The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine
Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, photos on this page by Jane Landers
Despite the violent origins of Florida, the Catholic Church was always at the center of the colony. Accompanying Pedro Menéndez de Avilés were four secular priests sent to lay the foundations of the Catholic Church in Florida's soil. The first Catholic mass took place on September 8, 1565, alongside the founding of St. Augustine. This was the very beginnings of both the Parish of St. Augustine and the Catholic Church in North America. At this point Florida belonged to the larger Diocese of Santiago de Cuba. By 1578 St. Augustine housed two brotherhoods, a Franciscan convent, and parish church, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. Based upon archaeological evidence the church was probably 50 by 100 feet.
In 1586 the raid of Sir Francis Drake destroyed the first church, but it was soon rebuilt. As St. Augustine continued to grow, so did the Franciscan mission system. Though the first mission, Nombre de Dios, began in 1565 it was not until the 17th century that Franciscan friars made significant progress converting the native populations of Florida. By 1655 there were 70 Franciscan Friars working in a series of missions from St. Augustine west to Tallahassee. Within this "mission chain" the Franciscans counted as many as 26,000 Catholic Native Americans.
In 1702, the parish church was again burnt to the ground, this time by invading British soldiers led by Colonel James Moore. Following the destruction of St. Augustine the British also attacked the Franciscan missions, destroying all but four mission sites. While the missions did not recover, construction of the church began again in 1730 and was completed by 1737 under the guidance of Brother Francisco de San Buenaventura.
Following Florida's return to the Spanish, the Crown ordered the construction of a new parish church for St. Augustine in 1786. The cornerstone for the new Cathedral was laid in 1793, and the church was completed and dedicated in 1797. It is an excellent example of Moorish architecture. Along with the new Cathedral, St. Augustine joined a new Diocese in 1793, the Diocese of Louisiana and the Two Floridas led by Bishop Luis Peñalver y Cárdenas.
In 1870 Florida, all territory east of the Apalachicola River, was designated as the Diocese of St. Augustine. Then, in 1888 the Cathedral Basilica's bell tower was built, making it the grand sight it is today. Beyond the addition of the bell tower, the church remained architecturally intact until major renovations in 1965 that included the building of a Eucharistic Chapel, the hanging of murals showing the Catholic history of Florida, and the construction of a new tabernacle. The renovated Cathedral was dedicated on March 9, 1966 by Cardinal William Conway from Ireland. On December 4, 1976, Pope Paul VI raised the Cathedral to a Minor Basilica, the 27th American church to receive such an honor. The Cathedral Basilica was also named a National Historic Landmark. Today, the Diocese of St. Augustine spans 17 counties throughout northeast and north central Florida, covers 11,032 miles, and serves over 171,000 Catholics.