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The First Parishioners
by Michael Gannon, Ph.D.

Florida’s - and the nation’s - first Catholic parishioners got off to a rough start in their pioneer settlement of St. Augustine.
 
  Ponce de Leon in Florida, 1513 (Detail) 1878 Thomas Moran. Oil on canvas from The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, Jacksonville, Fla.
 

Early on, food became scarce as ship borne provisions, particularly biscuits, spoiled in the humid environment. The settlers supplemented their scanty fare with hearts of palmetto, prickly pears, and cocoa plums that they gathered from the western tree line. Where the land was clear they discovered that the staple grains to which they were accustomed - wheat, oats, rye and barley - could not be grown in the infertile coastal soil. By the end of February 1566, just five months after their landing, over 100 of their number were dead from starvation. A relief ship from Mexico, heavily laden with food, arrived in early March to save the lives remaining.

The Florida reader of these words might well wonder, as did I, why the desperately hungry Spaniards did not avail themselves of the nearby seafood? Fish and shellfish abounded in the Matanzas River and Atlantic waters.

As a boy in St. Augustine at the tail end of the Depression, I kept our family dinner table groaning with oysters, clams, stone crabs, and fish that I hooked, netted, or gigged. And that was when pompano was an almost daily catch. Imagine what the fishing must have been like there four and a half centuries ago! How could anyone have willingly starved to death amidst that saltwater feast? Did the Spaniards prefer death to eating seafood? If only we had their pastor, Father Francisco de Mendoza, to explain it all to us.

The small community faced other problems, too. Fires destroyed buildings, soldiers mutinied, and the once peaceful natives of the region attacked the small Spanish earthen and log fort. In those extremities the colonists elected to transfer St. Augustine from its original mainland site across the Matanzas River to the northern tip of Santa Anastasia, a barrier island that extends southward some 16 miles. There the city and parish stood for six years until 1672, when relations with the natives became amicable and the Spaniards relocated to the mainland and began building where the city stands today.

On the riverfront, at the southeast corner of the central plaza, the parishioners erected the first church of which we have a name and a description. Named Nuestra Seora de los Remedios (Our Lady of Healing), the church was constructed of vertical wood planks with a thatch roof. No glass of any kind was used in the windows. A cross and weathervane surmounted the faade. To one side stood an open timber belfry (campanario) with four bells.

It was the only church in America.

And, by the way, at that date the parishioners were eating fish. This we know from archaeological excavations of six blocks bordering south St. George Street where most of the people lived. Found there from the last quarter of the 16th century were the faunal remains of drum, mullet, sea catfish and shark.