Located on the northern edge of the Plaza de la Constitución in St. Augustine's Historic Downtown region, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine is the oldest Catholic Church in the city and the oldest parish in the country. This historic church hosts traditional Catholic services and is regularly open to the public.
History and Art of the Cathedral Basilica
The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine (pronounced Sahn Ah-gus-tin, for the church's namesake) is the oldest Catholic Church in the city and the oldest parish in the country. In 1565, Padre Lopez de Mendoza Grajales presented a cross to Pedro Menendez de Aviles as he stepped onto the banks of La Florida. Menendez first kissed the base of the cross, then kissed the base of the Spanish flag. Thus, the city of St. Augustine and the Parish of St. Augustine were founded in the same breath. Then, the first Catholic mass in the Continental United States took place.
However, the cathedral's original structure only dates back to the 1700s, as its location changed during the Spanish and British Colonial periods. A permanent coquina structure was built in 1797, just south of La Plaza de la Constitución. Three of the walls in the Cathedral Basilica are the original coquina walls from 1797. Those original walls are two feet thick.
By 1870, the Catholic population of Florida had grown considerably. The Bishop in Savannah, Georgia, could no longer manage it. Father Augustin Verot was named the first Bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine in 1870. (A parish church is made into a cathedral when it becomes the seat of power of a Bishop, who leads a Diocese.) His reign started a new era for the church, and the Diocese and Cathedral of St. Augustine thrived for a hundred years, overseeing several parish churches and schools for children.
In 1976, the Cathedral of St. Augustine was venerated with the title of Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. A cathedral is made into a basilica once granted the Pope's seal (the Pope's seal is adorned on the south-facing entrance of the building) as well as certain official papal objects to accommodate the Pope, like the umbraculum ("big umbrella" in Italian) and tintinnabulum ("little bell" in Latin). Along with being fit to host a Pope, the title of basilica also marks this church as historically significant. If a fire were to burn down the city (again), for example, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine would be built on the same foundation as where it now sits.
The Cathedral Basilica was built in the Spanish Mission style, which is most prominently seen in the southern facade of the church, above the main entrance. The facade extends over the church's roof and holds a statue of Saint Augustine of Hippo, for whom our city is named. The facade also contains several bells, the oldest of which is thought to have been the mission bell which once sat at Tolomato Cemetery when the site was a Catholic mission aimed at converting indigenous people.
The church's interior, adorned with exquisite murals; stained glass windows; sculptures; and artifacts, resonates with the history and spirituality of the church.
As of 2022, the Cathedral Basilica houses six relics, some publicly viewable while others are not. Four are embedded in the altar and have connections to Saint Justin, Saint Augustine, Saint Monica, and Maximillian Colby. In the sacristy of the Cathedral is a secondary relic that belonged to Saint John Paul II, and in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is a section of Saint Augustine of Hippo's finger bone.
The ceilings boast the art of Hugo Ohlms, an acclaimed artist who came to St. Augustine in the twilight of his life after having a prolific career as a muralist. Commissioned by the Diocese of St. Augustine, Ohlms created all of his murals for the Cathedral out of plywood in his garage in 1965. These extensive pieces are fitted together almost like a jigsaw puzzle. They can be seen on the ceilings, choir loft, and the Marian Shrine. The massive installation in the Choir Loft depicts the Catholic history of Saint Augustine. It prominently features the immigration of the Minorcan people, which occurred in 1777.
On the walls of the nave (where the congregation sits to observe mass) are stained glass windows that depict the life of Saint Augustine of Hippo. St. Augustine was "somewhat of a bad boy" in Christian thought and owes his salvation to his mother, Saint Monica, who is featured in these stained glass windows, as well as in statue form in the narthex (which is the entranceway to the nave, where the Basilica has seating for young families) next to the main entrance.
Behind the altar in the Cathedral Basilica are three hand-carved wooden statues of Jesus, Saint Augustine, and Saint Peter. Two smaller companion sculptures of the same material sit in the little chapels on either side of the Cathedral's nave. These depict Saint Joseph and Saint Patrick.
Keen-eyed observers notice that the sculpture of Jesus on the altar does not depict Him during His crucifixion — naked and nailed to the cross — but during His ascension into heaven, fully clothed. Florida was "discovered" by Juan Ponce de Leon during Spain's Easter season, Pascua Florida, and named for the holiday. (This is a common naming practice — the city of St. Augustine was named as such because Pedro Menendez founded it on the feast day of Saint Augustine of Hippo.) As such, depicting Jesus as He appeared during His ascension (which is what Christians celebrate during Easter) is a reference to the origins of Florida.
Two spaces to the east and west of the altar hold spiritual prominence and meaningful artifacts. To the east is the Blessed Virgin Mary Shrine, which contains a beautiful triptych by the same artist who created the plywood murals on the ceilings. To the west is the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, which holds the Cathedral's golden tabernacle and a St. Augustine of Hippo relic.
Visiting the Cathedral Basilica
Guests can take guided tours throughout the day, and visitors are welcome to light candles for loved ones at any time. Mass is celebrated at 7:00 a.m. Monday through Saturday. The Cathedral gift shop offers an array of religious items: rosaries, prayer books, bibles, medals, saint prayer cards, CDs, scapulars, and crucifixes. Tours of the Cathedral are offered daily. Please call (904) 829-0620 to reserve a spot for you or your group.
The Cathedral offers the sacraments, including marriage, to practicing Catholics who go through the appropriate pre-cana courses and are eligible for marriage. Contact the Cathedral for more information about having a St. Augustine wedding at the Cathedral.