On Florida's east coast, the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine occupies a place of honor in the heart of America's oldest city.

The church, easily recognized by its handsome Spanish Renaissance architecture, is the most striking feature in a downtown plaza that has many eye-catching sights.

What I found even more remarkable about the church is that it is home to the oldest parish in the continental United States, a parish that pre-dates the formation of its diocese by more than 300 years. Did the settlers who built it have any inkling that they would be the seeds of a parish that would still be growing and flourishing 436 years later? Struck by its beauty and vitality, I couldn't help but wonder.

The parish was founded on the same day as the city of St. Augustine itself, Sept. 8, 1565 — 55 years before the English pilgrims set foot in New England and, fittingly, on the feast of the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Led by Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the first permanent Spanish colonists to Florida stepped ashore and met one of their priests, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, who had preceded them. Their first act was to offer a Mass of thanksgiving to God on the site they called Nombre de Dios.

It's also believed that the first ordinations on what would become U.S. soil took place here when, in 1674, the bishop of Cuba made an official visit and ordained seven priests.

Another century passed before the Spanish royal engineer Mariano de la Rocque designed the church that was to form the basis for this present edifice. Foundations were laid in 1793 and the completed church was dedicated four years later on Dec. 8, 1797 — which the Church later designated as the feast of the Immaculate Conception. At the time it was reportedly the most impressive church in all of Florida and rightly became the first cathedral in the state when the Diocese of St. Augustine was formed as the state's first diocese in 1870.

Refining Fire

Not long after, on April 12, 1887, a devastating fire spread through the entire plaza. It destroyed everything but the cathedral's walls and bells. Because the walls were more than two feet thick and formed of coquina rock, a native shell-and-stone formation quarried just across the river on Anastasia Island, they stood ready to be rebuilt. (Some of the coquina came from the earlier shrine on the grounds of Nombre de Dios and possibly from the old parish church.)

Bishop John Moore, along with Henry Flagler and James Renwick, watched as the fire took its toll. Flagler, co-founder of Standard Oil and an ardent developer of the city as a winter haven, promised to help the bishop rebuild the cathedral. Renwick, the architect who had designed St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City a decade prior, volunteered to direct the restoration.

Among Renwick's most notable innovations here were a 12-foot extension of the sanctuary and the magnificent bell tower, paid for by Flagler, located to the left of the facade. These additions blended seamlessly with the original coquina walls. Despite the massive rebuilding project, the cathedral was ready for Easter services by the following April 1.

Thirteen beautiful stained-glass windows were added in 1909 by the fabled Mayer & Co. of Munich. Then, in 1965, the cathedral's second major remodeling and renovation took place; it coincided with the 400th anniversary of the parish and the city.

The historic windows are a stirring reminder of the four-plus centuries of the parish and the Catholic faith on this site. Twelve of the windows depict milestones in the life of St. Augustine, whose feast the Church celebrates this week (Aug. 28) and who became the namesake of the parish and city, thanks to the devotion to that great doctor of the Church by city founder Pedro Menendez de Aviles. The scenes include Augustine's baptism by St. Ambrose, his meeting with St. Monica (his mother, who prayed ardently for his conversion) and his composing of the rules of his order. The detailed, Old World artistry of the windows is complemented by oil paintings of the Stations of the Cross, completed in Rome.

The high, timbered ceiling, painted cardinal red, reflects the Spanish flavor of the cathedral-basilica. The brilliantly decorated crossbeams feature, in sequence, the coat-of-arms of each bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine.

Awe-inspiring magnificence fills the sanctuary. What a heavenly background the ornamental reredos provided for the traditional First Communion procession I happened to witness there one Sunday. The gold reredos contains three carved statues. In the center, in full burnished gold leaf, stands Christ Triumphant. Jesus is accompanied by St. Peter and St. Augustine in lower niches.

Visual Catechism

The space behind and above this stunning sanctuary is filled by a high choir loft which is in sight of the entire congregation.

So rich and detailed is the cathedral's interior, it's like a visual catechism. In the light-filled Blessed Sacrament Chapel, completed during the 1965 renovation, for instance, Venetian mosaics designed by Hugo Ohlms begin with a large, detailed scene of the Last Supper. To either side, more mosaics picture the Blessed Mother and saints closely associated with the Eucharist — Clare of Assisi, Tarsicius, Thomas Aquinas, Pius X, and John Vianney.

This chapel's central stained-glass window commemorates Paul VI's encyclical Mysterium Fidei, and its image of a jet conveys the fact that pilgrims have been traveling to this parish for centuries. The hand-wrought sanctuary lamp was a gift of a Spanish sea captain in answer to a prayer for a safe harbor in a storm. He landed in St. Augustine.

Tiled murals and statues carved in Italy form the shrines of Sts. Joseph and Patrick. The latter honors scores of Irish priests and religious who served in Florida for centuries, while the former also commemorates the Sisters of St. Joseph, who have worked in the diocese since 1866 and still staff the cathedral's grammar school. The Blessed Virgin Mary's chapel, with its sublime blue and gold triptych of Mary, offers another quiet place for meditation.

In the baptistry, the wall mural of the Crucifixion, with Mary and St. John, is stunningly presented in wood of varying hues.

The cathedral-basilica's abundance of murals, done by Olms (who was head of the mural department of Rambusch Studios in New York), presents important historical milestones in the parish, along with prominent church figures and explorers; it's a veritable history lesson of the Catholic faith in the region.

Just one chapter of this visual book takes in Ponce de Leon, Hernando de Soto, St. Francis de Sales and Pope St. Pius V, who took a keen interest in the discovery of new territories and the conversion of Florida's Indians.

Near this very spot a few decades prior to the parish's founding, Ponce de Leon discovered and named “Florida” while searching for the elusive fountain of youth. He was too early to find the beautiful Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine — which springs anew today with the promise of eternal life.

Joseph Pronechen writes from

Trumbull, Connecticut.