St. Augustine prepares for 450th anniversary

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ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - The Diocese of St. Augustine will join the city of St. Augustine in celebrating the 450th anniversary of the first permanent settlement of European origin in what became the continental United States.

Bishop Felipe Estevez of the St. Augustine called the founding of the city providential.

"The founding of St. Augustine is all about evangelization, the sharing of Christianity with the Native Americans," he said.

Conversion of the native people of Florida was an important motivation for Pedro Menendez de Aviles of Spain, who established the community in 1565. And so was commercial development, said historian Michael Gannon.

"That evangelical impulse was nowhere more apparent than in his words at court, addressed to King Philip II in March 1565 when he asked for an 'asiento' (license) to colonize Florida," Gannon explained. He cited the words of Menendez: "I would choose the settling of Florida before any other command or dignity that your majesty might bestow upon me."

The king responded by telling Menendez that "you will include 10 to 12 religious ... so that there may be religious instruction in the said land and the Indians can be converted to our holy Catholic faith and to our obedience ..."

The city's founding date, Sept. 8, the feast day of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was no coincidence, according to Bishop Estevez. He pointed to other examples of evidence of God's work in the city:

- Mission Nombre de Dios would become the home of the first Marian Shrine in today's United States: Nuestra Senora de La Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of Good Milk and Happy Delivery).

- The Franciscan mission chain that extended north, south and west of St. Augustine to Texas and California began in St. Augustine.

- The first centers of education and religious formation began in St. Augustine and the first hospital was established in the city.

- The first bishop of St. Augustine, Agustin Verot, in 1866 wrote to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Le Puy, France, requesting they come to the city to teach more than 6,000 newly freed slaves.

- A 208-foot stainless steel cross, known as The Great Cross, was erected for the 400th anniversary and continues to draw pilgrims to the mission.

"These milestones in the journey of faith over 450 years in St. Augustine give encouragement to the faithful to participate with a renewed enthusiasm in the new evangelization," Bishop Estevez said. Father Tom Willis, a St. Augustine native and rector of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Augustine, recently supervised a $4 million restoration and renovation of the church.

"True beauty inspires people to want to find out who is the inspiration behind this place. It's not Father Tom. It's not Bishop Estevez. It's God and a belief in this community of faith in what the Lord God is still doing among us and will continue to accomplish to the end of time," he said.

Father Willis invited visitors to make a pilgrimage to the cathedral. "The history of our town and the parish community is unlike any other in our nation, not only because of its age but how central the religious mission was to the establishment of the town," he said.

The 450th anniversary celebration helps "focus our attention on our spiritual heritage;to learn the stories and share them with our families, said Glenn Hastings, executive director of the St. Johns County Tourist Development Council.

"There's no better way than to come to St. Augustine to learn the stories about the Spanish missions that spread from St. Augustine to San Diego, the feast of thanksgiving that predated the pilgrims at Plymouth by 56 years, the role of the church in the establishment of Fort Mose (the nation's first free black town), and the Sisters of St. Joseph who were arrested for teaching black students to read."

Gannon has figured prominently in the celebration of the city's and the parish's 400th anniversary and the upcoming 450th anniversary observance. He was director of the mission in the 1960s. Gannon is looking forward to Sept. 8.

"The celebration of any 450th anniversary is of incredible importance. For St. Augustine, it is the celebration of the city, the parish and of its mission to the Native Americans in surrounding areas," he said.

The diocese and the city have worked together on plans for four years. The city will host a series of free concerts and other events, Sept. 4-7. Details are on line at Events on Sept. 8 include a historical reenactment of Menendez's landing at Mission Nombre de Dios and a Mass of thanksgiving at the cathedral with Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley the principal celebrant and homilist.

A relic of St. Augustine of Hippo will be displayed at the cathedral. Diocesan officials said the appearance of the relic marks the first time it has left Italy. It will be on loan from the Vatican Treasury through Sept. 30.

Pope writes for the St. Augustine Catholic, newspaper of the St. Augustine Diocese.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015