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.
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
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.