Parish History

The Parish of St. Michael the Archangel traces its origin to August 14, 1559 with the arrival of Don Tristan de Luna and his fleet. The Dominican priests who were part of that expedition celebrated the first Mass on August 15, 1559, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Parish was canonically established on May 10, 1781 and has served the Catholic community in northwest Florida for over 235 years. In recognition of the Parish’s historic significance and architectural beauty, St. Michael Church was elevated to the status of a minor basilica on December 28, 2011 by His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI. Our mission is: “Proclaim Christ: Encounter Him in Word, Sacrament and Service.”

We invite you to look through the six sections below as you explore this rich history of the Catholic Church in Pensacola and Northwest Florida. There have been many changes and great growth over these 450+ years. This brief history can only recall some highlights. The last section contains many references for additional exploration of Pensacola and the Church in Northwest Florida.

What is a basilica?  A basilica is a term used from the fourth century on wards for churches build with marble columns and a wooden ceiling, by comparison with Roman secular buildings.  This name is also a privilege granted by the Pope to pilgrimage churches, or churches who meet certain criteria in architecture, presence in the community and Catholic history and contribution to a city.

The Beginning: 1559–1886

In 2009, when Pensacola celebrated the 450th anniversary of the first settlement, we at St. Michael likewise celebrated the 450th anniversary of the Catholic presence in what would become the United States of America. It was on August 14, 1559 that a Spanish expedition, consisting of eleven ships under the command of Don Tristan de Luna y Arellano, landed on the shores of Pensacola Bay intending to establish a permanent settlement. In that expedition were 500 soldiers, 1000 settlers (among them, artisans, farmers, women, and children), five Dominican Friars, a lay Brother and 240 horses.

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Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel

Basilica is a title of honor bestowed on a church of historic and spiritual importance by the Holy Father. It may be a parish church, a cathedral, or a shrine. These special churches serve as a center for the community of faith in demonstrating and living out the Gospel values. The title of Basilica was bestowed on the church of St. Michael the Archangel by Pope Benedict XVI on December 28, 2011.

The title Basilica carries with it both privileges and obligations. Among the primary privileges are the right to display the coat of arms of the pope who designated the church as a Basilica and to display the church’s own coat of arms bearing the marks of the pope.

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Historical Records, Relics, and Artistic Treasures

It is unfortunately inevitable that, after enduring numerous fires and hurricanes over its history, so many early parish records of St. Michael have been lost. That any survived is testament to the efforts of its pastors and priests to preserve and protect them.

The earliest records still in existence are “Book 2 of Matrimony” dating from 1811 and “Baptism of Negroes”, dating from 1817 (and ending, as a separate record, in 1882). The “Record Book of Funerals of White Persons of the holy catholic church of Pensacola, West Florida” dates from 1840.

Early entries were recorded in either Spanish or Latin while some entries in English began in 1835 with the pastorate of Father Symphorian Guinard. The following sample entries were recorded in English in 1844 by Father T. M. Portier, nephew of former St. Michael pastor and the then Bishop of Louisiana, Michael Portier:


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St. Michael’s Cemetery

This eight acre tract in the heart of downtown Pensacola dates back to 1781 when it was first used as a burial place by the Spanish. The land was officially designated a cemetery by the King of Spain in 1807 and granted to St. Michael Parish. The revenue from the sale of lots was intended “to provide the bread and wine for the Holy Sacrifice.” The oldest documented tomb is that of Jose Roig who was born in Catalonia, Spain in 1727 and died in Pensacola in 1812. In 1824 the West Florida Land Commission approved the site for continued use as a graveyard. St. Michael was the only burial ground in the city until 1876.

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St. Michael’s School

The first school associated with St. Michael Parish actually dates to 1860, but its operation was interrupted by the Civil War. Beginning in 1871, the Sisters of the Holy Cross operated St. Michael Academy and Parish School. Then in June 1877, seven Sisters of Mercy from the Motherhouse in New Orleans, Louisiana, responding to a request from Bishop Quinlan of Mobile, set sail for Pensacola in preparation for the opening of a new school. Plans were finalized and Saint Michael School officially opened in 1877 in a large, two-story, sixteen-room house where the sisters lived and taught.

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We hope that reading through these pages has inspired you to pursue a more in-depth and more scholarly study of the fascinating history of Pensacola and of the birth and growth of the Catholic faith in Northwest Florida. To this end, we recommend the following works and acknowledge their contribution to these pages:

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