What Is the Cathedral Basilica?
The Cathedral Basilica of St Augustine is the oldest Catholic Church in St Augustine, Florida, as well as the seat of the Bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine. Looking at the cathedral walls, a visitor will see adornments reminiscent of the old New World and Spain’s expansion into Florida and the Caribbean: exquisite stained glass windows and murals depicting the city’s rich history of Catholic expansion and French-British-Spanish conflict. Prominently featured is Saint Augustine of Hippo, a popular saint for whom the city was named.
For 450 years, worshipers of St. Augustine and travelers have gathered each Sunday to praise the Lord in this congregation.
This cathedral serves one of the oldest Catholic congregations in America. The Catholic congregation of St. Augustine was originally established in 1565, with the arrival of Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his four accompanying priests. St. Augustine’s first mass, as depicted above, took place on the following September 8th, the day of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The original cathedral constructed in 1565 was a humble wooden structure, which had to repeatedly be rebuilt due to destruction from enemies and natural forces. In 1786, King Felipe V ordered that a new cathedral should be built. This Cathedral Basilica is designed in the Spanish mission and Neoclassical styles of the 18th century, featuring arched corridors, buttresses, terraced bell towers, wide eaves, and low, sloping tile roofs.
Construction of the Cathedral Basilica started on December 8th, 1786 and ended in 1797. Significantly, December 8th is the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On December 8th of 1797, the cathedral was dedicated to this day. In celebration, Father Miguel O’Reilly (an Irish priest) led a procession of parishioners from St. Augustine’s Catholic parish’s bishop’s rectory to the new cathedral, carrying the Blessed Sacrament.
The Cathedral as a Minor Basilica
Technically, a basilica is a cathedral of elevated status to the Catholic Church. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine was not immediately given this status. It was not until December 4th, 1976 that Pope Paul VI deemed St. Augustine’s cathedral to be a “minor basilica.” In order for a cathedral to be elevated to a minor basilica, four conditions must be met:
1) The church must have stood out as a center for active liturgy and have been dedicated to God in a liturgical rite.
2) The cathedral should be sufficiently large, including a spacious sanctuary, so that further religious celebrations can be carried out exemplarily.
3) The church must have a historical renown because it was dedicated to God in a particular historical or religious fashion, significant relics of saints are present in it, or a sacred image is venerated especially.
4) Religious celebrations throughout the liturgical year are performed in a praiseworthy manner.
The cathedral stood for 200 years before the Catholic Church formally recognized its surpassing of the above requirements.
The Beacon of Faith
You may have seen the image of The Beacon of Faith in popular Christian media, but have not known where in the world it was or what it signified. It is the towering, 208-foot, 70-ton steel cross free-standing on the grounds of the Mission Nombre de Dios, where Menendez and his priests landed on in 1565. Although not directly at the basilica’s location, this Great Cross is a celebration of St. Augustine’s long history of Catholic praise.
Miraculously, St. Augustine has not been devastated by a major hurricane since the Great Cross was erected.
Marker of Catholic Heritage
Located in the Cathedral Basilica’s narthex is the Catholic Heritage of Florida Plaque, erected in 1999 by the International Order of Alhambra, noting how the Franciscan missionaries spread their Catholic faith throughout the region:
“LONG BEFORE THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, CATHOLIC
MISSIONARIES FOUNDED MORE THAN A HUNDRED MISSIONS
IN WHAT IS NOW THE STATE OF FLORIDA WHERE AT
LEAST TEN MISSIONARIES BECAME MARTYRS FOR THE FAITH.
THOUGH DOMINICANS AND JESUITS WERE ALSO INVOLVED IN
PLANTING THE SEEDS OF RELIGION AND CULTURE IN FLORIDA,
THE FRANCISCANS WERE EXCEPTIONAL BECAUSE THEY SPREAD
OUT FROM THE ST. AUGUSTINE MISSION TO ESTABLISH MOST
OF THESE MISSIONS. RECOGNIZING THIS, WE HAVE ERECTED
THIS PLAQUE AND PROCLAIMED THIS CATHEDRAL–BASILICA
OF THE DIOCESE, WITHIN WHICH MANY OF THESE MISSIONS
EXISTED, A NATIONAL CATHOLIC HISTORICAL SITE.”
The Franciscans of St. Augustine were notable in traveling and spreading Catholicism to the indigenous peoples of southeastern America and the Caribbean.
Today and Now
The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Augustine is a stately edifice, with a grandeur all the public may enjoy. If you ever find yourself in the St. Augustine, Florida area, do make the pilgrimage to see “The First Parish” and appreciate its centuries-old beauty.