It was another hot summer day when Bishop Erik T. Pohlmeier has officially taken possession of his cathedral church in Saint-Augustin on July 24, 2022. I say “another hot summer day” because more than 150 years ago at the end of August 1870, the first bishop, Augustin Verot, took possession of the parish church of Saint-Augustin to become his cathedral for a whole new diocese.
The diocese of Saint-Augustin had just been created in 1870. A diocese is a district under the pastoral supervision of a bishop. A diocese includes many congregations (parishes) and their churches. The Diocese of St. Augustine is not the oldest diocese in the United States. St. Augustine Parish, however, is the oldest parish congregation in the country. The parish congregation of Saint Augustine was already three centuries old when the Diocese of Saint Augustine was created.
Almost everyone in St. Augustine was a parishioner during the city’s early centuries—whites, free and enslaved blacks, Native Americans who had settled in the city.
St. Augustine’s Parish Church, now also a Cathedral Basilica, has stood in its current location for 225 years, since its completion in 1797. Spanish engineer Pedro Diaz Berrio oversaw its construction. The Spanish crown provided much of the money, and parishioners contributed cash or in kind to the building fund. Parishioners were asked to donate their time and labor to extract the seashell stone (coquina) on Anastasia Island used in the walls of the building. Ancient records report that few volunteered for this task.
St. Augustine Parish had met in several buildings and in several locations prior to the current location. The history of the parish church locations reflects the history of the town of St. Augustine itself.
After arriving in September 1565, the St. Augustinians spent their first nine months as a city and community in the Fountain of Youth Park area. Then they moved to Anastasia Island in May 1566. A new church was built on the island. The parishioners and their church returned to the mainland in 1572-1573.
When Francis Drake attacked our city in 1586, the church was located at the intersection of Plaza and Aviles Street. It remained there for more than a century until it was damaged beyond use by the fire of the English invaders in December 1702. Records of marriages and baptisms tell us that the chapel of Castillo de San Marcos was first to be used for services.
Although the crown allocated funds to rebuild the church, parishioners worshiped, married and were baptized in “temporary” quarters at La Soledad Chapel on St. George Street for 60 years until what St. Augustine residents evacuated to Cuba in 1763, when Great Britain took possession of Florida.
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Of course, parishioners could not move their church to Havana, but items used in the church could be moved. The silver and gold altar vessels, statues, banners and richly colored hangings are gone with the people who knew them so well. The objects were stored in a parish church in Havana.
Spain regained Florida, and thus St. Augustine, in 1784. A number of evacuees returned. Some of those who returned were young children 20 years ago when they boarded ships bound for Cuba. Lorenzo Rodriguez gives us a glimpse of the return of the Saint Augustinians. He had evacuated in 1763 at the age of 32. Twenty years later he returned to St. Augustine and served as a pilot on the Nuestra Señora de Belém which brought people back to that city.
The Spanish crown authorized the construction of a new church in 1786, but it took nine years before the buildings were a reality where they stand today. The parishioners were again in a “temporary” church. But it was the church building that was temporary, not the parish congregation. The community of parishioners of Saint-Augustin has gone through the centuries and still continues.
Susan R. Parker holds a doctorate in colonial history.