In a diary, Father Lopez recorded the September 8, 1565 landing of Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, Captain General of the Indies Fleet and Adelantado of Florida at the village of Seloy, the archaeological remains of which can be viewed at the Fountain of Youth at present day St. Augustine:
On Saturday the 8th, the General landed with many banners spread, to the sounds of trumpets and the salutes of artillery. As I had gone ashore the evening before, I took a Cross and went to meet him, singing the hymn, Te Deum Laudamus (Latin for We Praise You God). The General, followed by all who accompanied him, marched up to the cross, knelt, and kissed it. A large number of Indians watched these proceedings and imitated all that they saw done.
Enter America’s Oldest City from the east over the Bridge of Lions at night and the stunning moonlit view of the belltower of the Cathedral Basilica in the foreground of Flagler’s spires is a view that has many a first-timer gasping and reaching for their cameras. Throughout the holidays, the perfect lighting on the historic façade and tower intermingling with the over a million twinkling lights of the city add another spectacular dimension to St. Augustine’s world-famous Nights of Lights, which was listed last year as National Geographic Magazine’s top ten holiday displays worldwide.
And while they choose not to take the focus off the birth of the Savior - the month of December for the Basilica has many milestone moments over the course of 450 years of history they could celebrate, including the December 8, 1797 dedication of the building on Cathedral Street that has become an famous landmark in a city already noted for its historic architecture. It’s designation as a basilica by Pope John Paul II became official on December 4, 1976.
Not to be taken lightly, the designation came after a long petition process and a review of the structure’s historic and spiritual significance.
“As a minor basilica, we became an official extension of the Pope’s ministry and to make sure his teachings are made public,” said Rector Tom Willis, who also points out that the Basilica is one of only 100 pre-18th century buildings still standing and in use in North America, and is among only 27 Basilicas thus named on the continent.
Father Willis – also known as “Father Tom” to his congregation, has a familiar face to the community, taking a leading role as a representative of the Basilica in many of the annual events that celebrate the city and the parish’s unique history. A proud native of St. Augustine, he said he was thrilled with the decision in 2008 to place him back in his home parish at the approach of the city’s 450th birthday commemorations.
“I know the history and the background of people in the congregation, so it helps with my pastor responsibilities, but it’s also a wonderful thing to be back home and part of so many exciting things that are happening to celebrate the birthday of America’s oldest city. Some of our visitors don’t always realize it, but the landing by Pedro Menendez near the big cross and Mission de Nombre on September 8, 1565 is also the founding of the very first Christian Parish in the United States. We know there were four priests with Menendez – of which Father Francisco López (de Mendoza Grajales) is the only one whose name is recorded. On the day of the landing, they celebrated the very first Christian Mass on these shores.”
As Fr. Tom also pointed out, Fr. López being the Chaplain of the expedition to beat the French and English in the race to establish a viable settlement on the continent also meant his humble predecessor became the first Christian pastor of the oldest congregation. In fact, his very first recorded plea on behalf of his small flock may have actually occurred early in the voyage, when a tempest became so frightful near the Canary Islands that the captain of Lopez’s vessel ordered all objects of weight thrown overboard – including the chests containing the only worldly belongings of the soldiers and new settlers.
An historic account of the voyage – in part documented by Lopez himself - records how the soldiers were so grieved at the loss of their belongings they begged Fr. López to intercede on their behalf to the point where the priest fell to his knees before the captain and implored him to spare the chests. “I reminded him that we ought to trust to the great mercy of Our Lord,” Father López wrote, “and, like a true Christian, he showed confidence in God and rescinded the order.”
Though the storm continued unabated, Father López’s ship remained just barely afloat.
“During that whole night,” Father López wrote, “I heard confessions, preached to the crew and exhorted them to maintain their faith in God.” Finally, after three days and nights of peril, “Our Lord deigned to have compassion and mercy on us, and calmed the fury of the winds and waves.”
On Monday, August 27, Father López’s battered ship with four others approached the Florida shoreline. When darkness fell, Father López wrote: “God showed to us a miracle from heaven. About nine o’clock in the evening, a comet appeared, which showed itself directly above us, a little eastward, giving so much light that it might be taken for the sun, and its brightness lasted long enough to repeat two Credos [the Apostles’ Creed].”
As a hometown boy familiar with the history, Fr. Tom said he is humbled many times to think of the legacy that has now been handed down to him.
“The Basilica is a source of pride for us, but the church is more than just a building. The early years for the parishioners and the soldiers were many times full of hardship and danger. Throughout the years of history, the church was a source of solace and the center of the community, and this has remained our goal.”
While construction of the present Basilica began in the 1780s during the second Spanish period, there are actually several sites in the downtown that archaeology has pinpointed as early locations of first, wood and dab-and-waddle structures with thatched roofs. A location at the head of Aviles – America’s oldest street and located across the plaza from the Basilica - is one of the first erected as a place of worship. However, that church suffered looting and burning by the marauders of Sir Francis Drake in 1586. Burial grounds remain beneath a portion of the street and the A1A Aleworks building, with an interpretive plaque and bronze markers on the sidewalk unveiled just this spring by the St. Augustine Archaeological Association to pinpoint the location of post holes discovered there from the church burned by Drake.
Article and slideshow: Art Association building site of 16th century home burned by Sir Francis Drake
Another very early burial ground indicative of a primitive church lies at the corner of Charlotte Street and Artillery Lane (south of the plaza) – with more human remains discovered at the site by City Archaeologist Carl Halbirt.
