Diocese of St. Augustine archive hosts oldest American documents


The oldest extant European documents written in U.S. continental territory are now hosted at the Archives of the Diocese of St. Augustine. They collect the diocese’s parish registers and bishops’ papers alongside microfilm documenting explorations, corsair attacks, slavery and reports on Indian customs and languages.

Bishop of St. Augustine Victor Galeone dedicated a new center for the Archives of the Diocese of St. Augustine on Sept. 22.

“These are the historical papers, in the original and on microfilm, that record the beginnings of our country’s first parish, St. Augustine, Fla. (in 1565), through an interregnum when Great Britain ruled Florida (in 1763-84), up to and following the creation of the Diocese of Saint Augustine (in 1870), and as far as the present day,” commented Dr. Michael Gannon, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Florida.

“It is a story that, in 2015, will be 450 years old,” he said, according to the Diocese of Saint Augustine.

Gannon told the Associated Press that the archives are “a pocketful of miracles.” The documents traveled to Cuba, back to St. Augustine and then to South Bend, Indiana.

One of the earliest documents, dated Jan. 24, 1594, is a handwritten record by Fr. Diego Escobar de Sambrana. It describes the marriage of soldier Gabriel Hernandez to Catalina de Valdes in St. Augustine.

That marriage took place 13 years before the first successful English settlement was established at Jamestown, Virginia and 26 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts.

The archives’ artifacts include materials of the Spanish Navy admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who founded St. Augustine in 1565.

The collection is missing the first 29 years of documented life in St. Augustine. Prof. Gannon believes the missing records may have been destroyed by the forces of Sir Francis Drake, the English privateer who sacked the town in 1586.

Gannon recounted to the Associated Press his effort to collect the archives, which began in 1961. He found documents in several places: the closet of the cathedral rectory in St. Augustine, in the University of Notre Dame’s library attic, and in two large Victorian houses that were about to be demolished.

"I felt especially blessed, as though divine force was leading me one step ahead of the cleaning lady, one step ahead of the wrecking ball, one step ahead of a possible fire," he said.

Kathleen Williams, executive director of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., spoke at the dedication of the archive building.

She said some of the materials were “incredible” and “a real joy to see.”

“It gave me chills,” she told the Associated Press.

Dr. Timothy Matinova, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, said that the collection is an important resource for American Catholic history.

"As Hispanic Catholics grow in number across the country, the legacy of colonial Catholicism becomes all the more important to research and remember,” he said.

In 2005 Bishop Galeone designated the diocesan records from 1594 to 1905 as the official historical archives of the diocese. Diocesan chancellor Fr. Michael Morgan led the formation for the 1565 Committee to help the diocese in preserving the records and to establish a major research center for the study of Christianity in North America.

According to the Diocese of St. Augustine, the Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Augustine provided their own archive building to help house the diocesan archives. The two-story building was completely renovated to house a fireproof and flood proof vault for the documents.

Curators intend to digitize the archives so that they can be easily and safely used by researchers.

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