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Correcting the Record
by Michael Gannon, Ph.D.

It is sometimes written that St. Augustine, founded on Sept. 8, 1565, is the oldest continuously active Catholic faith community in the continental United States. The “continuously active” statement is mistaken.
  A view of the Cathedral-Basilica and downtown St. Augustine.

The parish of St. Augustine was continually active from 1565 to February 1764, when, following the transfer of Florida from Spanish to British rule, all transportable parish registers, altars, chalices, vestments, etc. were removed by ship to Havana, Cuba. All but a handful of the parishioners - about 3,110 in number - departed for Havana and its suburbs, to Matanzas province, to other locations in the Caribbean Basin, and to Spain.

Except as it was represented by three Spanish men and their families who remained behind in St. Augustine, the institutional church did not exist in the city from 1764 until 1777, when the Minorcan parish, San Pedro (St. Peter’s), relocated from New Smyrna to the northwest corner of St. Augustine.

In 1783, following the American Revolution, East Florida reverted to Spanish rule and, one year later, the Parish of St. Augustine was reconstituted under Father Thomas Hassett. His first entry in the new parish registers was dated Oct. 8, 1784. Comparatively few Floridanos, as St. Augustine’s former parishioners had come to be known, returned from exile to St. Augustine.

So, with a gap of 13 years between the disbandment of the Parish of St. Augustine and the introduction of San Pedro parishioners to the city, and with a longer gap of 20 years between the disappearance and reappearance of the Parish of St. Augustine, one cannot use the language “continuously active.”

Spanish forces conquered British West Florida, including Pensacola, in May 1781, two years before East Florida, including St. Augustine, passed back to Spain by treaty. At Pensacola, in 1781, Father Cyril de Barcelona, vicario of West Florida, canonically erected the Parish of St. Michael the Archangel, which has lasted from that day to this without interruption. Though not the first parish in Florida, St. Michael’s is the state’s oldest parish in continuous existence.

A second error occasionally found in contemporary articles is the statement that the Mass celebrated by Father Lopez at St. Augustine on Sept. 8, 1565 was “the first Mass in the New World.” It was not even the first in Florida, much less the Americas. The first Masses in the New World were celebrated in late December 1493, exact days unknown, by the 13 priests who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the north coast of Hispaniola, specifically to that part of the island, which is today’s Dominican Republic.

Ten of the priests were members of religious orders, the majority Franciscans, and three were secular, or parish clergy. One early Mass date we do know with certainty is that of Jan. 6, 1494, when a solemn high Mass at Columbus’s settlement La Isabela was celebrated to observe the Feast of Epiphany. The principal celebrant was Fray Bernaldo Buil, a Catalan Franciscan from the monastery of Montserrat.