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.
The National Registry of Historic Places:
St. Michael’s Catholic Basilica at 21 North Palafox Street is an example of Gothic Revival architecture constructed in 1886. The three story-height masonry church is faced with smooth stucco over brick and features Gothic-style ornament. Gothic features include pointed arched windows and doorways, and spire topped towers of differing heights on the northeast and southeast corners. The church has been a prominent landmark within the district since its construction.
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.
Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel
What is a Basilica?
There are two kinds of basilicas: major basilicas and minor basilicas. The world’s four major basilicas, or papal basilicas are in Rome. Minor basilicas are both in Rome and elsewhere throughout the world. Minor basilicas are given special ecclesiastical privileges by the Holy Father.
A basilica is expected “to be a center of active and pastoral liturgy” according to the 1989 Vatican document regarding the sacredness of worship space. In a minor basilica, all the liturgical roles for congregation members are to be promoted, liturgical music is to be prayerfully developed, and special feasts days and devotional practices are to be observed. The feast days include the World Day of the Sick on February 16th, the feast of the chair of Peter on February 22nd, the solemnity of the apostles Peter and Paul on June 29th, election or inauguration anniversaries of the pope, the titular of the Basilica and the basilica’s anniversary of consecration. Devotional practices include regular scheduling of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, frequent and regular times for Eucharistic Adoration, Stations of the Cross, devotional practices honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Lenten penitential practices.
There are three symbols that indicate that a church is a minor basilica. The first symbol is a conopaeum, a silk canopy or umbrella designed with stripes of yellow and red, traditional papal colors. The second symbol is the tintinnabulum, or bell. It is mounted on a pole and may be carried in processions. These symbols are located to the right of the Annunciation window. The third symbol is the papal coat of arms affixed on right pillar outside the main entrance to the Basilica.
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 Mobile, Michael Portier:
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.
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.
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: