Pedro Menendez and the First Spanish Settlers
In Spain after 1492, following the defeat of the Moors and the expulsion of the Jews, to be Spanish was to be Catholic. The crown ruled the temporal world and worked closely with the church to govern ecclesiastical matters. Separation of church and state in that age would have seemed preposterous. And as the age of exploration drew the Spanish to the New World, land was claimed for God and country. The gain to be gotten was commercial as well as spiritual. When Pedro Menendez de Aviles set sail to secure Florida for Spain under a contract made with King Philip II, his plan was to set up a permanent settlement strategically placed to protect the Spanish trade routes. Essential to a settlement, in addition to military force, were priests who would minister to the spiritual needs of the settlers and bring the faith of the Spanish to the natives. So just after Menendez claimed St. Augustine for God and country by driving a cross into the sand, a Mass of thanksgiving was celebrated by Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, who became the fledgling parish’s first pastor.
From that day, September 8, 1565, to this, there has been an unbroken Catholic presence in St. Augustine, Florida. For most of the next 200 years – the First Spanish Period – St. Augustine was a rough and ready military presidio governed by the Spanish crown and the Catholic Church. The order imposed kept temporal and spiritual chaos at bay. There is lasting evidence of much devotion, and many good works by the priests, friars, and townspeople. One lasting example is the devotion to Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto – the nurturing Madonna – which dates back to 1603. For 400 years, the faithful have come to pray for safe pregnancies and healthy births at the first Marian Shrine in the United States. Catholic journalist, Sandra Miesel, wrote that the popularity of the title has lead to the Blessed Mother “becoming the informal patroness of the nonsectarian La Leche League for nursing mothers.”
Father Miguel O’Reilly
Protestant England had a hand in the Catholic faith continuing in St. Augustine, even at a time when most of the Spanish had evacuated to Cuba. In 1768, indentured servants were recruited by the British on the island of Minorca to work an Indigo plantation in Florida, south of St. Augustine. Accompanying the Minorcans was Father Pedro Camps. When living conditions became intolerable in 1777, the settlers and their priest were given sanctuary in St. Augustine.
At the same time, young men were being recruited from Ireland, where the Catholic faith was suppressed, to enter the Catholic seminary in Salamanca, Spain. Among them were Thomas Hassett and Michael O’Reilly. Immediately following his ordination in 1778, Father O’Reilly was assigned to minister to the Minorcans in St. Augustine. But since Spain was an ally of the American colonists in their fight for independence, British St. Augustine was blockaded. Father Camps would continue his heroic work, and Father Miguel O’Reilly would have to wait until the end of the American Revolution to arrive in St. Augustine, along with Father Hassett in what would be the beginning of the Second Spanish Period. When Father Hassett move on to Louisiana, Father O’Reilly became pastor of the St. Augustine parish and vicario of East Florida. A few years later, in 1797, he dedicated the new parish church (now the Cathedral-Basilica) that was begun five years earlier. Despite suffering from continuing illnesses for the last 10 years of his life, and being rebuked for not doing more, Father O’Reilly would serve the parishioners of St. Augustine faithfully for 28 years until his death in 1812. In addition to the Cathedral, Father O’Reilly’s legacy includes the house that bears his name, which he had the foresight to leave in his will to a teaching order of nuns, and one of his students who took his lessons at the O’Reilly House – Felix Varela.
Father Felix Varela
Born in Cuba in 1788 to a military family, Felix Varela was orphaned by the time he was six and came to live with his maternal grandparents in St. Augustine. His grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel Bartolome Morales, was commandant of the Cuban regiment garrisoned in Castillo de San Marcos, so young Felix grew up living in the fort and was expected to follow in his father’s and his grandfather’s footsteps. Lt. Col. Morales requested that Father Miguel O’Reilly become the boy’s mentor, and for the next eight years, Varela took his lessons at the O’Reilly House. The influence of his mentor proved stronger than that of his grandfather when, at the age of fourteen, Varela successfully defended his decision to become a soldier of Christ rather than a soldier for the Spanish crown.
Returning to Cuba, he distinguished himself as a brilliant student, and was ordained a priest in 1811. He became a professor and soon produced a bounty of publications in Latin, and then published the first philosophical works in Spanish. His love of truth and justice drew him into the political arena and he was elected to the Spanish parliament. In 1821, he went to Madrid to represent Cuban interests. Two years later, the parliament was abolished and the members of parliament, including Varela, faced imprisonment. Father Varela escaped, first to Gibraltar and then to New York City. He was condemned to death in absentia by the Spanish crown.
For the next 30 years he served the Catholics of New York, particularly the poor Irish immigrants, for whom he had a special place in his heart, possibly due to his devotion to his former mentor in St. Augustine, Father O’Reilly. Eventually he became Vicar General of the Diocese of New York. Throughout his long tenure in New York he continued to fight against social injustice, writing prolifically in favor of the abolishment of slavery and bringing independence to Cuba by peaceful means. By 1849, he was in poor health and would spend the last five winters of his life in his boyhood home of St. Augustine. In February of 1853 he died in a house adjacent to the parish church (now the Cathedral’s East Courtyard) and was buried in Tolomato Cemetery.
Revered as a patriot in his native Cuba, his remains were eventually re-interred in Havana in 1911. His cause for canonization is currently before the Holy Father, and because of him, St. Augustine has become a pilgrimage destination for current Cuban exiles.
Bishop Augustin Verot
When Jean-Pierre Augustin Marcellin Verot was born in Le Puy, France in 1805, Father O’Reilly was still the pastor in St. Augustine and Felix Varela was a seminarian at the Seminary College of San Carlos and San Ambrosio in Cuba. He himself would enter the seminary in France and be ordained in 1828. Shortly thereafter, he left for Baltimore and a teaching position at the Sulpician college of St. Mary’s. After 22 years of teaching, he was assigned pastoral duties in Maryland, and three years later he was offered the appointment to the newly formed Vicariate of Florida in St. Augustine. Just after the start of the American Civil War, he became Bishop of Savannah, which, four years later would be spared the wrath of Sherman’s march to the sea. While in Savannah, he retained his vicarial jurisdiction of Florida. Among his war experiences was spiritual aid and consolation to the 30,000 disease-ridden and dying Northern soldiers held captive at the infamous Andersonville Prison.
At the end of the war, Bishop Verot traveled to his hometown in France to recruit members of the Sisters of St. Joseph to come to St. Augustine to teach the children of former slaves. In the fall of 1866, eight Sisters of St. Joseph took up residence in the O’Reilly House and shortly thereafter starting teaching their first class of African-American students.
During the First Vatican Council of 1869-70, Verot furthered his reputation of being a “Rebel Bishop” because of his vigorous opposition of papal infallibility, his favoring of reconciliation with Protestants, and his recommendation that Galileo should be officially pardoned. It was while in Rome that he learned that St. Augustine was to become a separate diocese and that he could be assigned if he wished. In October of 1870, he became the first bishop of St. Augustine. Having presented his arguments at the Council, he accepted the final position taken by the Vatican Council, and in his first sermon upon his return to St. Augustine, he announced his adhesion to the constitution promulgated in Rome.
Before his death in 1876, Bishop Verot started a Catholic newspaper, bought back the land of Mission Nombre de Dios from private owners, rebuilt the la Leche Chapel, found the early parish records in Havana, and transferred the O’Reilly House to the Sisters of St. Joseph in keeping with the will of Father O’Reilly. As was Father O’Reilly and Father Varela before him, Bishop Augustin Verot was buried in Tolomato Cemetery.