Why will the cardinal of Boston be in Florida this month? St. Augustine (the saint and town) has something to do with it.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley will serve as special envoy for Pope Francis for the 450th anniversary Founder’s Day celebration of St. Augustine, Fla., hosted by the Diocese of St. Augustine (DOSAFL.com). The cardinal will be the principal celebrant of a Mass of thanksgiving held in St. Augustine’s Cathedral-Basilica, America’s oldest parish, on Sept. 8, at 11am.  The cardinal is one of more than 20 bishops attending, along with other local VIPs.

“The story of St. Augustine can’t be told without telling the story of the Catholic Church and its evangelization efforts in this region of the world,” said Kathleen Bagg, communications director for the St. Augustine Diocese. “This celebration will honor our past and celebrate our future.”

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine for Spain on Sept. 8, 1565. 

Although expeditions had been held and Masses celebrated previously in the new territory, St. Augustine was the first European settlement to endure, making it America’s oldest city. Michael Gannon, a retired historian of the University of Florida, who has served as a consultant to the diocese in preparation for its Founder’s Day celebration, said Menéndez “made a landing somewhere in the vicinity of the site where Mission Nombre de Dios [Name of God Mission, the first settlement] stands today. “Accompanying him were 500 soldiers, 200 sailors, four parish priests and 100 civilian settlers.”

The settlement’s first Mass was celebrated by Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales on the day of its founding, with local Indians looking on. Father Lopez was placed in charge of the new mission, making him America’s first parish priest.

The Founder’s Day celebration will begin with a 9am re-enactment of the landing of Menéndez, followed by a procession led by Cardinal O’Malley and Bishop Felipe Estévez, the ordinary of the Diocese of St. Augustine, to the cathedral-basilica for Mass. The morning’s festivities, and a 5:30pm prayer service at the cathedral, are open to the public. Visitors will also have the opportunity to venerate a first-class relic of St. Augustine of Hippo, a finger bone on loan to the diocese through September, in the cathedral. The cathedral has been hosting a “Wednesdays with Augustine” series to educate the public about the pre-eminent doctor of the Church. As Bagg said, “It’s a unique opportunity to learn about the saint for whom the city and diocese were named.”

The establishment of St. Augustine by the Spanish was twofold: 1) to act as a base for missionary efforts north and west into the future United States and 2) to serve as a military outpost, or presidio, to defend La Florida, the region that included the future state of Florida, which had been claimed for the Spanish crown. The Spanish later clashed with both the English and Americans; the territory became a “safe haven” for runaway slaves, provoking the ire of Southern slaveholders.

Florida became the 27th U.S. state in 1845, with the Diocese of St. Augustine encompassing much of the state when it was formed in 1870. Today, Florida has seven dioceses; St. Augustine is home to 172,000 registered Catholics and 61 parishes and missions.

Since coming to the diocese in 2011, Bishop Estévez has made the promotion of the Catholic history of his diocese, which has a sparser Catholic population than the southern part of the state, a focus of his ministry. He invited all of the U.S. bishops to St. Augustine for the 450th celebration, as well as many bishops from overseas. He extended a personal invitation to Pope Francis to participate, who respectfully declined but asked Cardinal O’Malley to attend in his place.

In addition to the 450th anniversary celebration, Bishop Estévez will travel to the neighboring Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee to participate in an Oct. 12 Mass marking the opening of the cause for canonization of the “Martyrs of La Florida.” The 82 martyrs are a mix of missionaries and Indian converts killed in Florida between 1549 and 1706; some of the martyrdoms occurred near Jacksonville, where the chancery office for the Diocese of St. Augustine is located.

“There are many heroes who helped establish the Catholic faith in North America,” said Bishop Estévez. “The stories of the North-American martyrs in New York and Canada are well known among the Catholic faithful, but the story of the Martyrs of La Florida, some of which predate those of the north, are not well known.” He continued, “Some people have the idea that they have to go to Rome to see where the martyrs lived. But they lived and died right here in my own diocese.”

Bishop Estévez is also working to bring attention to St. Augustine’s Our Lady of La Leche (Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery) Shrine. Located on the grounds of the Mission Nombre de Dios, it was established in the early 1600s, making it the United States’ first Marian shrine. As Bagg said, “Our goal is bring it to national and international prominence and make it a place of pilgrimage.”

Jim Graves writes from

Newport Beach, California. Diocese photo