Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine

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Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine
The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine is a historic cathedral in St. Augustine, Florida and the seat of the Catholic Bishop of St. Augustine. It is located at Cathedral Street between Charlotte and St. George Streets. Constructed over five years (1793”“1797), it was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark on April 15, 1970.

The structure built in the United States. In the mid 1560s, Spanish Conquistadors moved from their Caribbean strongholds northward to what is Florida today. The first colony that was founded and stayed continuously occupied was St. Augustine. The Spanish settlers began immediately to establish a Catholic church. Although it would seem that the religious commitment of the settlers would be enough alone to drive them to erecting a church, the drive was intensified by another aspect of their odyssey into the new world: the Spanish monarchs had also ordered the natives of the new world to be converted to Catholicism. Therefore, this project was not only for the morale of the Spaniards, but also a tool that would be later used to convert Native Americans. The cathedral was completed rapidly. However, given that the Spaniards present were mostly sailors and had little experience in architecture, the first Cathedral of St. Augustine was very simple with an array of materials and overall hurried confusion about the building. As the British army would have it, the original parish would be short lived anyway. In 1586, an attack led by Sir Francis Drake on St. Augustine resulted in the cathedral burning down. Almost as persistently as two decades before, the Spaniards began rebuilding the cathedral once again and completed the second construction in a matter of months once again. Once again though, the cathedral was rather poorly constructed out of primarily straw and palmetto, which proved to be a very non-durable and temporary material in such a humid climate. Regardless of construction quality of the second structure, history would later repeat itself in 1599 because the second cathedral would suffer the same fate of burning, except this time the fire was due to natural conditions. Shortly after the news of the second cathedral’s demise made it back to Spain, a tithe was placed for several years and in 1605, the third attempt was made to construct the church. By this time, more experiences architects and builders from Europe had begun to make their way over to the new world and the third cathedral was built with permanence in mind. It was constructed from timber, and would stay intact for the next nine and a half decades. Years after the timber cathedral had been completed, the church began to deteriorate due to lack of maintenance, climatic conditions, and severe fluctuation in the congregation's size. Consequently, when the church was burned down for a third time in 1702 in an unsuccessful British raid to overtake the city led by James Moore, the cathedral would vanish from the city for over ninety years. Undoubtedly, there were attempts throughout to rebuilt, the most notable in 1707. The king had sent a large sum of money for the cathedral to be rebuilt. The money never made it to the cathedral because the colony was in poor shape, so instead the money was spent on goods, back pay for soldiers, and public officials getting their cut. Since a similar misallocation of funds had occurred in almost exactly the same manner about a century prior, the Crown had a sense of resentment towards funding what seemed to be a money pit. During this period, the congregation would have mass in what was a portion of the hospital in St. Augustine. This ended up being detrimental to the size and morale of the congregation, and to the relations with Native Americans, many of whom had converted to Catholicism. From 1763 to 1784, Florida fell under British rule, and concern for reconstruction dwindled into nonexistence. However, only two years after the Spanish regained control of the Florida area, a new sense of pride was instilled in the citizenry and a plan for a grand Cathedral was put into motion. Then, as planned, in 1793 the beginnings of the Cathedral of St. Augustine as we know it today, were created and this rendition of the project, being the longest running in the parish’s history, finally reached completion in August of 1797.

Upon entering the cathedral, a visitor would pass under a circular arch, which is a direct architectural feature of the Classical period, and true to Classical style, one each side of the arch, there is a Doric column supporting the structure. In 1887, just as fire had plagued the cathedral in the past, the structure burned once again. However, the damage was not total and the exterior shell of the building was still salvageable due to an inflammable material used for the exterior walls. At this time the congregation hired New York architect James Renwick, Jr. to restore the burned cathedral. Upon restoration, many improvements were made; to start the church was enlarged, particularly the addition of a transept to give the church a more European style. Also, as the truss system before was somewhat plain, Renwick devised a roof system that still relied on timber, but decided to decorate the timbers and leave and exposed ceiling, which today makes for a beautiful view upon entering the church seeing the decorated and varnished chords in the upper portion of the structure. One possible misconception of the history of the Cathedral of St. Augustine is the well-known bell tower that graces the top of the building. This was not the first time in the U.S. that an exposed bell tower had been placed on a church, or Spanish type of religious structure. In fact, by this point, Spanish missions had already moved far west, and had built cathedrals in Arizona, New Mexico, California, Texas, and Mexico. The bell tower was placed on the Cathedral of St. Augustine because the exposed bell at the front of the cathedral had become a well known symbol of the Spanish mission. Despite the technique being used elsewhere, a certain grandeur was still associated with this specific cathedral. As such, four bells were placed at the Cathedral of St. Augustine; one of which is still thought to be the oldest bell in the United States to this day because it is thought to have been salvaged from a previous church. As for the other bells, one of the more ironic features of the cathedral, one of the bells was taken from a British cathedral, the very empire that had burned this church more than once in the past. The last rebuilding of the cathedral (not the remodelling) included an idea for building materials that was remarkably innovative. Since fire had demonstrated to be a problem in the past, the notion arose to use an nonflammable material, and with a reasonably modest budget coupled with constraints of transport, a solution was not so clear. In the end, however, apparently due to Amerindian construction knowledge, coquina stone was used for the exterior walls. The great aspect of this material was it is a sedimentary rock, created primarily from the decomposition of seashells. As St. Augustine is a city near the coast, the stone could be quarried and transported with minimal distance to travel, and it was easy to quarry because the stone was saturated with seawater when quarried. After pulled out of an extremely wet environment, the stone hardens to a regular stone consistency when dry. This served the exact purpose that was required and was done with minimal effort and cost.

Social Changes
After completion of the cathedral, morale and stability came to area, in part due to government consistency and also in part to the fact that the cathedral was an integral part of the community and one of the strong ties between the settlers and the Native Americans that had converted. As a reflection of the social change and the church being a binding tie between people of the area, the chandelier that hangs in the nave of the church was lit, and was never let burn out for more than a moment for over a hundred years.