The First Parish Churches by Michael Gannon, Ph.D.
The first parish Mass at the infant settlement of St. Augustine, on Sept. 8, 1565, was celebrated alfresco, under an azure sky, before a rustic altar fashioned from logs. That Mass on the grass took place before the first step was taken to build a human habitation, leading the late 19th century Catholic historian John Gilmary Shea to observe, “The altar was older than the hearth.”
This drawing, from about 1593, depicts the parish church, Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, at St. Augustine, Fla.
While a church and living quarters were being erected, the large congregation of 800 persons continued to worship out-of-doors. Even the completed first church could not contain all the members of the community at one time. Early buildings were of wattle-and-daub (cuje y embarrado) construction: upright wood poles were joined by a lattice work over which river mud was spread. When the mud dried it was covered inside and out with whitewash. Like the surrounding natives, the Spanish used palm thatch for roofing.
The first churches stood adjacent to the Nombre de Dios (Name of God) site where Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and his settlers had made their landing. For a six-year period beginning in 1566 the community lived and worshipped eastward across the Matanzas River. In 1572, St. Augustine relocated to the mainland site it occupies today. There, at the southeast corner of the central plaza that one sees today, a relatively large parish church was erected under the patronage of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Our Lady of Healing). That riverfront building 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 façade. To one side stood an open timber belfry (campanario) with four bells. When completed, Los Remedios was the first parish church in the country that we know of by name; as it was also the only church in existence north of Mexico.
Like the rest of St. Augustine, the parish church was ransacked and burned by an English pirate force under Francis Drake in 1586. Los Remedios was reconstructed in wood, as before. (By that date the Spaniards knew of the existence of coquina shell rock which abounded beneath the sands of Anastasia Island across the river, but they had no tools as yet with which to quarry it.) The church fell victim to accidental fire in 1599 and was rebuilt in 1605.
Toward the close of the 16th century the parish undertook the construction of a hospital and chapel dedicated to Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (Our Lady of Solitude). Completed in 1598, on a site opposite today’s St. Joseph Convent on south St. George Street, Soledad was the first hospital in what is now the United States. The building would serve that purpose for most of the next century. In 1702 St. Augustine was set on fire by an English force out of Carolina, and Soledad was one of the few structures left standing. From that year until 1764 the hospital and chapel would serve as the parish church.