The History of Old and Restored Cathedral
"If you are too busy to pray, you are busier than God wants you to be," someone said. In the busy corner of St. Augustine, facing the plaza, stands the old Cathedral, place of prayer for many a year. It is the stately successor to all earlier, simpler places of worship from the beginning of Catholic beginning of the city - oldest parish in the United States. Now the town, founded with religious ceremony in 1565, is the Cathedral City of a diocese that comprises the whole of Florida and the Bishop, with several priests has his residence adjoining the Cathedral.
This venerable Cathedral of St. Augustine was built between the years 1791 and 1797. What a multitude of memories a picture of it revives. Within its massive walls the forefathers of the Catholics of this City received their instructions in their faith. How many entered its portals in infancy to have the seal of the Church stamped on them in baptism and again were borne across the threshold when the span of life was crossed and the last sad rites were performed. The memory of the old church is deeply enshrined in the hearts of Catholics of St. Augustine. Its grey walls always appealed to the artist, and its history held a charm for tourist. Its history! The number familar with the correct history of the ancient building is limited. It is possible that few residents know that its founder was an Irish priest, but such is a fact. The Spanish architecture, Spanish population, all the environments, would lead to the supposition that it was of Spanish origin. During the English occupation great changes in religious institutions were wrought. Many influential Catholics returned to Spain or moved elsewhere. The Catholic population dwindled, although a number of English and Irish Catholics settled here during the English occupation - some of them remaining after the restoration of the Spanish Flag. Catholic institutions, however, had disappeared. There was no church, the chapels unfit for use, the convent had been transformed into a barracks. Such were the conditions when the old Cathedral was planned. To meet the wants of a province where both English and Spanish were required, the King of Spain sent Irish priests to Florida, Rev. Thomas Hassett in 1784, Rev. A. McCaffrey, Michael Crosby and a Carmelite, Father Michael Wallis, in 1791 - these last named to erect and maintain chapels on the St. Johns and St. Mary's rivers. Father Hassett became the parish priest of St. Augustine, and Father Michael O'Reilly, who came later, was appointed his assistant. This priest was destined to build the old Cathedral. He was burning with zeal and devotion and was possessed of untiring energy.
St. Augstine was again becoming a Catholic center and Father O'Reilly determined to and edifice befitting the dignity of the Ancient City. He carried his plans into execution when the King of Spain directed that the income from property in Havana owned by the St. Augustine church be paid, this with the amount received from the sale of material and two dilapidated churches; from savings; from larger and smaller church vacancies and contributions from the people, financed the building of the Church. Father O'Reilly obtained a site on the nothern side of the Plaza de Armas (or present Plaza) and proceeded with his work. In the month of April, 1791, he blessed the corner stone, and with material brought from the ruined shrines of Tolemato and Nuestra Senora de la Leche, commenced its errection.
More than five years were spent in building the famous structure. It rose steadily, a massive building of Spanish type and was completed in August, 1797. The solemn dedication was deferred until the great feast of the Immaculate Conception, when it was celebrated with all possible pomp.
St. Augustine was at last a parish church befitting its dignity as a Catholic center. This edifice of Spanish design with its Moorish belfry stood unchanged for about a century, until it was partially burned in 1887. However, the heat seemed to bake and use the coquina rock from which the walls were constructed, and they withstood the fire well. The old Cathedral was built at a cost of 16,602.00. Its founder, Rev. Father O'Reilly, became parish priest of St. Augustine in 1795, and devoted the remainder of his life to the service of his parish. He died in the month of September, 1812, and his remains are interred in the cemetery at Tolemato, now known as the old Spanish cemetery on Cordova Street.
What impressed the casual visitor was the bare, almost forbidding appearance of the huge structure. In the side walls, sixteen feet above the ground, were small rounded windows not unlike the loopholes of some medieval castle. At the north end stood within the sanctuary a wooden altar with steps ascending on both sides, which lent themselves easily to decorations such as were seen on Sundays or on the occasion of great festivals. In the body of the church there stood, to the east near the sanctuary, the altar and statue of St. Joseph, and on the opposite side, the altar of the Blessed Virgin with a justly admired Madonna of heroic size holding in her arms the Divine Infant. Near the entrance were two galleries; the upper one for the members of the choir and the other for colored people. In a recess southwest of the entrance was the baptistry. It was here that the Crucifix saved at the sacking of the chapel of Our Lady of Milk, 1725, was reverently kept. Standing outside the sacred edifice one notes many details, ancient, beautiful, symbolic. There is the graceful curving of the front wall as it follows the roof and then rises to the cross. There are the four bells hung in separate openings of the elevated front, - very ancient bells. The one in the western opening bears a date: "Sancte Joseph, Ora Pro Nobis," 1682. The smallest bell was placed in the upper niche. It was the gift of Don Geronimo Alvarez, an Alcade, to the Church. These bells which have remained silent since the fire of 1887, pealed forth three times a day - morning, noon, and evening - their joyful tunes to invite Christian people to hail, in the words of the Archangel, the Blessed Virgin who gave birth, in the mystery of the Incarnation, to the Saviour of the world. They heralded tidings of sorrow when tolling for the departed, or joy and thanksgiving in the case of a marriage, or of the baptism of a newly born child. The mode of ringing was primitive. It was neither pulley nor electricity that attuned them, but the deft hands of small urchins that pulled the rope fastened to the clapper. All of these bells were rehung when the front wall of the Cathedral was strengthened after the fire.
