Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
For the basilica in Algeria, see Basilique Saint Augustin.
Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine
Cathedral-Basilica in St. Augustine.JPG
Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine is located in Florida
Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine
Location St. Augustine, Florida, USA
Coordinates 29°53′34″N 81°18′45″W / 29.89278°N 81.31250°W / 29.89278; -81.31250Coordinates: 29°53′34″N 81°18′45″W / 29.89278°N 81.31250°W / 29.89278; -81.31250
Built 1793-97[2][3][4]
Architectural style Spanish Colonial and Renaissance Revival[2]
Governing body Private
NRHP Reference # 70000844[1]
Significant dates
Added to NRHP April 15, 1970
Designated NHL April 15, 1970[5]

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),[3][4] it was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark on April 15, 1970.


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. It would seem that the intense religious commitment of the settlers drove them to erecting a church.

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 would have it, the original parish would be short lived anyway. In 1586, an attack on St. Augustine led by Sir Francis Drake resulted in the cathedral burning down.[6] 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 experienced 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, in 1702 when the church was again burned down during a failed British effort to take over the city led by James Moore the cathedral would vanish from the city for over ninety years. Undoubtedly, there were attempts throughout to rebuild, 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.

A historic image of the Basilica

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 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.[7]

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. Reconstruction was started through donations from Henry Flagler and funds from the congregation. At this time the congregation hired New York architect James Renwick, Jr. to restore the burned cathedral.[8] 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 an 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.[9] 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 a 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.[10] 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.


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2010-07-09. 
  2. ^ a b "Cathedral of St. Augustine". Florida Heritage Tourism Interactive Catalog. Florida's Office of Cultural and Historical Programs. 2007-09-23. 
  3. ^ a b St. Johns County markers
  4. ^ a b History of the Cathedral Parish at The Cathedral Parish of St. Augustine
  5. ^ Cathedral Of St. Augustine at National Historic Landmarks Program
  6. ^ Kapitzke, R. (1958). Religion, Power, and Politics in Colonial St. Augustine. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. 
  7. ^ Dewhurst, William (1885). History of St. Augustine, Florida. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 
  8. ^ "National Register travel itinerary". 
  9. ^ Fairbanks, George R. (1820). History and Antiquities of St. Augustine, Florida. 
  10. ^ Howe, Jeffery (2003). Houses of Worship: An Identification Guide to the History and Styles of American Religious Architecture. PRC Publishing. p. 99. 

External links[edit]