St. Augustine Anniversary Deserves Papal Visit

By: Kevin Derby | Posted: September 8, 2011 3:55 AM
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Kevin Derby

Two major anniversaries will soon be celebrated in the Sunshine State.

The quincentennial anniversary of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon discovering the Florida peninsula is in 2013, while 2015 marks the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, the oldest continually inhabited town in the United States.

The state has promoted the anniversaries with the Viva Florida campaign. But while efforts have played up the state’s history and connections with Spain, they are missing an important part of the founding of Florida.

On Sept. 8, 1565, moments after forces led by Pedro Menendez landed in what is now St. Augustine, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales celebrated a Mass before the Spanish started establishing a settlement.

"Mass was said to hallow the land and draw down the blessing of heaven before the first step was taken to rear a human habitation,” noted John Gilmary Shea, the scholar who is considered the father of American Catholic history. “The altar was older than the hearth."

But 2015 is not just the 450th anniversary of the founding of the nation’s oldest city. It also marks the 450th anniversary of the permanent establishment of Christianity -- and the Roman Catholic Church -- in the United States. It’s an anniversary that should be marked and celebrated.

And that’s why Pope Benedict XVI, or whoever is leading the Roman Catholic Church in 2015, and other Christian leaders should come to Florida’s First Coast to celebrate the anniversary. Jacksonville advertises itself as “where Florida begins,” but the First Coast is where America began and where Christianity first flourished in the United States.

There have been important figures marking colonial anniversaries before. Queen Elizabeth II visited Virginia in 2007 to mark the founding of Jamestown, the oldest English colonial settlement. King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sophia of Spain visited St. Augustine in 2001 and Pensacola in 2009 to mark the 450th anniversary of the unsuccessful colonial enterprise led by Tristan de Luna y Arellanoin. The Spanish royals are excepted to mark the 450th anniversary in St. Augustine in 2015.

Not far from where the Spanish landed in 1565 stands a steel cross that rises 208 feet in the air that was first erected in 1966. The cross, on the site of the Mission of Nombre de Dios and the Shrine of Our Lady de la Leche, dominates the St. Augustine skyline. Near it is a replica of the rustic altar where Father Lopez first celebrated Mass in 1565. It would be a perfect site for a religious ceremony to mark the 450th anniversary of Christianity in North America. Larger Masses and services could be held in other locations in St. Augustine and Jacksonville.

The cross first planted in the sand in 1565, to use a phrase used by Michael Gannon, the dean of Florida historians, is still secure and continuing to stand. It’s only fitting that Christian leaders, including the leader of the Catholic Church so closely connected to Florida's history, come to the First Coast in 2015 to commemorate an important moment in American history.

This is an opinion column by Kevin Derby. Reach Kevin at or at (850) 727-0859.

Comments (2)

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11:41PM OCT 13TH 2011
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12:04PM SEP 8TH 2011
Surely you jest. But once again, your Catholic bias is showing in a piece that has no really meaning to your readers. I sincerely hope that the Pope has better things to stopping child abuse. By the way Mr. Derby, have you covered any of those stories about the Catholic church, or do you just want to continue to hide behind that orange sweater.

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