacts, which had been collected by members and stored in their homes, were lost in Hurricane Irma. Willis herself lost many items, including an extensive antique bottle collection, when her home was destroyed.
Although building a permanent home could take years, Willis said the group has plans for other projects that should be completed within the upcoming year. One of them is to produce a map and guide for a walking tour of Cruz Bay, which was declared a National Historic Site in 2016.
Once the map is available, Willis wants to organize “the Amazing Cruz Bay Historic Race” for children in the community. Teams of youngsters will compete to locate historic landmarks within the town.
“We need to do much to get students invested in the history of the island,” Willis said.
Willis said she is also excited about an upcoming film produced by Patrice Harley and Lorelei Monsanto, with the help of videographer Bill Steltzer, based on interviews with St. John elders. The project, “Our History Keepers,” just received a grant from News of St. John, a blog which held a raffle in March to fund community projects.
In 2015 the SJHS, with funding from the State Historic Preservation Office, completed the first phase of the restoration of the historic Martin-Van Beverhoudt cemetery in Cruz Bay. The second phase of the project, which includes building walls and installing signage for the grave sites of six Free-Colored Danish West Indians who died in the 19th century, has been contracted by the Historical Society.
The SJHS is also hoping to publish a new edition of “Life in Five Quarters,” its 2010 book containing stories, pictures, and descriptions of earlier ways of life on St. John.
The St. John Historic Society typically holds events from November through April. Its Facebook page has 2,000 followers, and its newsletter is sent out to 500 members. Further information is online at the society’s website.