by Caroline Gabsewics
The Christmas carol “Silent Night” may be one of the most-heard hymns during the holiday season. But what many may not know is that the man who translated the Austrian carol “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” from German to English is a part of Jacksonville’s history.
John Freeman Young was a deacon at St. John’s Church in Jacksonville in 1845. In 1867 he became the second Episcopal Bishop of Florida. Besides doing a lot for his church, Young enjoyed translating European carols and hymns into English. Since he came across the carol “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” and translated the words into English, it has become one of the world’s most commonly used Christmas carols, said Bill Egan of Flagler Beach.
Egan has been researching and studying various aspects of Christmas since he was a Navy journalist. After spending 22 years active in the reserves, he picked up many items on his travels including ornaments and Christmas books and has collected many notes from interviews along the way. Currently he writes for several publications about Christmas and is used as a source for many television and radio networks during this time of year.
“I became interested in Christmas and learning the traditions in Christmas carols,” he said. “And I became interested in (Young) because of my interest in ‘Silent Night.’”
“Silent Night” started out as a poem called “Still Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” written in 1816 by Father Joseph Mohr while he was a Catholic priest at a church in Mariapfarr, Austria, said Egan. In 1818 Mohr was assigned to St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria and Franz Xaver Gruber was a schoolmaster in the nearby town of Arnsdorf. Gruber also was the organist and choir director at St. Nicholas Church, where Mohr was a priest.
It wasn’t until 1818 that music was added to the poem that Mohr wrote. On Dec. 24, 1818 Mohr asked Gruber if he would compose music and a guitar accompaniment for his poem. The two men worked together and the new Christmas carol was performed for the first time at Christmas Mass.
Egan started looking into the man who translated “Silent Night” and he discovered that Young was a prominent figure in Jacksonville during the 1800s.
Egan has done so much research on “Silent Night” that the Austrian government paid for him to travel to Austria to research the carol. He found out that Austrians hold a candlelight vigil at the gravesites of Gruber and Mohr on both Christmas Eve and their birthdays. There is even a Silent Night Society in Austria, he said.
After all of his research on the carol, Egan said he found out that Young was buried in the Old City Cemetery Downtown at Union and Washington streets. He and his friend John Fleming of Jacksonville went to the cemetery and spotted his grave stone, as well as Young’s wife’s grave stone. They found that the grave stones were both in bad shape.
“After the way the two men in Austria are honored, it was really sad to see the grave sites that way,” said Egan.
Young was born in 1820 in Pittston, Maine. He was ordained as a deacon on April 20, 1845. On May 23, 1845 he moved to Jacksonville for his first assignment at St. John’s Church. In 1846 he went to Tallahassee where he became a priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church, said Egan. He traveled throughout the United States to different churches before he became an assistant minister at Trinity Church in New York City in June 1855. It was while he was in New York City that he translated “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” Egan said no one has confirmed the exact year the carol was translated.
“The translation came before he came back to Florida,” said Egan. “It was just something that he did as a hobby.”
He was the Bishop of Florida until he died while on a trip to New York City on Nov. 15, 1885 and he was buried at the Old City Cemetery on Nov. 18, 1885.
Egan said what really makes “Silent Night” a true Christmas carol is that it was first performed on Christmas Eve.
“The words to ‘Silent Night’ are appropriate in every climate where you have Christmas,” he said. “So many people will go to church this Christmas and sing the song that was written by someone who is their neighbor.”