United States

Diocese of St. Augustine: the origin of the faith in the U.S.

In this article of the "Frontier Dioceses" series, we take a look at St. Augustine, cradle of faith in the United States.

Gonzalo Meza-January 27, 2024-Reading time: 7 minutes
St. Augustine Florida

Interior of the Cathedral Basilica of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida (Flickr / Matthew Paulson)

The city of St. Augustine was founded in 1565. It is the oldest European and African-American settlement in the United States. It was from that city that the faith spread two centuries before St. Junipero Serra built the missions on the West Coast (1769), four decades before the English colonized Jamestown (1607) and 55 years before the first "Pilgrims" landed at Plymouth Rock (1620). The Diocese of "St. Augustine". (St. Augustine) is located in the northeastern part of the state of Florida. It encompasses 17 counties that stretch from the northeast section of Florida on the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, covering more than 11,000 square miles and encompassing several major cities, the largest of which are Jacksonville, Gainesville and St. Augustine.

History of the city of San Agustín

The European discovery of Florida is attributed to Juan Ponce de Leon, first governor, who would arrive to those lands in 1513 during Easter time, that is why he baptized the peninsula as "Pascua Florida". Ponce de Leon claimed the territory for the Spanish crown. He would return in 1521 but this time bringing priests and missionaries, many of whom would die during the expedition at the hands of the local tribes. Since its discovery and over the course of fifty years Spain sent at least six expeditions to colonize Florida, but they were unsuccessful. It was not until 1564 when a group of Frenchmen managed to settle in what is today the city of Jacksonville. This new settlement posed a threat to the Spanish fleets that sailed along the east coast of Florida.

In response, King Philip II commissioned Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to eliminate the French threat in the area and take control of the city of St. Augustine. This had two primary purposes: to serve as a military post or "presidio" to defend Florida and to be a missionary settlement in the southeast. Maintaining a permanent military colony implied risks, including attacks by English privateers and clashes between the Spanish and British at a time when the English colonies north of Florida (in the states of Georgia and the Carolinas) were slave states that looked askance at the freedom that the Spanish crown gave to those who came to their territories.

The first Mass in the United States

Admiral Pedro Menendez sailed from Spain in June 1565 bringing with him hundreds of travelers and several diocesan priests. They reached the peninsula, making landfall on September 8, 1565. The priest Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales presided the Holy Mass in the place and they called that site "San Agustin" in honor of the saint that was celebrated the day they had the first sighting.

On September 8, the first Mass was held in the North American territory (today a monumental cross is erected in that place to commemorate the event). A few years later the "Mission Nombre de Dios" was established and in 1620 the chapel called "Nuestra Señora de la Leche y el Buen Parto" was built on that site, being the first Marian enclosure in the United States. 

In its beginnings, as an ecclesiastical jurisdiction, St. Augustine depended, along with the entire territory of Florida, on the diocese of Santiago de Cuba (erected in 1518). In 1573 the Franciscans arrived in St. Augustine to establish missions not only in Florida but also to the north, in what is today the state of Georgia. The city of St. Augustine was from its beginnings the center of departure for missionary work in the north and south of the peninsula. In almost one hundred years they built 38 missions in the territory.

The missionaries worked with the native peoples evangelizing and imparting the sacraments, but they were not always well received. Many died at the hands of the local people, as is the case of the Franciscans Pedro de Corpa, Blas Rodríguez, Miguel de Añón, Antonio de Badajoz and Francisco de Beráscola, who were killed by members of the Guale tribe between September 14 and 17, 1597. The process of beatification of Pedro de Corpa and companions, called the martyrs of Georgia, is currently underway in Rome.

The city of St. Augustine in the 18th century

The first churches that were built in the city of St. Augustine did not last for many reasons including: the materials used, lack of maintenance, weather conditions and mainly the constant attacks by different groups over two centuries including privateers (Francis Drake, burned the city in 1585), English settlers, for example the governor of Carolina James Moore who destroyed the missions killing three Franciscans in 1704, or General James Oglethorpe who attacked the city in 1740. These attacks on Florida by the English colonies of Georgia and the Carolinas were due to the fact that in the Spanish territory fugitive slaves obtained their freedom upon arrival. In fact, in 1738 the first community of former slaves was established, two miles from St. Augustine, in an enclave called "Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose".

After the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which ended the "Seven Years' War" or the "French and Indian War" (as it is known in North America) between France and the United Kingdom, the British took control of the Spanish colonies, causing the departure of thousands of Catholics. Franciscans and secular priests left the peninsula. By 1764 there were only eight Catholics left in the new British colony.

