Its residents promote St. Augustine, Fla., as America’s “oldest continuously occupied settlement.” After a weeklong January visit with my wife, Marilyn, to this quaint Atlantic Coast city of 13,000, I’m convinced an equally appropriate monicker would be “cradle of American Catholicism.”
The founding of the city and of the first Catholic parish in the continental United States are considered to have occurred simultaneously, 448 years ago this summer. The parish still exists, now anchored by the Spanish mission-style Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. In 1968, the late Paul Francis Tanner, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, was installed as the seventh bishop of the St. Augustine Diocese amid this cathedral’s marble, stained glass, and oil paintings replicating Vatican art.
During our stay, we listened to an organ concert, presented in connection with one of the monthly St. Augustine Friday art walks, in the cathedral and attended Mass on the Feast of the Epiphany.
The church was still decked out for Christmas. Outside, in the historical district where the cathedral has stood since 1797, more than 2 million Christmas lights attached to buildings and palm trees remained as well. Annually, the standard-sized white bulbs are illuminated from before Thanksgiving through January, creating a breathtaking atmosphere that has earned widespread acclaim.
Several blocks south of the cathedral is the nation’s original Marian shrine. Over the years, the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche (The Milk) has been visited by women who have prayed to its patroness for the blessings of motherhood and a healthy delivery. The shrine is just one feature of the Mission Nombre de Dios (Name of God) complex that includes the larger Prince of Peace Church, where First Friday adoration was in progress the morning of our visit; outdoor statuary, mini-shrines and a cemetery; a gazebo and a religious gift shop; and the newly constructed mission museum, which exhibits art, artifacts from recent excavations on the premises and the almost 500-year-old casket of city founder Pedro Menendez de Aviles.
On Sept. 8, 1565, the founding father, a Spanish naval officer and explorer who would become governor of Cuba, landed in Matanzas Bay, near the place where the museum stands. Menendez and his shipmates had spotted land a few days earlier, on the feast day of St. Augustine of Hippo, and had named the land accordingly.
The party included Fr. Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, a fleet chaplain from Spain who would soon preside at the first Mass in the New World, depicted by a diorama in the Mission Museum. Cathedral parish history is traced to Fr. Lopez’s Mass, and a “Great Cross,” standing 208 feet high and visible for miles, marks the approximate site of that Eucharist.
To the north, Aviles Street memorializes St. Augustine’s founder … and 32 Aviles St. is the address of another “Church-related museum,” the Fr. Miguel O’Reilly House. Its curator, Sister of St. Joseph Thomas Joseph McGoldrick, archivist emeritus for the Diocese of St. Augustine, told us the house – at approximately 400 years – is the oldest in what is left of the original city.
Don Lorenzo de Leon, perhaps a descendant of Fountain of Youth seeker and Florida discoverer Juan Ponce de Leon, was its owner before Fr. O’Reilly, the local parish priest, acquired the home in 1785. The erstwhile rectory was a Sisters of St. Joseph convent and school after the order came to town, in the aftermath of the Civil War, to teach freed slaves. The sisters gave classes in the frequently renovated structure as late as the 1950s.
Among the O’Reilly museum’s most remarkable artifacts are shoes that belonged to Pope St. Pius X and a catechism from the Council of Trent. The museum’s grounds boast what is billed as “St. Augustine’s only authentic historic garden,” with fruit, vegetable and herb sections. What appears to have once been a baptismal font is situated among banana trees, chamomile, hyssop and flowering plants.
Enhancing St. Augustine’s religious heritage are two 19th century Protestant churches. Trinity Episcopal, up the street from St. Augustine Cathedral and across a plaza considered to be the oldest public meeting place in the U.S., is remarkable for the stained glass of Louis Tiffany.
Farther away is Memorial Presbyterian, modeled on the pre-papacy cathedral of Blessed John XXIII, St. Mark in Venice. Memorial was built in a single year by Florida developer and philanthropist, Henry Flagler, as a legacy to his daughter who died in childbirth and is entombed within. This stunning church’s dome, 100 feet above ground, reminded us of Milwaukee’s St. Josaphat Basilica whose interior is more richly appointed.
A must-see secular site is the nation’s oldest masonry fortress, Castillo de San Marcos, operated by the National Park Service. Rangers hold forth on historical topics at the Castillo, while costumed volunteers demonstrate arcane soldiering skills like cannon firing. Worth visiting as well is Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth National Archeological Park, named for its foremost attraction. Neighbor to the Mission Nombre de Dios, the park was once home to Timucuan Indians and Menendez settlers. Currently, replicas of Timucuan structures and interpreters in costume create a sort of Old World Wisconsin atmosphere.
Marilyn and I had no car in St. Augustine; we didn’t need one. The place is wonderfully walkable, with most of the top sites and many restaurants and lodgings condensed within a mile or two. Outlying attractions such as the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and St. Augustine Beach can be easily and inexpensively reached by trolley. Trolley passes entitle riders to travel the city proper as well, the drivers doubling as tour guides.
A charming alternative to trolley transportation is the horse-drawn carriage, a mode that seems uncannily appropriate in a town already holding events to mark its 450th birthday.