History of Catholicism in St. Augustine

         St. Augustine’s architecture and streets named after famous explorers provide daily evidence of the Spanish influence in America’s oldest city.  When Spain sent its fleet, they also delivered the Roman Catholic tradition to the New World’s shores.


   Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles was commissioned by King Philip II of Spain in 1564 to conquer Florida and eliminate the French Huguenot presence at Fort Caroline. Menendez commanded the great Spanish Treasure Fleet and brought with him four Catholic priests. One of them - Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales - held the first Mass, founded the first mission, and was the first parish priest in the new world. His legacy is commemorated at the Mission Nombre de Dios with an eleven-foot statue, erected in the shadow of the Mission’s 208 foot tall “Great Cross”.

         The Spanish fleet reached land on August 28th, St. Augustine of Hippo’s feast day.  The new city was named for the saint and officially founded on September 8. Once Menendez secured the city for Spain and defeated the French, he began to evangelize to the Timucua natives, appointing soldiers he deemed fit to give religious instruction. America’s first Thanksgiving Mass was held at the Mission site. St. Francis Borgia sent a number of Jesuits to St. Augustine between 1566 and 1568; Franciscan missionaries arrived in 1577. 

         British colonists gained power and occupied the area by the 1760s.  Although freedom of worship was guaranteed, defaced Catholic structures were the only evidence of the faith. Around 1780, the Spanish crown sent Fathers Hassett and O’Reilly to St. Augustine to re-establish the Catholic faith. Father O’Reilly would establish the parish rectory (now the Father Miguel O’Reilly House Museum) and dedicated the new parish church, which now operates as the Cathedral Basilica. O’Reilly privately taught Felix Varela, who became a priest, author, and human rights advocate for Cuban independence. Varela greatly influenced the course of education in the Diocese of St. Augustine. After the Civil War, he recruited the Sisters of St. Joseph from France to teach newly freed African American children.  St. Benedict the Moor School was built in 1871.

To experience St. Augustine’s Catholic history through art, architecture and authentic Spanish food, visit the sites listed below.

Cathedral Basilica

         The stunning Cathedral Basilica is located at 35 Treasury Street in the Historic District of downtown St. Augustine.  Home to America’s first parish, it is the oldest Catholic church in the city and seat of the Bishop of the Diocese. The original parish was easily burned in 1586 during Drake’s Raid, as it was built by sailors and soldiers inexperienced with architecture. A second church was constructed of straw and palmetto which deteriorated from the humidity and was destroyed in a fire in 1599. The Church was rebuilt a third time in 1605 with lumber, but the weather, lack of maintenance, and another fire brought it down in 1707. St. Augustine went without a physical church for nearly 90 years, with services held in a local hospital.

         Finally, in 1797, the Cathedral Basilica - which stands today – was constructed. The church suffered yet another fire in 1887 that impacted many buildings in the area, but the coquina structure was salvaged and improvements including a dramatic, soaring ceiling and a bell tower reminiscent of Spanish Missions were made. The facade is a combination of Spanish Mission and Neoclassical architectural styles, exquisitely decorated with stained glass windows, oil paintings, and marble altars. Virtual and guided tours are available; take advantage of brochures for self-guided tours at your convenience.

St. Francis Barracks

St. Francis Barracks is a coquina structure located at 84 Marine Street.  The barracks were erected between 1724 and 1755 by friars of the Order of St. Francis. The barracks were converted to a military facility by the British in 1763.  The site is now home to several historic structures including the King’s Bakery, the only surviving building in St. Augustine constructed entirely within the twenty-year period of British occupation.

Father O’Reilly House Museum

The Father Miguel O'Reilly House Museum is located at 32 Aviles Street and has three main themes: the story of the house, which was constructed about 1691; the Catholic tradition in St. Augustine; and the Sisters of St. Joseph, who have been the guardians of the O'Reilly House and educators in St. Augustine since their arrival in 1866.

Mission Nombre de Dios

The Mission Nombre de Dios, located on San Marco Avenue, was founded in 1587.  The beautiful grounds on the banks of the Matanzas River include archeological excavations, a historic cemetery, a museum, and a number of statues and monuments.

St. Benedict the Moor Church and School

Historic Lincolnville is home to St. Benedict the Moor, the first African American parish of the St. Augustine Catholic Diocese, named for a Sicilian friar known for service to his community despite illiteracy and humble means.  
In 1871, the St. Joseph Society of the Sacred Heart vowed to serve and minister to newly freed slaves. In 1892, Josephite Bishop John Moore acquired land in St. Augustine that once was part of the Yallaha plantation orange grove and began to develop the site for a church and school.  The first building erected, in 1898, is now the oldest surviving brick schoolhouse in St. Augustine and one of the first schools for black children in Florida.  Construction of the parish church began in 1909; the church was completed and consecrated in 1911. The rectory was completed in 1915. 
The buildings have seen many important moments in civil rights history. In 1916, Sisters Mary Thomasine, Mary Scholastica, and Mary Beningus were arrested under Jim Crow laws that prohibited white teachers from teaching black students. The three sisters were quickly acquitted when a judge ruled the law did not apply to private schools. In 1964 Martin Luther King, Jr. used the rectory to plan marches and demonstrations to support the civil rights movement, events that played a significant part in passage of the Civil Rights Act.  The school closed soon after, partly because of desegregation legislation. The school building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and, along with the Church and Rectory, may be seen today at 82 Martin Luther King Avenue.  

Columbia Restaurant

This family-owned establishment has a stunning old-world European charm. The Columbia serves an award-winning Spanish/Cuban menu made from over five generations of family recipes and boasts a wonderful selection of wines. The Mediterranean-style dining room is adorned with hundreds of hand-painted tiles and Spanish fountains for a gorgeous setting to enjoy their famous 1905 salad, paella, roast pork a la Cubana, and fresh seafood sourced from the Gulf of Mexico. Conveniently located in the heart of downtown with ample parking available, the Columbia is sure to delight and impress.

St. Francis Inn

Your Spanish tour of St. Augustine does not have to stop at the steps of your hotel! St. Francis Inn was built in 1871 during the Second Spanish Colonial period and is in fact St. Augustine’s oldest inn. The building itself embodies the city’s history and culture as the architecture reflects how the King of Spain ordered residents to build their homes to protect against those who threatened to occupy the town. The building stands directly on the street with fencing and dense shrubbery to shield the front entrance and courtyard where visitors can relax under the trees and listen to the fountains nearby. Located on St. George Street, a few minutes south of historic downtown, you are within walking distance of all the city has to offer, but far enough away to avoid the hustle and bustle.


Post Date

June 17, 2020