History of Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine
We are “America’s First Parish” and continue to serve not only the many families who call the Cathedral Parish their spiritual home, but also the thousands of visitors who come to “America’s Oldest City” for a spiritual pilgrimage or just to visit the beauty of the site.
The city of St. Augustine was founded and established in 1565 by Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. He began his adventure by sailing from the port of Cádiz, Spain. On August 28 of that year his expedition first sighted land along the east coast of Florida (the area that is today Cape Canaveral). It was the feast day of Saint Augustine of Hippo. Menéndez decided to give that saint’s name to his first settlement. He continued sailing north along the coast, eventually coming to the harbor of a native tribe of the Timucuan nation. Some of Menéndez’s party landed on September 6 with Menéndez himself landing on September 8, the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Upon coming ashore, Menéndez was presented a cross to kiss by Father López de Mendoza Grajales as the hymn Te Deum Laudamus was sung. The celebration of a Mass followed immediately, and thus began the story of the establishment of the oldest permanently occupied European settlement in what is now the United States of America, and, at the same time, the beginnings of what would be the Cathedral Parish.
The site where the founding of St. Augustine occurred is now the Mission Nombre de Dios. There the first Mass of the new settlement was celebrated. Menéndez’s expedition carried with it four diocesan priests who ministered to the first settlers. What would become the eventual city of St. Augustine would be started south of that site and the first parish church of which we have record would be built at the southeastern corner of today’s Plaza. Spanish Franciscans came to evangelize the Indians. From St. Augustine two chains of missions developed as far north as St. Catherine’s Island, Georgia, and westward across the interior as far as Tallahassee.
St. Augustine was pillaged and burned to the ground (including the parish church) in 1586 by the English corsair Francis Drake. The
citizens rebuilt their city and church, but it was obvious that they needed greater security.
The construction of Castillo de San Marcos, a stone fortress, began in 1672. Its completion in 1696 allowed the town to survive a siege by Carolina Governor James Moore, who attacked and burned St. Augustine in 1702. Again, the parish church was destroyed. Mass was celebrated thereafter in the chapel of La Soledad Hospital, until 1763, when Florida was ceded to Great Britain as part of the First Treaty of Paris concluding the French and Indian War.
While Catholicism may have seemed dead in Florida from the arrival of the English, since all the Catholic Spaniards departed for Caribbean ports, the arrival of a workforce composed of Minorcans, Italians, and Greeks in 1767 at what is now New Smyrna Beach led to the resurgence of the Catholic faith on the peninsula and, eventually, in the City of St. Augustine. When Andrew Turnbull’s plantation in New Smyrna began to fail in 1777, the laborers, under the leadership of Francisco Pellicer and Father Pedro Camps, sought refuge in St. Augustine. With their arrival, a rebirth of the faith in the city took place. When Britain ceded Florida back to Spain in 1784, Spanish Catholicism returned, as well. In 1786, the Spanish crown ordered the construction of a new parish church for St. Augustine. The property bounded by St. George Street on the west, Treasury St. on the north and the plaza to the south was chosen as the site. The cornerstone was laid in 1793.
In 1857, all of Florida east of the Apalachicola River was established as a Vicariate Apostolic and placed under the leadership of Bishop Agustin Verot. In 1861, Verot was named as Bishop of Savannah while retaining his duties in Florida. On March 11, 1870, the Diocese of St. Augustine was created and Bishop Verot, at his request, was named its first bishop. The parish church was subsequently raised to be the Cathedral for the new diocese. On April 12, 1887, a fire that started in the St. Augustine Hotel eventually spread to the Cathedral. Bishop John Moore, the second Bishop of St. Augustine, made a national appeal for funds to help in its rebuilding. The addition of transepts allowed for the restored church to be enlarged. At the same time, the bell tower was built and made the Cathedral a grand sight to behold.
As the City of St. Augustine approached the 400th anniversary of its founding, Archbishop Joseph P. Hurley (the sixth Bishop of St. Augustine) commissioned the renovation of the Cathedral as one of the Diocese’s contributions to the quadricentennial efforts. (The others included the construction of a 204 foot-high cross – the “Beacon of Faith” – along with the construction of the Prince of Peace Votive Church (now renamed the New Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche) on the grounds of the Mission.) The Cathedral’s renovation allowed for the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council to be addressed. This included the addition of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The renovated Cathedral was dedicated on March 9, 1966 by William Cardinal Conway, Archbishop of Armagh (Ireland). On December 4, 1976, Pope Paul VI raised the Cathedral to the status of minor basilica. It was the 27th American church to be honored as such by the Holy See.
Today the Cathedral Parish continues the over 450-year history of the Catholic faith in St. Augustine, in Florida, and in the United States. The parish also serves St. Benedict the Moor Church, built in 1889 in the city’s historic Lincolnville area to care for the spiritual needs of those who had recently been freed as slaves.