St. Augustine came before them all.
Jamestown, Virginia, founded on May 14, 1607, was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. The settlers were members of the Anglican faith, the official Church of England. Thirteen years later, 102 settlers aboard the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts at a place they named Plymouth. Referred to in American history as the “Pilgrims,” the Mayflower settlers were dissenters from the Church of England who came for religious freedom and established the Puritan or Congregational Church. With these two colonies, English settlement in North America began.
The only problem is that the English were late to the party.
The lands were, of course, already inhabited by the tribes that had come centuries before. But in addition to that, when the first Englishman stepped foot in the new world to settle it, the City of St. Augustine had already existed for 42 years.
In 1565 King Phillip II of Spain named Admiral Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles the Governor of Florida, and instructed him to colonize the territories north of Spain’s Caribbean holdings. Menendez arrived off the coast of Florida on August 28, 1565, the Feast Day of St. Augustine. Eleven days later, his 600 soldiers and settlers came ashore and began fortifying the fledgling village, naming it St. Augustine.
Preceding Menendez to Florida was the explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, who did not intend to colonize, but rather was looking for land and gold. Setting sail from Puerto Rico, on April 2, 1513 he sighted land which he believed was another island. He named it La Florida in recognition of the verdant landscape and because it was the Easter season, which the Spaniards referred to as Pascua Florida—the Festival of Flowers. He landed somewhere from south of St. Augustine to as far north as the mouth of the St. John’s River. Then he left, skirted the edges of Florida, and returned to the Carribean with his news. The stories that Ponce de Leon was seeking the long-sought Fountain of Youth would only arise after his death
It was Pedro Menendez job to colonize this Florida that Ponce de Leon had found and explored around the coastline. Menendez was to fortify it and secure it. He landed in 1565 then set to work building a town, establishing missions to the Indians for the Church, and exploring the land. In doing so he made St. Augustine the oldest permanent European settlement on the North American continent, and with that it goes without saying that the first European language used in what are now the United States was Spanish, and the first religious ceremonies were Catholic.
Menendez’ chaplain was a diocesan priest named Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales. Father Lopez kept a journal of the trip, which can be found here. He celebrated the first Mass in what would later become the United States on Sept. 8, 1565.
Father Lopez was a priest from a diocese in Spain, but he began the mission which became the Mission of Nombre de Dios, the Name of God. Missionary efforts followed quickly, and Jesuits then Franciscans would come. The parish over the following centuries would be under a variety of Church authorities until in March of 1870, when Pope Pius IX established the Diocese of St. Augustine. An excellent writeup on this history can be found at the Diocese of St. Augustine site here.
Visiting the site, two things are striking. First, this is hallowed ground. As much as modernity wants to look back at this colonizing era with cynicism and scorn, Father Lopez and others like him demonstrated tremendous bravery in an effort to bring the Name of God to the New World. Human history can be difficult, but it is undeniable that faith pervades many of the places here. Second, there seem to be no original structures. Fighting, burning, and time have left some foundations, but many things have been rebuilt or recreated from that era in the last century or two. This is another sign of the difficulties the people faced, another testament that history is always difficult to fully embrace, but also it is an affirmation of the fact that we can simply feel that we are in a place with a history of faith, without having to lay our hands on the original structures. And that is true of this place in many respects.
To visit today is to see a mix of the old and the new. St. George Street, blocked off for blocks as a pedestrian walkway, has all manner of food and items for tourists. At the end of it is the magnificent Cathedral Basicila of St. Augustine. Standing on San Marco Street facing the Cathedral with Matanzas Bay behind you places the Old Town to your left and the Shrine and Mission a ways down San Marco to your right. The Old Town has many of the older buildings, the former Franciscan structures, the oldest houses, smaller museums and much more to see. And it is all worth seeing.
When you head north from that point, though, you pass the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. Construction began in 1672, 107 years after the city’s founding, and self-guided tours are a popular attraction. Beyond it a ways you come to the Mission of Nombre de Dios — Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche.
First you will see the Church, and then the museum. The Church has adoration times and the museum has a number of exhibits, including the coffin of Menendez himself. Both are well worth seeing. Also near the street side of the grounds is the Shrine Shop with souvenirs and candles that can be left at the Shine.
Toward the bay from the shop, you find the Shrine. Sometime before 1620, the colony established on the grounds near where Father Mendoza Grajales had offered Mass, the first sanctuary in the United States. They built a chapel and dedicated it to Nuestra Senora de La Leche y Buen Parto, literally the Shrine of Our Nursing Mother of Happy Delivery. The original was destroyed, perhaps more than once, in battle. The present chapel was begun in 1915 and the statue is a replica of the original. The Shrine has been a place of devotion for thousands of mothers and mothers-to-be over the years.
Around the Shrine are other sites, including a replica of the wooden altar the first Mass was celebrated on, a stone well revealing the springs in the area, and a statue of St. Francis looking over the Shrine.
Continuing on the grounds, one finds a striking statute to Father Lopez, looking skyward. Behind him, marking the approximate landing site of Pedro Menendez and his crew, is the towering, 208-foot cross built to memorialize the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city and the mission, on September 8, 1965.
There is a great deal to see, and much to appreciate in St. Augustine, Florida. Please take a look at the slides above, and add this to your list of places to see some day. There is more to see than we were even able to visit in a long weekend. It is definitely worth a visit–or better yet, a pilgrimage.