Father Harry Winter and Local History – Part 1

Father Harry Winter, OMI, has a long-standing involvement and interest in western Virginia and West Virginia history.

Lynnside estate, Sweet Springs WV

He was the missionary pastor at the Catholic Holy Family Church in Pearisburg, Virginia, from 1979-82, and the missionary pastor at the Monroe County Catholic Parish in Union, West Virginia, from 1982-91.
The designation OMI stands for an Oblate of Mary Immaculate. The Catholic Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate serve poor and needy people in the United States and more than 60 countries around the world.
Currently about 4,000 Missionary Oblates are serving poor people in various deeply troubled places around the world. They describe their work as comforting the sick, bringing food to the hungry, and bringing hope to the orphaned. Their efforts are intended to provide spiritual healing to distressed people and bring peace to war-torn nations.
The Oblates were founded by Eugene De Mazenod. He was born in 1782, during the French Revolution, into an aristocratic family in southern France. At the age of 25, he underwent a profound religious experience and, committed himself to Christ and the Church. Appalled by the poverty of the region he gathered a small group of priests to preach directly to the poor.
The Oblates congregation was recognized by Pope Leo XII in 1826. It is composed of priests and brothers who usually live together in community. As of 2016, the Oblate congregation had approximately 4,000 members serving around the world.
On December 3, 1995, Pope John Paul II formally declared Eugene De Mazenod a saint.
Father Winter took his final vows in Rome in 1961. His involvement with our local history began when he was assigned as missionary priest to Giles County and three years later to adjacent Monroe County across the state line in West Virginia.
On his arrival in Monroe County, he discovered that an important and under-appreciated co-religionist, Letitia Preston Floyd, a future first lady of Virginia, and her husband the governor were buried at Sweet Springs in Monroe County.
As I pointed out in a recent column, Letitia Preston Floyd was born at the Smithfield Plantation in Blacksburg in 1779 as the tenth child of William and Susanna Preston.
Raised Presbyterian, Governor Floyd never converted to Catholicism, but was sympathetic to it for much of his life. Also raised Presbyterian, Letitia did convert, but only at the age of 74, in 1853. However, their daughters Letitia, Lavalette, and Nicketti, all converted while their father was governor and were baptized in Richmond in the early 1830s.
The Floyd’s daughter Letitia Preston Floyd Lewis (1814-1887), who was born here in Montgomery County, was a teenager when she converted to Catholicism. In 1837, in New Orleans, she married William Lynn Lewis, becoming his third wife. The couple eventually moved permanently to the Lynnside estate in Sweet Springs, which had been in the Lewis family for several decades.
William Lynn Lewis had been born in Donegal, Ireland, and was brother to Revolutionary War General Andrew Lewis. The brothers’ mother was Margaret Lynn, which is presumably the reason that William got his middle name.
The accompanying picture, taken by the columnist in February 2014, shows the house that the Lewises built around 1843 at Lynnside.
About 1853 the Lewises built St. John’s Chapel less than half a mile down the road from Lynnside. An annual Mass of the Feast of the Assumption is still celebrated here, and Father Winter is often one of the officiating priests.
In Monroe County, Father Winter met and began working with the late Lynn Spellman, another co-religionist and the then-owner of the Lynnside property.
Together, Lynn Spellman and Father Winter worked to nominate the Lynnside Historic District for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. Consisting of six buildings, three sites, and two structures, the Lynnside Historic District was placed on the register in 1991.
Some time before 2007, Lynn Spellman began the website www.lynnside.com which this columnist currently maintains as www.lynnside.org.
Writing on that website, Father Winter made a spirited case for the historical significance of Mrs. Letitia Preston Floyd in an article titled “Pioneer Catholic Feminist.”
When this columnist first turned his attention to Letitia Floyd in 2010 because of her Smithfield Plantation connection, he found Lynn Spellman’s web site, exchanged email messages with her, and read Father Winter’s article.
In 2014 I looked Father Winter up online and called to ask if his “Pioneer Catholic Feminist” article had ever been published. It hadn’t. So I added footnotes and did some light editing and had it published in 2015 in the “Smithfield Review” local history magazine.
In 2016 in a visit to Virginia for the annual Mass, Father Winter and I made a joint presentation about Lynnside at the Blacksburg Museum and Cultural Center.
In 1981, two hikers on the Appalachian Trail in Giles County were murdered not far from Pearisburg. Father Winter became quite involved with that case and with the families of the victims. Part two will tell that story.

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