The oldest church in the United States?

The stained glass window above the altar at the church of Santa Catalina de Guale:

mission palmStained glass? Indeed: Sabal palm fronds are strengthened by silica. Glass and chlorophyll.

Mission Santa Catalina de Guale was the northernmost permanent settlement of the Viceroyalty of Spain’s Florida, on what is now St Catherines Island on the coast of Georgia. The mission was established within the territory of the Guale Indians by Jesuits in the 1570s then transferred to Franciscans by the 1580s. For a century,¬†Franciscans lived with the Guale, with varying degrees of cultural integration and conflict. The mission was abandoned in 1680 after a large-scale attack from slavers. The attack was repelled, but the island was evacuated. The Guale moved from island to island, then to St Augustine, then perhaps to Cuba. Their living cultural and genetic legacy is currently unknown. They and their ancestors lived on the Georgia barrier islands for at least five thousand years before the Europeans arrived.

In modern times, the mission was known from written records, but its location was a mystery until the work of David Hurst Thomas from the American Museum of Natural History. With help from dozens of colleagues, and years of transects, test pits, and magnetometer work, he located the mission on the southwest of St Catherines Island. After a partial excavation, all the people who were buried within the church were reinterred and the dig site was filled. The church was recreated by planting living sabal palms in the post holes from the original structure.

My students and I were privileged to be shown the site by Mr. Royce Hayes, a man who knows the island better than anyone and who relates both the complexities of history and tangled processes of re-discovering/re-imagining the past.

missionSince the rediscovery of the site, Franciscans have visited and held Mass within the sabal church. I do not know whether they used Francis’ Canticle of the Sun, but the song seems fitting for a place where our kinship to Brothers Sun and Fire and Wind, Sisters Moon and Water and Mother Earth, are so evident. The Canticle is notable because it acknowledges both our membership in the ecological community and honors the both masculine and feminine, although it assigns each gender rather narrow roles. (Robust and strong men, humble and pure women: Please, Francis, imagine also strong women and humble men.)

Neither the ecological view of life or the feminine nature of the divine has fared well within the institutions of the church over the centuries that followed. We are fortunate that the modern namesake of Francis takes kinship seriously, though, starting his Encyclical with a quote from the elder Francis’ Canticle. Whether a woman or member of the LGBTQ communities will ever be allowed to break bread at the altar remains to be seen.

The palms, meanwhile, let their hermaphroditic flowers hang in great sprays over the church walls.

8 thoughts on “The oldest church in the United States?

  1. Emily Todd

    Thank you. Rich messages for a stormy Sunday morning in Houston. Adding St, Catherine’s to my travel plans,

    Reply

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