Florida Archaeologists Uncover Oldest Church in U.S.

In May 2014, an archaeological dig in St. Augustine, Florida, uncovered what experts believe may be the foundation of a 17th century church and friary, the oldest in the United States.The discovery on the grounds of the historic Mission Nombre de Dios (“Name of God”) dates back to the 1670s, when the Spanish governor of Florida ordered a church to be erected near the site of a fort which was under construction at the time, the Castillo de San Marcos.

The excavation was part of an ongoing project of University of Florida archaeologist Kathy Deagan.  Deagan has been joined in her research by Gifford Waters, collections manager of the Florida Museum of Natural History.  Under the direction of Deagan and Waters, the 2014 excavation uncovered walls of stucco and coquina stone, pieces of blue and white pottery, and the remains of a structure built with “tabby”, a material which includes seashells.  

In all, the team has uncovered more than half of the 337-year-old church, as well as interior rooms which may have been part of a friary for the Spanish missionaries.  It’s believed that the newly uncovered structure is the earliest finished stone structure in colonial Spanish Florida.  At 90 feet by 40 feet, it was the largest church in the Spanish colonies at the time.

Work has stopped for now; but archaeologists plan to excavate the interior of the rooms within the next two years.

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I had the opportunity to visit the Mission Nombre de Dios back in 1973 and again this year, as part of our Great 2014 Road Trip; so I thought I’d share some photos and stories about the serene grounds in northeastern Florida.

History of the Mission – On September 8, 1565, Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles landed with a band of settlers on the shore of what is now Florida, where he established the city of St. Augustine.  A formal Franciscan mission–perhaps the first mission in the continental United States–was founded near the city in 1587.  The Mission Nombre de Dios served nearby villages of the Mocama tribe, a Timucua group, and was at the center of an important chiefdom in the late 16th and 17th centuries.

At the Mission, resident Spanish colonists were served by missionaries–first Jesuits, then later Franciscans.  The missionaries also attempted to evangelize the local Mocama and Agua Dulce peoples near St. Augustine, converting the chief and his daughter.

In the 1670s, the Spanish governor of Florida ordered a church to be erected on a site adjacent to the Castillo de San Marcos, a fortress which was under construction.  The church was completed in 1677, and was dedicated to Nuestra Senora de la Leche y Buen Parto–which means “Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery.”

The church was destroyed several times in the ensuing years.  The original building–the one uncovered in this most recent dig–was burned by the British during an invasion.

Votive candles glow in the chapel of Our Lady of La Leche

Today, the faithful and the curious visit this church, a quiet spot for prayer and reflection.  Some make a pilgrimage to pray before the statue of Our Lady of La Leche, lighting candles and scrolling prayers for a couple just beginning married life, for the gift of a child, or for a healthy pregnancy and a safe delivery.    

The peaceful cemetery contains the remains of soldiers and settlers dating back to the 1700s.

Oh, and this heron:  Did he mind that we were standing beside him in the cemetery, snapping photos?  Not at all.




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  • retiredconservative

    As much as I love news like this, I believe the Santa Fe mission was completed before this church was built, making it the oldest church in the US: http://santafe.org/Visiting_Santa_Fe/Entertainment/Historic_Sites/

    • kathyschiffer

      Hi Retired– Yes and no. It’s always so confusing about dates like this! Actually, neither the Santa Fe mission nor this one still stands; but I think the St. Augustine mission’s claim that it’s the oldest is due to the fact that the “mission” community was established in 1587–even though there have been four different churches on that spot in the ensuing years.

  • Jerry

    An Altar was erected on the spot where the first Mass was celebrated in St. Augustine in 1565. Also the home of the first Thanksgiving celebration. Visit this place if you can

  • Episteme

    That first photo makes me nostalgic for my undergraduate archaeology days (I’ve since switched to registering & working with museum collections), since my Field School was working at a 12th century Irish monastery church site. Good to see, from the second photo, that they’re finding more than just rusty medieval nails within the foundation!

    (of course, that’s for the unfortunate souls stuck working on the St. Augustine dig in the later years of the project’s timeline, like I was doing on that St. Ciaran site…) ;D