Every Sunday, parishioners belonging to the oldest Catholic parish in the United States, file into the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, where mass has been celebrated for nearly 450 years.
Its congregation, established in 1565, is the oldest Christian congregation in the United States as well as the oldest church structure in Florida. Often referred to as ‘America’s first parish’ it attracts thousands of visitors who come to ‘America’s oldest city’ to visit the beautiful church.
In 1565, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles led an expedition that landed him on the shores of what is now St. Augustine. There were four priests with de Aviles, and they began preparing to minister to the Spaniards who would arrive at this new settlement. This began the establishment of the oldest permanently occupied European settlement in America, and beginnings of what would be the first cathedral parish in the United States.
Since 1565, the church has been rebuilt many times. In 1586, the city of St. Augustine was plundered and burned to the ground, including the parish church by the English pirate Francis Drake. The citizens rebuilt the city and church, but they decided they needed more security from pirates and looters.
The construction of Castillo de San Marcos, a stone fortress, began in 1672. Its completion 14 years later allowed the town to endure a siege by Carolina Governor James Moore, who attacked and burned St. Augustine in 1702. The parish church, unfortunately, was destroyed in this attack.
The building of the new church took more than five years, and it was completed in August 1797. For nine decades, this building served the growing community and was elevated by the Pope to cathedral status when the Diocese of St. Augustine was established in 1870. Another fire in 1887 almost destroyed the cathedral, but the coquina and cement walls managed to thwart total destruction. When repairing the damage, the architects used the building’s original walls and structure, except for adding a new bell tower and transepts.
The cathedral received its most recent renovation before St. Augustine’s 400th-anniversary celebration in 1965. It was designated as a U.S. National Historic Landmark on April 15, 1970, and then in December 1976, Pope Paul VI elevated the cathedral to the status of minor basilica. Mass is still held in the structure, and the beautiful Spanish-style cathedral draws thousands of visitors each year.
The city’s Spanish roots inspired the architecture of the cathedral. There are also stained glass windows showing scenes from the life of Saint Augustine of Hippo.
Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine continues to honor its founders and is one of Florida’s most sacred destinations. The Basilica is located at 38 Cathedral Pl. St. Augustine, Fl. For more information, visit www.thefirstparish.org or call 904-824-2806.