Sacred Soil: The Mission de Nombre de Dios and Cathedral Basilica

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There is a sacred current running through the history of St. Augustine that draws thousands each year to the Oldest City. It’s the site of the first Christian settlement and the home of two holy touchstones: the Mission de Nombre de Dios and Cathedral Basilica.

When Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles first spotted land on August 28, 1565, he placed a small wooden cross in the soil on what was the feast day of Saint Augustine of Hippo. Among the 800 people carried to the New World from Spain were four diocesan priests who celebrated the first Mass and ministered to the new settlers. He founded the new colony, St. Augustine, at the site of what is now the Mission de Nombre de Dios on September 8, the same day the parish was founded.

P1100335The great cross was installed as part of the 400th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine and the Mission de Nombre de Dios on September 8, 1963. The cross weighs approximately 70 tons and consists of 200 stainless steel panels. Lights mounted on the ground illuminate the cross at night, and the base of the Cross is covered with granite slabs, many of which are inscribed as memorials from family and loved ones. 

An 11-foot bronze statue of Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, considered the first pastor of the United States, sculpted by Dr. Ivan Mestrovic, was commissioned by Archbishop Joseph Hurley in 1940 and is officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The historic Cathedral Basilica is located at Cathedral Street between Charlotte and St. George Streets and is the seat of the Catholic Bishop of St. Augustine. Construction of the Cathedral as it stands today was completed over five years from 1793-1797. It was rebuilt in the 18th century after a series of fires claimed the original structures. It is the oldest church in Florida and was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark on April 15, 1970.

To commemorate the city’s and Cathedral Parish’s 450th anniversary, the first-class relic of Saint Augustine of Hippo, patron saint of this city, the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Augustine, and the diocese, is on loan from the Vatican Treasury. As Deacon Charles Kanaszka carried the relic in procession, many who attended the ceremony captured the moment.

P1100369Father Thomas Willis, rector of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine explains that the significance of the relic is the belief in the Incarnation. The relic is a knucklebone of a finger, encased in a reliquary (a holder of sacred relics), a silver and jeweled crucifix, with the inscription “Pope Pius X, 1904.” Says Willis, “It was just a wow night, I think, for the parish, and for everybody who was here from outside the parish. You could see a palpable joy on the faces of the people and the singing was coming from their hearts.”

Father Willis first asked for a relic of Augustine more than four years ago. The planning and coordination between Vatican and Italian officials and the Diocese of St. Augustine culminated in June when the relic arrived at the Catholic Center in Jacksonville. This is the first time the relic has left Italy. It will be in the Diocese of St. Augustine through September 30.

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