What the church lacked in architectural beauty had more than an offset in the veneration which it inspired in the worshipper. For within its precincts he had been regenerated in the waters of baptism, there he heard the sentence of absolution in the Sacrament of Penance, and at the Communion railing partook of the Body of Christ; there also it was that he plighted his faith for life to the helpmate of his choice.
A painting of considerable size representing the first Mass in St. Augustine was destroyed in the burning of the old Cathedral. It was highly prized and desperate efforts made to save it. Below the bells there is a statue of St. Augustine. It is as Bishop he appears here watching over his city, his cathedral, his diocese. The doorway has its own special antique beauty, with the two stately columns on either side. When the cathedral was rebuilt or restored, after the fire, the campanile, or bell-tower was added. Here are the new chime of bells, and the clock which was a gift to the city from John L. Wilson of Massachusetts. Below the clock is the sundial, an object of much attention and curiosity. "Pereunt et Imputantur" - "The hours perish and we must account for them," - the motto reminds the city, as a sundial lik this one reminded Oxford. Father Clarence E. Woodman, a Paulist priest of New York, executed and gave this interesting time-marker.
As on enters the Cathedral and looks toward the altar one may see a very precious relic which was the old Cathedral before the fire. It is the sanctuary lamp of hammered silver. A Spanish sea-captain caught in a great storm, vowed a gift to the church in whatever place the Lord would send him, - and he reached the harbor of St. Augustine in safety. There is much to see and ponder reverently in the spacious interior of the edificeTwelve stained glass windows set forth the story of the wonderful life of the patron saint, Augustine, after his conversion:1. Baptism of St. Augustine by St. Ambrose.
2. St. Augustine and St. Alpius.
3. St. Augustine with St. Monica.
4. Ordination of St. Augustine.
5. Death of St. Monica.
6. St. Augustine healing the sick.
7. Consecration of St. Augstine.
8. St. Augustine preaching.
9. St. Augustine reading the rules of his order.
10. St Augustine by the seashore.
11. Miracles at the shrine of St. Stephen in Hippo.
12. Ecstasy of St. Augustine.
Again, as one proceeds down the aisle, one sees a representation of this great saint. In the right wing in a niche is his statue, in the left wing that of his mother, St. Monica, each outlined by a border of lights.
The central altar, a magnificent specimen of sculptor's skill, represents years of toil and countless contributions through various sources. Its final purchase and erection crowned the efforts of the late Bishop Moore and the late Father Maher, to place in the Cathedral a main altar commensurate with surroundings.
Strangers wonder, possibly, about the two large statues on this altar. All things in this ancient Cathedral must link definitely with its past. St. Pius V, was Pope when Menendez, founder of the city came; and commissioned him to convert the Indians. The other, St. Francis Borgia, who is holding a skull, was then the Superior General of the Jesuit Order in Spain. He had been a prince, but when he gazed on the long dead remains of Queen Isabella, he decided that the pomps of the world were not worth while. It is to him St. Augustine is indebted for the first missionaries.
The two side altars, one dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and one to St. Joseph, were purchased prior to the main altar; the three were designed by the late Jas. Renwick of the firm Apinwall, Renwick and Owens, architects of New York, and sculptured by J. Massey Rhind of the same city. The altars are constructed of finest Carrara marble and are of renaissance models.
One notices the richness of color of the Stations of the Cross, done in oil on canvas. They were copied from originals of Overbeck, in the Pauline Chapel of the Vatican.
The organ is a magnificent instrument, built and installed by Pincher Brothers of New Orleans at a cost of $5,000. A trained and highly cultivated choir makes the church very attractive in winter to visitors of all denominations.
The harmonious brown tones of the handsomely carved Bishop's throne and of the wood in the ceiling, the prism chandelier, the rich memorial chancel rail, the beautiful arrangement of the whole interior, free from columns, all blend and help create St. Augustine's Cathedral.
Herein the Beauty and the Glory dwell Of that fair House "An House not made with hands," Unto the Faithful - them that love it well - Sweet are Its Laws, Its precepts and commands Eternal Peace keeps here her cloister cell. O House of Bread - Bethlehem! Herein, again Forthbrought is Christ, the Saviour of all men, Of all of us who eat and drink thereof Dear Lord, be not One absent one above. Ada A. Mosher