The Cross in the Sand: Missionaries in Spanish Florida

Spanish Florida
Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Augustine

Michael Gannon’s The Cross in the Sand is a moving account of the Church’s missionary efforts in Spanish Florida from its origins up to the 20th century. Among stories of heroic martyrdom, it contains several marvelous episodes of a liturgical nature. The book gets off to an encouraging start with this triumphant introduction:

“…on six subsequent Spanish explorations to the Florida shoreline from 1521 to 1565, priests of the Church were here to raise the Cross in the sand and to offer unnumbered Masses on wilderness altars. In the striking phrase of the nineteenth-century historian John Gilmary Shea, ‘The altar was older than the hearth.’

Wherever the historian’s eye is cast, there stands the altar with its surmounting Cross–Stat crux cum [sic] volvitur orbis. Around that altar there gathered, at one date or another, all the great names that made up our state’s early history, when La Florida was an outpost of empire and a curve on the rim of Christendom. With but one brief interruption, from 1763 to 1768, the practice of the Catholic Faith was a distinguishing feature of our state’s early culture, and the proudly worn badge of many of her people: priests and friars, conquistadors and hidalgos, soldiers and statesmen, Indians from the swamps and shoreland, Spaniards and Minorcans, rich and poor, the innocent and the repentant–they were a long line of stout men, and if there was any evil in them, there was also much good; and if at times they stooped to small and mean things, they also rose to heights of courage and generosity and sacrifice which are the real patens of nobility and the expected fruits of Christian life.”

1) During Hernando De Soto’s “indomitable procession” through parts of Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas in the 1540s, all of the vestments and vessels needed for Mass were destroyed in a battle. A chronicler relates how the expedition proceeded:

“Thereafter, an altar was erected and decorated on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Standing at the altar, a priest, vested in a buckskin chasuble, said the Confiteor, the Introit of the Mass, and the Oration, Epistle, and the Gospel, and all the rest up to the end of the Mass without consecrating. The Spaniards call this the Misa seca; and the one who said the Mass, or another priest, read the Gospel and delivered a sermon on it. From this they derived consolation in the distress they felt at not being able to adore our Lord and Redeemer Jesus Christ under the sacramental species. This lasted for almost three years, until the time they left Florida for the land of the Christians [Mexico]” (pg. 8).

2) The celebration of the Spanish landing at what would become St. Augustine parish, Sept. 8th, 1565:

“On Saturday the 8th, the General landed with many banner spread, to the sound of trumpets and salutes of artillery. As I had gone ashore the evening before, I took a Cross and went to meet him, singing the hymn, Te Deum Laudamus. The General, followed by all who accompanied him, marched up to the Cross, knelt, and kissed it. A large number of Indians watched these proceedings and imitated all they saw done.

A solemn Mass was then offered in honor of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. . . It was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement in the land. It was also the beginning of the parish of St. Augustine and of the permanent service of the Catholic Church in what is now the United States” (pp. 26-27).


3) The education of the Indians at a mission near St. Augustine:

“The chapel at Nombre de Dios was a handsome stone structure complete with statues of the saints, and his Indians were by this time so well instructed they sang High Mass and Vespers on Sundays” (pg. 43).

4) From a detailed report written by the visiting bishop of Havana, Gabriel Diaz Vara Calderon, on the piety of the Florida Indians:

“As to their religion, they are not idolaters, and they embrace with devotion the mysteries of our holy Faith. They attend Mass with regularity at eleven o’clock on the Holy Days they observe, namely, Sunday, and the feasts of Christmas, the Circumcision, Epiphany, the Purification of Our Lady, and the feast days of Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and All Saints’ Day, and before entering the church each one brings to the house of the priest a log of wood as a contribution. They do not talk in the church, and the women are separated from the men, the women on the Epistle side, the men on the Gospel side.

They are very devoted to the Virgin, and on Saturdays they attend [church] when her Mass is sung. On Sundays they attend the Rosary and the Salve in the afternoon. They celebrate with rejoicing and devotion the Birth of Our Lord, all attending the midnight Mass with offerings of loaves, eggs, and other food. They subject themselves to extraordinary penances during Holy Week, and during the twenty-four hours of Holy Thursday and Friday. . . they attend standing, praying the rosary in complete silence–twenty-four men, twenty-four women, and twenty-four children–with hourly changes. The children, both male and female, are taught by a teacher whom they call the Athequi [interpreter] of the church–[a person] whom the priests have for this service; as they also have someone deputized to report to them on all parishioners who live in evil” (pg. 66).

2 thoughts on “The Cross in the Sand: Missionaries in Spanish Florida

  1. I read somewhere once that the name Florida was related to Palm Sunday. The story goes that the Spaniards landed on Palm Sunday, and named the land “Florida”, due to some link between flowers and Palm Sunday in Spain. If this is actually the case or not, I can’t say.


  2. You’re quite right. Since at least the 12th century Palm Sunday has been called Pascha floridum, or Pascha florum (Pasch of flowers), although this name seems to have fallen out of fashion. It received this name not only in Spain (Pascua florida), but throughout western Europe.

    The name simply refers to the spring flowers that adorned the procession; one of the procession antiphons in fact begins “Occurrunt turbae cum floribus & palmis Redemptori obviam” (The multitude goes out to meet our Redeemer with flowers and palms)


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