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First Parish Registers
by Michael Gannon, Ph.D.

A parish register is a blank book in which a pastor enters the names of his parishioners and the dates on which they receive certain ministries of the church, e.g., baptism, marriage and burial. The very first such registers at the infant parish of St. Augustine, covering the last four months of 1565 and the first months of 1566, have long been lost; our best information is that they were carried off by soldier mutineers in the spring of 1566.
  The first page of the St. Augustine Parish Register of Baptisms dated June 10, 1594.

The registers from that date until 1586 similarly are lost, but, again, we think we know what happened to them. In the summer of 1586 the city of St Augustine was plundered and burned to the ground by the English corsair Francis Drake. A member of Drake’s force wrote that not so much as “the leaves on the trees” were spared. When the then pastor Father Rodrigo García de Trujillo emerged with his parishioners from the western woods, where they had taken refuge, he found their church, Our Lady of Healing, a tangle of blackened timbers. If the registers had been left in the church, they would have turned to ash.

The pastor and his people rebuilt their wooden church. In 1593, broken in health after 28 years of service, Father García retired and was replaced as pastor by Father Diego Escobar de Sambrana, whose name is the first to appear in the registers that survived. On Jan. 24, 1594, we find in the brittle but still readable initial page of the matrimonial register, Father Escobar brought a couple before the altar to be married. The groom and bride were Gabriel Hernández, “a soldier of this presidio,” and Catalina de Valdés. That entry on that page is the oldest European document of North American (north of Mexico) origin extant in our country.

The first entry in the baptismal register is also in Father Escobar’s hand, dated June 25, 1594. It records the baptism of an infant named “María, legitimate daughter of S. Ximenes de la Queva and María Meléndez, his wife.

The surviving registers of the First Spanish Period (1565-1763) offer us a near-continuous record (there are some lacunae or holes) of Catholic life in the old city from 1594 to 1763, for a total of 169 years. In 1763, by virtue of the Treaty of Paris concluding the French and Indian War, Florida passed into the hands of Great Britain. The population of St. Augustine, not trusting the British to respect their Catholic faith, elected to depart Florida for Cuba and other destinations in the Caribbean basin. Only three Spanish families remained behind. In February 1764, the church’s possessions, including the parish registers, were removed to Havana on board a schooner named Nuestra Señora de la Luz (Our Lady of the Light). There the registers were placed in the basement of the cathedral church. And there they would remain, forgotten, for the next 107 years.