Catholicism was a central and all-pervasive aspect of life in Spanish St. Augustine. Rules of social conduct for all Christians—European, American Indian or African—were largely set forth and enforced by the Church, and social activities were scheduled and organized by the annual round of religious feasts and observations.
Religious brotherhoods devoted to specific saints and rituals were active in St. Augustine from the earliest days of the colony onward. Although Jesuit missionaries began efforts to convert the Florida Indians to Catholicism shortly after the arrival of Menéndez, they were not successful, and they left the Florida mission field in 1571.
The first Franciscans arrived in St. Augustine in 1573, and by 1587 had established the Mission of Nombre de Dios at a Timucuan town on the outskirts of St. Augustine.
Their success was largely owing to Doña María Meléndez, the ruling chief of the town of Nombre de Dios. Other missions to the north, extending to what is today north Georgia, soon followed.
The Franciscans also built a monastery (convento) a short distance south of St. Augustine in 1588. The convento and its chapel were destroyed in the fire of 1599, and remained in ruins until 1603.
Secular priests ministered to the spiritual needs of the Spanish colonists at the parish churches of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (1572-1597) and Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (1597-1763).
Doña María Meléndez
Doña María was the ruler of the town of Nombre de Dios during the 1580’s and 1590’s (the Timucua often had women rulers). She was a Christian, and her mother (who had been the ruling Chief before her) was one of the very early Timucua converts to Christianity.
Doña María married a Spanish soldier named Clemente de Vernal, and he lived with her at Nombre de Dios. Doña María saved the residents of St. Augustine from starvation in 1587 by supplying them with a large quantity of corn, when the town was flooded with hundreds of refugees—not only from the abandonment of Santa Elena, but also the survivors of five Spanish shipwrecks that occurred off Florida in that year.
Like all Timucua chiefs, she was part of a hereditary elite class respected by the Spaniards as nobles. Her son became the chief of another Timucua Indian mission town, San Juan del Puerto, in the 17th century.
Alonso de Escobedo
Father Alonso de Escobedo sailed from Spain to Florida in 1586, but was captured by English pirates upon reaching Hispaniola. He and his companions were stripped of their goods and abandoned by the pirates. He finally made his way to Havana, where he joined with a contingent of several other Franciscan Friars and came to Florida. Fray Alonso was assigned to the mission village of Nombre de Dios, near St. Augustine where he is thought to have baptized more than a hundred Indians. During his time there he began (and possibly finished) a long epic poem called La Florida, describing his experiences in America. This was the first European poem written in North America. Despite the success of conversion efforts at Nombre de Dios, Fray Escobedo had left Florida by 1600, and returned to Spain, where his poem eventually came to reside in the Biblioteca Nacional.
Cristóbal de Coleantes
Cristóbal de Coleantes was a soldier, and he served in both Santa Elena and St. Augustine. He formed a merchandising company with another soldier, Antón Martín, to wholesale and retail game, fish, lard and honey to taverns and households of St. Augustine. Coleantes was a member of the Brotherhood of the Holy Cross, a penitent order. He died in St. Augustine, and left in his will a robe and flagellant whip.
The following resources include only a few of the many works that have been written on these topics. We have chosen those you see here because they are relatively recent (or have continued as enduring classics), they are published in easily accessible formats, and they are generally non-technical in their presentation. These sources will also lead you to many more popular and scholarly publications on these topics.
Most of these resources can be found through your public library. Other useful sites for locating many of these readings include the University Press of Florida and the St. Augustine Historical Society. For a complete list of archaeological sources, visit the Florida Museum Historical Archaeology site.
Gannon, Michael V. 1965 The Cross in the Sand: The Early Catholic Church in Florida, 1513-1870. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.
Notes: A classic study of the Catholic church and the mission system in Florida.
Hann, John. 1996 A history of the Timucua Indians and Missions. Gainesville: University Press of Florida
Notes: A very detailed account of the Timucua Indians under Christianity.
Kapitske, Robert. 2001 Religion, power and politics in colonial St. Augustine. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Notes: A lively but scholarly account of the religious life of St. Augustine- including both secular clergy and member of orders. It addresses the political tensions and power relations within the religious community, as well as those between the religious community and the government.