Historian Michael Francis Expands on St. Augustine’s Religious History

By Margo C. Pope

Colonial Florida historian J. Michael Francis, Ph.D., says a sometimes overlooked story of St. Augustine is its religious history beyond the story of the Spanish missions of early Florida.

Dr. Michael Francis | Photo by Brandon Duncan

Dr. Michael Francis | Photo by Brandon Duncan

Francis was the 16th annual Augustinian Day speaker for the Cathedral Basilica’s celebration Friday of the feast day of its patron saint, Augustine, the fourth-century Bishop of Hippo. Francis is the Hough Family Endowed Chair, University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. He is author of the new book, St. Augustine: America’s First City, A Story of Unbroken History and Enduring Spirit.

Francis dedicated his presentation to historian Michael Gannon, Ph.D., distinguished service professor of history emeritus, University of Florida. “I think anyone who works on Florida history owes a great debt to Michael Gannon. …I do not fill his shoes but I hope I have something of interest to share with you tonight.”

Gannon and Francis are members of the Federal 450th Commemoration Commission. He directed the 400th anniversary of Mission Nombre de Dios including the erection of the 208-foot Great Cross.

Most writings about St. Augustine, founded in 1565, are about the missions, the military and the economy. But, Francis said, “We know less about its own internal religious history.”

Here are some lesser-known facts:

  • The name of the fourth priest on the 1565 expedition of Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to Florida. Three are known: Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales, chaplain; Father Rodrigo Garcia de Trujillo and Father Pablo de Rueda. Francis said he may have found the identity of the fourth priest, Father Baltasar de Vargas. But, he is uncertain if Vargas arrived with Menéndez or with Sancho de Archiniega in 1566. His research continues.
  • Menéndez left rules for his captains to enforce after he left in 1566. Among them were: the men should not blaspheme or fight each other, and that everyone must hear Mass on Sunday and on every feast day. The punishment was loss of their wine ration. The rules dictated where the wine ration would go; half to the hospital for general support of the poor, and half to the munitions officer. Francis questioned the wisdom of the latter allocation but added, “This gives us a pretty unique window of what Menéndez expected of 16th century Spaniards in general,” he said.
Photo by Brandon Duncan

Photo by Brandon Duncan

More new information:

  • What the Spaniards took with them after the colony became British by treaty in 1763. Francis said British Lt. Col. James Robertson said they carried with them the remains of their ancestors including one of the governors. “They took everything they could. The city was virtually abandoned…3,096 people left, except four families who stayed,” he said.
  • The oldest will that was written in St. Augustine. In the archives of Seville, Francis found the will of Bernard Jansen, a German sailor who died on Aug. 27, 1566. He requested that what money he had be spent on a Missa Cantata (sung Mass) and three other Masses for the repose of his soul.
  • An ingenious part of the Menéndez story − “go betweens” as translators. He captured young Native American children of the elite natives, under age 12, to educate them and teach them religion in Spain. He also negotiated to take some young Spanish boys back to Spain for training. Two Native American children died in Spain but the others returned and all were “dropped off” throughout the colony to be translators, Francis said.

Father Tom Willis, pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Augustine, said the presentation broadened the history of “our town.” “Dr. Francis has been able to do a lot of research on people, places and events of the first 50 years of our town’s existence that had not been known before.”