Four years later, workers arrived from Menorca, Italy and Greece to work on an indigo plantation in the city of New Smyrna. They were accompanied by Father Pedro Camps, a native of Mercadal, Menorca. Their presence lasted only 9 years as they could not stand the oppressive conditions of the plantation, so they moved to St. Augustine, where the governor offered them asylum. Father Camps was also allowed to create a makeshift chapel in the city and thus resume worship after 13 years of absence. At the end of the American Revolution in 1783, the United Kingdom returned Florida to Spain, initiating the second period of Spanish rule (1784-1821).

In 1784 two Irish priests, Michael O'Reilly and Thomas Hassett, arrived in St. Augustine, the latter opening the first school for black slaves. In 1793 Pope Pius VI authorized the creation of the "Diocese of Louisiana and the Floridas", with jurisdiction over the entire peninsula. This gave a new impulse to the Church and in that same year the construction of a new temple began in the area where the first church of St. Augustine had been erected, this enclosure would become the cathedral in 1870.

Although Spain fought to keep its colonies in America, various reasons, including the Napoleonic wars, prevented it from doing so. In 1819, by means of the Adams-Onís Treaty, Spain surrendered the Spanish colonies to the newly created nation: the United States of America. In 1825 the Apostolic Vicariate of Alabama and the Floridas (now the Diocese of Mobile, Alabama) was created with Bishop Michael Portier as the first ordinary.

Florida became the 27th state of the American Union in 1845. Pope Pius IX, in 1857, appointed Augustine Verot, bishop of Savannah, Georgia (north of Florida) as Vicar Apostolic of Florida. Soon after, the "Sisters of Mercy" arrived to open the first Catholic convent in Florida for white girls. They were also allowed to give religious instruction to slaves. The nuns had to be evacuated during the American Civil War (1861-1865). At the end of the war, the "Sisters of St. Joseph" arrived from France to provide education to the freed slaves. 

The Diocese of St. Augustine is initiated

In 1870 the Diocese of St. Augustine was created, being Augustine Verot the first bishop. He was succeeded by John Moore in 1877. In the year of its foundation, the diocese had only three priests, three parishes, seven missions, some religious and 1,328 Catholics. It was a period in which the city had a period of economic and social renaissance. The magnate Henry Flagler, former partner of John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company, wanted to turn the city of St. Augustine into a winter tourist center, especially for those who lived in the northeastern United States. In this way, he extended the railroad of the place connecting it with other more populated cities of the east. In 1887, he began the construction of hotels and infrastructure for the tourist industry. In that same year, a great fire destroyed the cathedral, which was reopened a year later with the support of Henry Flagler. 

In the 20th century, during World War I, Michael J. Curley was appointed the fourth bishop of St. Augustine. The prelate faced a period of anti-Catholic sentiment, marked by several incidents, including the arrest of three St. Joseph's nuns accused of violating a law prohibiting the teaching of black children.

In 1922 Bishop Patrick J. Barry was appointed bishop. During his tenure he lived through the years of the economic depression in the USA. In spite of this, 28 churches and 10 schools were built and the number of priests increased from 29 to 72. In 1940 Pius XII appointed Joseph P. Hurley as the new bishop. During his administration, land was acquired, especially in the 1950s, for the construction of churches and schools. Joseph P. Hurley participated in some sessions of the Second Vatican Council. 

During the era of the civil rights struggle, the city of St. Augustine played an important role with the arrival of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964. The leader intended the city to become a place to bring about national change in favor of civil rights for the African American community, which, as in other parts of the southern United States, suffered from racial discrimination and segregation still written into the laws. The presence of Dr. Martin Luther King increased racial tensions in the city, especially because in 1964 the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine were being prepared. 

In 1979 John J. Snyder was appointed bishop of the diocese, which in that year had 63,000 Catholics. During his administration there was a period of expansion with the creation of 8 parishes, seven schools, retreat houses and the Marywood Catholic Spirituality and Retreat Center. He was succeeded by Bishops Víctor Galeone (2001-20119) and Felipe J. Estévez (2011-2022), born in Havana, Cuba. In May 2022, Pope Francis appointed Bishop Erik T. Pohlmeier as the eleventh bishop of St. Augustine. His episcopal ordination and installation took place on July 22, 2022. 

The Diocese of St. Augustine today

The Florida peninsula has seven ecclesiastical jurisdictions: Pensacola-Tallahassee, Orlando, St. Petersburg, Venice, Palm Beach, Miami and St. Augustine. The Diocese of St. Augustine has more than 176,000 Catholics out of a total population of 2.4 million. There are 140 priests, 94 permanent deacons and 98 religious sisters, some of whom minister in 54 parishes and 14 missions and chapels. The jurisdiction has 24 parochial elementary schools and 5 high schools where more than 10,000 students study.

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