I went to Florence at the invitation of the Reverend Barbara Crafton who is currently the interim rector at St. James Episcopal Church. The current church building and rectory were built in 1908 to serve a large community of wealthy expatriate Americans living in Florence (the congregation is much older and I'm told used to meet in a designated chapel in Sta. Maria del Carmine). There are still wealthy expatriate Americans in Florence, but none of them are Episcopalian. The community of English-as-first-language speakers in Florence is probably much larger now than when the church was built. I heard an estimate of 55,000 such living in a city of less than a million; a high percentage, so high that the current mayor of Florence speaks English and actively campaigns for the votes of English speakers.
When I first visited Florence in 1988, I was a regular at the church on Sundays (I lived in Florence for a month). The congregation then was small, and made up of only a handful of Americans, mostly students and professional people. The rest of the congregation was Africans, Koreans, and English unhappy with very high church and conservative St. Mark's Anglican Church (La Chiesa Inglese, "The English Church" as it's known to the locals). While the Italian residents were generally friendly to the church, none attended there. My memories of the place 20 years ago are all fond ones. I met a lot of very fine and wonderful people at the church then.
The church now has a much bigger congregation, and it's predominantly American. There is still an African and English contingent, though the Koreans have been replaced by other Christians from South Asia. There are now a lot of Italians who attend the church regularly, usually the spouses of Americans; so many now that the service has do be done at least partially in Italian. The Americans are still largely students and professional people, but also a lot of business people and academics. There are now enough regular worshippers for 2 Sunday services, and enough children for a Sunday school class. Most of the pastoral services there primarily serve unemployed Italians, with Africans, Asians, and others employed by the city's very large hospitality industry.
There are now, I believe, 3 ordained Italian Episcopal priests in Italy, and I met an Italian eager to study for holy orders in the Episcopal Church. Apparently there is enough interest to begin talk of creating an Italian language Episcopal seminary, perhaps in Rome. Whatever is going on, it's enough to attract the attention of the Presiding Bishop, Katherine Schori, who will spend Easter at St. James with Barbara Crafton this year.
Barbara Crafton and Q (Dr. Richard Quaintance) are tremmendously popular in Florence with Americans and Italians alike. I suspect that a lot of the church's expanded membership is her work. She continues the tradition of friendly and cooperative relations between the Episcopal Church and local aid agencies, and the local Roman Catholic Archdiocese (she was an invited guest clergy person representing the Episcopal Church to the installation of the new Archbishop). Though the local English church is very conservative anglo-catholic opposed to women clergy, Mother Crafton has keeps very friendly relations with their rector and the congregation. I went with her to a Vesper service there at the invitation of the English rector. Miss Honeychurch and her chaperone (A Room With A View) would have felt quite at home there.
Barbara and Q were excellent hosts. My room in the rectory was a huge palace chamber. This New Yorker, used to cramped quarters, was very impressed. Unlike most hotels, the rectory had cat service. I got to know Ben and Santi made famous to many of you through Barbara Crafton's daily "e-mos" from The Geranium Farm. She now has thousands of readers in 36 countries. I've known Barbara Crafton for a long time. I was her regular assistant for Monday night Eucharists at St. John's in the Village for about 5 years. She also has a substantial collection of my work.
I finally had Bisteca Fiorentina with Barbara and Q in a little restaurant near the church. It was delicious, but so massive I could not finish it. Mother Crafton took some home. Both of us committed a bruta figura in the eyes of the Italians; not finishing the thing. Florence is not a very friendly city for vegetarians. I ate in another restaurant beneath a ceiling full of hanging prosciutti.
The current Pope is not very popular in Italy, so I'm told. I'm not surprised. The history of German-Italian relations over the last century has not been happy. The Pope's recent decision to ignore Italian law within the confines of the Vatican is not popular with the locals. I'm told that in Rome, he is known as La Tedescha, the "German Lady."