When I was a child growing up in Florida, my elementary school teachers would take their classes on field trips to St. Augustine, Florida, to explore the Castillo de San Marcos, a 17th-century Spanish fort, as well as other supposedly historical sites like Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, where we could drink a small cup of foul-smelling “youth water.” After I reached adulthood and had a child of my own, I rediscovered the pleasures of visiting this beautiful, walkable city on Matanzas Bay. It has many wonderful restaurants (my favorite is the Columbia Restaurant), interesting shops, and many things to see and do for both children and adults.
Since returning home to the Catholic Church in 2014, I’ve loved visiting St. Augustine even more because of its history and its two existing Catholic sites of interest.
St. Augustine, the oldest permanently occupied European settlement in what is now the United States, is the site of the very first Mass celebrated in this country. When the fleet of the Spanish admiral and explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sighted land (what is now Cape Canaveral) on the feast day of St. Augustine of Hippo (August 28, 1565), he decided to name his first settlement St. Augustine. He did just that when he made landfall farther north on September 8, 1565, proclaiming the site for Spain and the Church. Menéndez knelt to kiss a wooden cross presented to him by his chaplain, Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales, who then went on to celebrate the first parish Mass and begin America’s first mission, the Mission Nombre de Dios (so named because Menéndez claimed the land “in the name of God). “It was here, says the Mission’s website, “that pioneer priests first planted the cross of Christianity. This is the site where western culture and Christian faith took root in our country.” It is now marked with an enormous, 208-foot, stainless steel Great Cross that can be seen from all over the city.
When you visit the Mission today, you will find the Prince of Peace Votive Church, a Mission Museum, an 11-foot bronze statue of Father López, the lovely Chapel of Our Lady of La Leche, and peaceful grounds with a historic cemetery and a shady walking trail marked by monuments to the Seven Sorrows of Mary. It’s a sacred place perfect for reflection and prayer.
You should also make time to enjoy the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine on the plaza in the city’s historic district. Begun in 1793 to replace a series of parish churches that had been burned by various invaders, it has been rebuilt, renovated, and expanded over the years to become the beautiful historical and spiritual site we experience today. Attending Mass there with my son this past Mother’s Day was one of the highlights of my entire year. On previous trips, I have enjoyed just sitting quietly in a pew in the empty church, admiring the basilica’s art and architecture. Once or twice, I’ve been lucky enough to be there when someone was playing the pipe organ, which added to the atmosphere of tranquility and reverence. Even when I was Unaffiliated (see my October 29 posting), I used to love to sit inside the Cathedral Basilica for long periods of time — perhaps a foreshadowing of my return to Catholicism?
I hope that you enjoy visiting St. Augustine as much as I do. Here are a few recommendations to consider as you’re planning your trip:
- Travel to St. Augustine during the winter or spring months. In the summer, the combination of high temperatures and high humidity make it very unpleasant to stroll around, and you’ll want to be able to experience the city at least partially on foot.
- If possible, stay at a hotel or bed-and-breakfast in the historic district (one of my favorites is the Casa de Solana.) Then you can walk to most of the sites of interest. I’ve also enjoyed staying in a condo or hotel on St. Augustine Beach and driving the 5-6 miles to the city every day.
- Begin your visit by buying a ticket for one of the tram or trolley tours that will take you around the city. As you ride, the driver will give you the history of the sites you pass, and you can decide which ones you want to explore further.
- Unfortunately, like everywhere in the United States, the lovely St. Augustine has been marred by tourist traps like Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and so-called historic places like the “Oldest House” and the “Oldest Wooden School House,” which probably aren’t what they claim to be. As a result, you’ll have to sort the real from the fake. The popular attraction known as the Fountain of Youth includes both fiction (the “fountain of youth”) and fact, such as archaeological excavations that have unearthed artifacts of Spanish culture and the culture of the Timucuan native peoples, who died in large numbers due to contact with new diseases brought by the Spanish).