The idea for a new Episcopal Church in Fort Myers took root in August 1958. Father Thomas Madden led a few families in worship in a dance studio. By October 16, 1958 a mission church was born and the name “St. Hilary’s” was selected. That Christmas the new mission met in its first building, a Quonset hut.
In 1965, Father Robert Browning became the fourth vicar of the mission. In 1968, he became the first rector, having broken ground for a new church building at the corner of Colonial and McGregor the year before. When the sanctuary was completed in 1968, more than 500 members worshipped there.
In the 1970s a rectory was built and a nearby house purchased to house the sexton. Clearwater’s Church of the Ascension donated our famous organ, which established St. Hilary’s as a musical center in Fort Myers. In the 1980s our Parish Hall, now known as Browning Hall, was constructed.
After Father Browning’s retirement in 1996, Father Bob Hennagin was installed as our second rector in 1998. In 2008 we completed a major renovation of our sanctuary and later that year celebrated the 50th anniversary of our congregation with a beautiful party. Father Hennagin’s ministry to St. Hilary’s ended after fourteen years in January 2012. In January 2014, Father Charles Cannon became our third rector.
Hilary of Poitiers –
Saint for Whom We Are Named
Hilary was born in Poitiers in what is now France in 315. He died there in either 367 or 368 (whether on November 1 or January 13 is open for debate.) He was named a saint shortly after his death and was declared a “Doctor of the Divinity of Christ” by Pope Pius IX in 1851. His feast day is now celebrated on January 13.
Hilary was born into a wealthy, pagan family. He studied rhetoric and philosophy and was known as an orator. He married and had a daughter now known as Saint Afra. He experienced conversion in his mid-thirties and was baptized along with his wife and daughter. He was made bishop of Poitiers in 353. (According to one source, he and his wife had to live separately so that he could be ordained. Quite a sacrifice on both of their parts.)
There was a major controversy raging in the Church in the 4th century between those that claimed that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine – he was of the same substance as God the Father and those that claimed he was not as divine as God the Father – he was of a similar substance.This has become known as the Arian controversy. Most of the Orthodox theology (same substance) was being promoted in the eastern part of the world. Most of western Europe was Arian (similar substance). Hilary was the first theologian to argue for orthodoxy using western thought and philosophy.
His orthodox stance caused him to be exiled for several years. It was during his exile that he did most of his writing on the Trinity and on the theology of the eastern church. While in exile, he was never replaced as bishop of Poitiers because the priests would rather “pretend he was still there” rather than risk getting someone they didn’t want. He returned to his diocese in 360.
Hilary was a prolific writer and poet and was one of the earliest hymn writers. Although he is not one of the most well known of historical theologians, his influence was vast. He was a contemporary of Athanasius. He was Martin of Tours’ spiritual director and guide. St. Jerome considered Hilary an inspiration.
Hilary is the patron saint of those bitten by snakes and learning disabled children. There is a legend that while visiting an island off the coast of France, Hilary ran all of the snakes into the sea (an incredibly similar legend to that of Patrick of Ireland).Hilary’s bed was kept on display in the Cathedral of Poitiers for years It was said that if a “madman” were to spend a night in the “cradle of St. Hilary” he would be cured.
In art work, Hilary is often pictured with three books, a pen, a snake, a cradle or with Martin of Tours. Our window at St. Hilary’s Episcopal Church in Fort Myers (left), pictures him in the Eucharistic vestments of a bishop with three books, a pen and a snake.