The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

In Florida, preserving a “pocketful of miracles”

This treasure trove contains some of the oldest bits of American history, pre-dating even the Pilgrims:

Sister Catherine Bitzer slowly opened a file box and carefully removed a brittle page, scarred by years of neglectful storage, mold and insects. At 415 years old, the marriage record written by a Roman Catholic priest is still readable and is one of the oldest known European records from the United States.

It’s among thousands of artifacts detailing the lives of the Spanish soldiers, missionaries and merchants who settled St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest permanent city. The church kept the only official records, a role that today is filled by government.


After being scattered from Florida and surviving destruction for centuries, they are now safe in a newly renovated waterproof, fireproof and climate-controlled building at the Diocese of St. Augustine, said Bitzer, the archivist of the diocese.

Michael Gannon, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Florida, calls the archives “a pocketful of miracles.” He tracked down most of the documents, which had traveled to Cuba, back to St. Augustine and then Notre Dame, Ind.

The earliest documents detail the births, confirmations, marriages and deaths of the Spanish residents in St. Augustine from 1594 to 1763, when the British took over Florida.

Dated Jan. 24, 1594, and handwritten by Father Diego Escobar de Sambrana, the record held by Bitzer details the marriage of soldier Gabriel Hernandez to Catalina de Valdes in St. Augustine, some 26 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

Read on for more.

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posted November 12, 2009 at 10:26 am

When I grew up in New England the Pilgrims were the rising sun of the nation. Years later, when I lived in Virginia, the Jamestown Colony was the definitive inaugural community. Now that I live in Florida, I realize that St Augustine is the actual beginning of the European settlement of the continent. Of course, this article makes no mention of the French who actually established the region. History keeps correcting and refining itself. No wonder people find it a slippery topic.

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posted November 12, 2009 at 12:36 pm

I often wonder what would have happened if the Native Americans had decided to sail across the ocean, discover a new land and establish a new nation in Europe.
Just a thought,

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posted November 12, 2009 at 2:01 pm

In California we frequently are amazed at the idea that Protestant Englishmen were the first significant settlers of our nation. One look at our lay of the land out here in the West and Southwest shows both the Catholic and the Hispanic roots of a significant part of our nation: the Blessed Sacrament, the Angels, so many of the Saints that make up a huge litany, and just about every mystery of faith is honored by the names we bear out here in our cities, town, rivers, valles and beaches.

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posted November 13, 2009 at 8:48 pm

My mom’s family is descended from those first Minorcans. We, too, have some records of the early, early days. Growing up there I guess I was insulated. Imagine my surprise many years later when people kept talking about The Mayflower! :)
But, but, but… I would splutter. To no avail.
Ah well, at least WE knew we were here “first.”
(I say “first” because my dad’s family is directly related to the Cherokee Indian tribe!)

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posted February 8, 2012 at 1:24 pm

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