Cathedral Architecture


Centuries of History


The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, home to America’s First Parish, is a house of worship laden with centuries of history. When services are not taking place, the church is open to the public.

The cathedral is the spiritual center from which the bishop teaches, governs, and sanctifies his flock. The term cathedral comes from cathedra, the Latin word for chair, the official seat where he presides as the chief shepherd of a diocese. The Diocese of St. Augustine covers Northeast Florida and serves nearly 180,000 Catholics. In the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, the bishop’s chair is on a raised dais under a small canopy in the sanctuary. It was updated in the 2015 renovation. Above the bishop’s chair is the personal coat of arms of the bishop.


Early History


The Spanish Crown built the church in 1793-97 after it was deemed by the local pastors that the parish needed a new church. It opened for the first time on December 8, 1797, as St. Augustine Catholic Church.

Today the Cathedral Basilica is a commanding presence on the north side of the city’s Plaza de la Constitución. The city and its church are named for Saint Augustine, the fourth-century Bishop of Hippo, on whose feast day – Augustine 28, 1565 – land was first sighted by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Spain’s Captain General of the fleet of the Indies and the city’s founder.

The Cathedral Basilica’s 18th century Spanish architecture creates an imposing entry, communicating the importance of this place. Impressive, too, is the 19th century six-story bell tower, added after a devastating city fire in 1887 gutted the church.

Renovations to the sanctuary in 1965 reflected the liturgical developments of the Second Vatican Council. The altar table of Carrara marble, sculpted in classical style by Massey Rhind of New York for James Renwick’s 1887 design, was separated from the marble reredos to allow the priest to face the congregation. A slab of pink marble filled in the space. (Renwick was the architect of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and was staying in St. Augustine and offered his services to restore the Cathedral Basilica.)


The Cathedral Today


The interior of the 2015 renovated Cathedral reflects its Spanish origins. The ceiling is open-timbered and lofty in appearance. Each richly decorated cross-beam bears at its center a coat of arms of one of St. Augustine’s former bishops. The ceiling is deep red. Over the sanctuary, eight worshipping angels are painted between the beams.

Elaborate gold and white woodwork and gold-leafed lindenwood statues added ornamentation to the new reredos. In the center is a high-relief depiction of the Risen Christ as King, flanked by statures of St. Peter, on the right, and St. Augustine, on the left. All three statues were carved in Moroder Studio, Ortisei, Italy.


A carved wooden ambo, where scripture is proclaimed, stands on the sanctuary’s left side. Opposite the ambo is a wooden cantor’s stand.

The loft behind the reredos now holds the pipes for the organ. The pipe organ is Casavant Opus 3821. It has fifty-six ranks and 3,089 pipes. In a two-year process, it was custom-built for the space by Casavant Frères, L.P. of Quebec.

Artist Hugo Ohlms created the murals on wood panels that grace the Cathedral Basilica. The Church in early Florida is depicted on the west sanctuary walls and includes the arrival of missionaries with the conquistadors. The missionaries acted as the catechists for the Native Americans. But as another scene depicts, the missionaries were also martyred for their faith by Native Americans. Yet another mural shows a priest as he anoints a Christian woman. The parish in prayer is another theme which is set against a background that includes the Cathedral and the fishing fleet, one of the city’s early industries.

On the sanctuary's east wall, the history of the Catholic Church is depicted. St Augustine (writing The City of God) and St. Thomas Aquinas (teaching at the University of Paris) affected the spiritual and intellectual climate. Church reforms of the Council of Trent, which ended in 1565, are illustrated by mother and child and Sts. Francis de Sales and Charles Borromeo. Pope Pius V, who was keenly interested in the discovery of new lands and conversion of native peoples, sends a message to city founder Pedro Menéndez. European cathedrals are another motif.

Murals over the main entrance depict the city’s history: five early Spanish explorers of Florida; the first Mass being offered by Father López, with Menéndez kissing the cross; construction of the city; arrival of the Minorcans; construction of the church; and Augustin Verot, the first bishop.

The Stations of the Cross are fourteen oil paintings which begin in the west transept and continue to the left around the Cathedral, depict the passion and death of Our Lord. The Roman paintings by Oberbeck are copies of those in the Pauline Chapel at the Vatican.

The stained glass windows also beginning in the west transept tell the story of the life of St. Augustine of Hippo. These windows were created by Mayer & Co. of Munich, Germany and were installed in 1909.

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel, added in the renovation of 1965, is devoted to the Sacrament of the Eucharist. In the tabernacles – centered on the altar in this chapel – contains what Catholics believe to be the “real presence” of Christ’s Body and Blood.

The Smalto mosaics, depicting the Last Supper and saints directly related to the Eucharist, are made of thousands of small bits of colored glass. It is the work of Gregorini Studio of Venice, Italy. The sacrifice of the Eucharist is the theme of the stained glass windows executed by the Rambusch Studios of New York.

The silver lamp that hangs at the entrance of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel is said to have been a gift to the parish from a Spanish sea captain caught in a storm, who pledged a gift to the church in whatever port he found safety. It is one of the few artifacts to survive the 1887 fire.

The Blessed Virgin Mary Chapel, located in the east transept, displays several symbols associated with the Blessed Mother in the "Litany of Loretto." The ceiling of this transept depicts her Assumption into Heaven and her Coronation as Queen of Heaven

The renovations of 2015 brought back the choir loft. On front of the choir loft is an image of Our Lady of La Leche by the DeMetz Art Studios in Ortisei, Italy. Our Lady has been honored under this title in St. Augustine since the early 17th Century when the Spanish settlers brought the devotion to the city.

The Shrine of St. Patrick, patron of Ireland, is dedicated to the many Irish priests, brothers, and nuns who have served for over 400 years in this diocese. The green tile and marble represent Ireland; each tile depicts an event in St. Patrick’s life.

St. Joseph is the patron saint of the Universal Church, of works and of the Sisters of St. Joseph whose motherhouse is in St. Augustine. The statue of St. Joseph which was carved at Moroder Studios and the tiles fashioned by Lee Burnham Studios in Hawthorne, FL, depict the life of the foster father of Jesus.

The baptismal font at the entrance of the Cathedral Basilica is a replica of the baptismal font in which Juan Ponce de León was baptized in 1474, in his native Santervás de Campos in northern Spain. This was a gift to the parish. Alcalde Santigao Baeza Benavides, mayor of the tiny village of 60 permanent residents made the announcement in the Cathedral Basilica on October 2012. The Rev. Thomas S. Willis, Cathedral Basilica rector and pastor of Cathedral Parish, accepted the donation as a strengthening of friendship between the two cities and their countries. Spanish master artisan Miguel Angel created the replica font from stone.