St. Augustine, Florida, is known as “The Old City,” and for good reason. Founded in 1565, it is the oldest continuously occupied settlement of European origin in the contiguous United States. The city was founded Sept. 8, 1565, and Evelyn Lopez-Kelly, Faith Travel Association member and director of leisure sales for St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches VCB explains the significance of that date.
“There was a feast of Thanksgiving between the Spaniards that arrived and the native Timucuan Indians on that day,” says Lopez-Kelly. “It was followed by the very first documented formal Catholic Mass in North America, which was led by Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales. And on that day, the first Catholic Parish in North America was founded. That was just the beginning.”
More than 460 years later, St. Augustine remains a robust destination for faith-based travelers. Though its roots were centered primarily on the Catholic church, multiple faiths have a historical presence in the city of nearly 15,000 residents on the Atlantic Coast of northeast Florida. Tours of the city may include a number of historically significant churches and places of worship, including these three.
Mission Nombre de Dios and the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche
This small mission is a National Pilgrimage site, where pilgrims come from all parts of the world to pray for fertility, for the health of their children, and for safe delivery of those expecting. The mission grounds include the Great Cross, the Rustic Altar, stations of the Seven Sorrows of Mary, a museum, and a gift shop. While visits are self-guided, the mission and shrine do offer tours for groups, as well as planning for retreats or pilgrimages.
Memorial Presbyterian Church
While the congregation formed in 1824, its current structure was built in 1889 and dedicated in March 1890. Memorial Presbyterian Church stands as a tribute not only to Henry Flagler’s beloved daughter, Jennie Louise, but as a monument to Flagler’s own faith and vision. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Henry Morrison Flagler remains one of the preeminent developers of Florida. Church services are held weekly throughout the year, and self-guided tours are available.
St. Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine
The first colony of Greek people came to America in 1768 as part of the Andrew Turnbull New Smyrna Colony. Dedicated to their memory is St. Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine, an institution of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. It is located in the Avero House, where Greek settlers found solace after leaving the colony in New Smyrna. The shrine consists of exhibits depicting the life of early Greeks in America and the development of the Greek Orthodox Church in the U.S. It also includes St. Photios Chapel, a museum, and a gift shop, all of which surround a beautiful garden. The shrine is located on St. George Street and is open for tours daily.
Other faith options
Religious travelers can visit three other churches in St. Augustine that have a rich history: Trinity Episcopal Church, which is the oldest Protestant church in Florida and is known for its beautiful stained glass windows; Grace Methodist Church, which was also built by Henry Flagler and was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1979; and Cathedral Basilica, which was built in 1797, reconstructed in the late 1880s, and symbolizes the nation’s oldest diocese.
Lopez-Kelley also recommends two faith-based events for travelers to experience. One is the Blessing of the Fleet, a historical ceremony dating back to the city’s earliest days of Spanish colonial occupation. This event is hosted by the St. Augustine Yacht Club and takes place every year on Palm Sunday. Commercial and pleasure boats receive a blessing from the Bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine at St. Augustine Municipal Marina.
The other is Founder’s Day, which is celebrated annually on the Saturday closest to Sept. 8, which is the date in 1565 when the first Catholic parish in North America was founded. The celebration starts in the morning at the Mission Nombre de Dios with a re-enactment of the landing of Pedro Menendez and his crew and a re-created Celebration of Thanksgiving Catholic Mass.
Beyond faith attractions
St. Augustine offers more than faith-based sites for the more than 6 million visitors the city annual attracts. Lopez-Kelley specifically lists the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, Old Town Trolley, Ripley’s Red Train Tours, The Colonial Quarter, Flagler College, and Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth as highlights.
While its location on Florida’s Atlantic Coast makes St. Augustine great for outdoor fun, the area has many other activities that groups may enjoy. These include guided tours by local companies, as well as walking tours of cemeteries and other historical sites.
“There are miles of wide-open beaches, parks, attractions and safe spaces that make this such an appealing destination for faith-minded visitors to explore,” says Lopez-Kelley. “Also, there are several quality boat tours and experiences that provide a perspective on the spectacular St. Augustine maritime heritage and showcase the area’s wide-open spaces and natural beauty.”
A native of Long Island, she moved to the coastal Florida city in 1986. Lopez-Kelley’s years as a St. Augustine resident and her knowledge of the area make her the perfect point of contact for operators looking to add St. Augustine to a Florida itinerary.
“Our DMO provides several services free of charge, such as helping with itinerary planning; assisting with hotels, restaurants, and attractions; providing collateral material about the destination to tour operators and/or their clients; recommending experiences that will help make the tour unique and special; and providing a calendar of local events.”
With so much to see, St. Augustine is definitely a multi-day destination. “A group would need at least two nights in St. Augustine,” says Lopez-Kelley. “We have knowledgeable tour guides that will share information about the city, its churches, and its history.”
Photos by St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches VCB