Halbirt feels the graves predate the Aviles burials, and speculates that evidence of an even earlier church structure that could be the settlement’s first may lie beneath the clay parking lot located there.
After Drake’s Raid and another 1668 pillaging of the town and the church by the English Pirate Robert Searle, historic writings from the time show the St. Augustine parishioners to have felt heartsick and disillusioned over the repeated destruction of their church, and thus decided to rebuild their house of worship from the same coquina stone as the Castillo fort.
They also chose a new location further back from the bay on South St. George Street. The property remains in the hands of the Sisters of St. Joseph, who own and operate the magnificent late 1800s gothic revival building known as the Villa Flora. Archaeological digs on the site in the 1970s led to the discovery not only the remains of the first coquina church and burial grounds – but also the very first European-style hospital in North America, which was run by the parish.
The early burials on the site contain a mix of over 500 Spanish, Indian and black residents, with remains wrapped in simple shrouds and hands folded in prayerful positions as was customary of consecrated Catholic burials of the time period. The archaeology also confirms that many were elderly, and some infirmed long before death, but also seemingly well cared for.
In fact, a reference to the treatment of slaves and their care was contained in a letter to the Spanish King from local Governor Pedro de Ibarra: “Your Majesty has 32 slaves in this city, of which 20 are able-bodies, seven are old and five are women. I see to it that they are well treated…. And when they become ill they are taken to the hospital where they are cured and cared for as the best soldier is…”
“Times were harsh and people think that human life was not valued among the early Spanish, but early documents show there was a concern for any of the parish, regardless of slave or free, race or social status,” Dr. Michael Gannon stated after a dedication and placement of a plaque to commemorate the site earlier this year.
In contrast, 18th century English burials located on the west side of the property showed wooden and even more elaborate coffins, with all bedecked in their Sunday-best finery.
The Villa Flora remains is currently used by the Sisters of St. Joseph as a spiritual and prayer center.
Sister Marilyn Dingham also commented after the dedication, “I have chill bumps from this. I find it so inspiring that our new Spirituality Center is the site of the Hermitage and the very first hospital. Compassion and the love of God were shown here to so many. In a way, it’s almost like God planned this and He wants this property to continue on with the Church for His use.”
Among church endeavors also playing a pivotal role in history, Fr. Willis pointed out that the Sisters of St. Joseph first came to St. Augustine in 1866 immediately following the Civil War, and opened the School of St. Benedict the Moor as a mission to aid former slaves and educate the children. The Irish Sisters of Mercy also ran an early 1900s orphanage in Lincolnville.
Over 800 strong, the Sisters continue to quietly operate many philanthropic and community centers from their headquarters on Aviles Street, as well as the Father O’Riley House Museum – which Halbirt says is most likely the oldest fully intact structure in St. Augustine beside the Castillo fort.
In addition, the site of the landing known as the Mission de Nombre Dios and memorial gardens are still owned and maintained by the church, with a museum on the site that currently features the actually coffin headboard and other artifacts from the burial of founder Pedro Menendez.
The Basilica itself, with its Gothic-European and neo-classical flavored interior, hints with medieval-style wooden beams and its traditional mission façade of its Spanish colonial roots and contains many priceless works of art that include stained glass depicting the Stations of the Cross, over 10,000 laboriously handcrafted Cuban tiles, frescoes that replicate those found in the Vatican Chapel, and ceiling medallions that feature Coats of Arms of former St. Augustine Diocese bishops.
Fr. Willis says that of particular note are the oil-painted wooden panels depicting the early church history in St. Augustine and the New World by artist Hugo Ohms that actually tell the story of America’s First Parish. These include depictions of the landing and the early church’s missionary work with the local Indians. The altar itself is not to be outdone by any medieval cathedral in Europe with its gold statuary featuring high relief depictions of the Risen Christ as king, and flanked by gloriously detailed statues of saints Peter and Augustine.
Among new treasures to be added in honor of the Florida 500th and St. Augustine 450th commemorations, a baptismal font that is a replica of the one in which Ponce de Leon himself was baptized. This was recently given as a gift to the church and city by officials from the explorer’s hometown of Santervas de Campos (formerly in the province of Leon).
Constructed by a stone artisan to be funded by Santervas, the font will be constructed by ancient craftsman’s methods. It will also not be just a showpiece, Fr. Willis said, but will be used at the Basilica for actual baptisms, and will contain waters from an exchange between Santervas, which is also a pilgrim stop on the Way of St. James. The font will arrive in St. Augustine in April, after being blessed in Santervas in a special ceremony by the Bishop of Leon. The exchange also includes transport of waters from the Fountain of Youth for use in the Santervas church font.
Another exciting announcement by Fr. Willis is news of the restoration currently ongoing for the Cathedral Basilica’s ancient bell, which could also be in place by April. The ringing on the hour over the downtown from the oldest tower bell in the United States will bring an even deeper symbolism and significance to one of the city’s most recognized and sacred landmarks.
“I want to hear it ring again and think of how many times it sounded over all those years for worship, in celebration – or even as a warning of danger. So when you are downtown and you hear the bell toll, you can think of all those who went before you, and also, of the significance of the message and of the place. The story of St. Augustine is about human beings, and it’s a story still being told. The church and its people are part of the fabric,” Fr. Tom added.