Old World Meets New World: A Visit to the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine

Pilgrims are able to renew and deepen their faith in the Lord and return to the world spiritually renewed.

The sanctuary of the oldest church in Florida welcomes pilgrims to prayer and beckons reflection before a statue of the Blessed Mother.
The sanctuary of the oldest church in Florida welcomes pilgrims to prayer and beckons reflection before a statue of the Blessed Mother. (photo: St. Augustine Catholic/Scott Smith)

On Aug. 28, 1565, the feast day of St. Augustine of Hippo, Spanish admiral Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles sighted the Florida coast.

On Sept. 8, the Nativity of Mary, Admiral Menendez himself came to shore, and a special Mass of thanksgiving was celebrated by his chaplain, Father Francisco Lopez, at Nombre de Dios (“Name of God”) for the ship’s safe arrival from Spain. It was also at this sacred spot that the Spanish settlers would later begin the devotion to Our Lady of La Leche, patroness of nursing mothers.

That date marked the establishment of the first permanent colony in the United States and is the birthday of the city of St. Augustine and its Catholic parish. Thus, St. Augustine became the oldest permanent European-founded city in the present United States.

Though over the years, small parish churches and the chapel of a hospital were used for worship, Dec. 8, 1797, a new church was completed and formally dedicated. A fire destroyed the church in 1887, but the walls and façade were left standing.

In 1888, the cathedral was rebuilt with the addition of wings and a bell tower. In 1870, the Diocese of St. Augustine was formally erected and consisted of the entire state of Florida east of the Apalachicola River.

The Spanish royal engineer planned the original church in 1793 to be 41 feet wide and 124 feet long, with walls 24 feet high. Native coquina stone was used for the two-foot thick walls.

The exterior façade is relatively unchanged from the 1793 design and is typical of 18th-century Spanish church architecture, which is a combination of Moorish and Baroque styles, with a belfry of four bells set in open niches. The oldest bell bears the date 1689 and probably came from the mission that once served the indigenous peoples at what is now Tolomato Cemetery. The other three bells date from 1790.

Below the bells is a statue of St. Augustine, the great seal of the United States and the royal arms of Spain. Over the main door are the papal coat of arms that mark the cathedral as a minor basilica, a designation bestowed upon the church by Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1976.

On an adjacent six-story bell tower designed by James Renwick is a unique vertical sundial inscribed in Latin: Pereunt et imputantur (“The hours pass, and we must account for them”).

In 1965, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the parish’s founding, Archbishop Joseph Hurley, the sixth bishop of St. Augustine, commissioned the renovation and enlargement of the cathedral-basilica and the construction of a 20-story-high illuminated cross on the grounds of the Mission Nombre de Dios.

Also in 1965, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel was added to the left of the main sanctuary. A mosaic in the chapel depicts Christ instituting the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper.

On the right and left are smaller mosaics of the Blessed Mother and some of the saints.

All of the mosaics were designed by Hugo Ohlms and detailed by Rambush Studios of New York and made of thousands of small bits of colored glass in the studios of Gregorini in Venice.

Another project that Archbishop Hurley commissioned for the quadricentennial was the construction of the Prince of Peace Votive Chapel on the grounds of the Mission Nombre de Dios. At the time of its dedication, the Prince of Peace Chapel was a votive church dedicated to prayers that God would deliver the world from atomic warfare. In 2016, the votive church was renovated and renamed the New Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche by Bishop Felipe Estevez, 10th bishop of St. Augustine.

In the course of renovating the cathedral in 1965, the entire back wall was removed and extended 12 feet to the rear so that the sanctuary could be enlarged. The marble superstructure of the former altar is newly surrounded with ornamental gold and white woodwork and incorporated into the reredos, the screen behind the altar.

Three statues dominate the reredos — Christ Triumphant in the center and St. Peter and St. Augustine on each side — and they are covered in gold leaf.

What is perhaps most distinct about the cathedral-basilica are the many murals, which were designed by Hugo Ohlms.

For example, as a visitor enters and turns around, facing the front door, above can be seen the top-center mural showing Pedro Menendez kneeling before the altar as Father Lopez hands him a cross commemorating the diary entry of the parish’s first pastor on Sept. 8, 1565.

A mural to the far right shows previous explorers to the new continent. Other murals depict the early history of the settlement and church. The murals on the east wall of the sanctuary, as one faces the altar, depict the important religious and philosophical thinkers and leaders of Western Europe during the time of St. Augustine’s founding. The murals on the west wall of the sanctuary depict the continuing development of Catholicism during Florida’s early history.

On the ceiling of the east and west wings are murals portraying the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the assumption and coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the east wing is a little chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with a large triptych mural of Our Lady done in blue and gold.

Shrines of St. Patrick and St. Joseph are located within recesses on both sides of the nave. Twelve large stained-glass windows depict various scenes in the life of St. Augustine of Hippo, patron of the cathedral-basilica, diocese and city. These windows, made by Meyer & Co. of Germany, were installed in 1909. The Stations of the Cross are 14 oil paintings done in Rome by Aristide Diez and are replicas of the Stations of the Cross that originally were in the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican. Each of the richly decorated crossbeams in the cathedral bears at its center the coats of arms — in sequence — of the bishops of St. Augustine. The present bishop’s coat of arms is located above the cathedra in the sanctuary.

As the parish prepared for the celebration of its 450th founding in 2015, the cathedral-basilica underwent a much needed program of maintenance and preservation. The choir loft was restored to its original place in the cathedral above the main doors. Other work included the placement of an Italian marble floor in the main sanctuary, new LED lighting as well as a new sound system. An antiphonal organ built by Colby Organ Works was added to the new choir loft to enhance the Casavant-Frere pipe organ that had been installed in 2001.

Daily, many tourists visit the cathedral-basilica. And because of the architectural and artistic beauty and the many historical murals, pilgrims are able to renew and deepen their faith in the Lord and return to the world spiritually renewed. St. Augustine, pray for us!

Joseph Albino writes from Syracuse, New York.

Website: TheFirstParish.org