The remains of the oldest stone mission church completed in colonial Spanish Florida are open to the public as University of Florida archaeologists return to the site during the 450th anniversary of St. Augustine.
Through Sept. 11, archaeologists are digging deeper to explore the 70-by-35-foot-structure, one of the largest churches known to Spanish Florida. The excavation could reveal clues about daily life at the first and longest-lasting Franciscan mission in the Southeast, said lead researcher Gifford Waters, Florida Museum of Natural History historical archaeology collection manager.
“This season is both a research project as well as a public archaeology project,” Waters said. “I want to get local residents and tourists involved as we investigate activities that went on inside the church and attached convent.”
The church, which was completed before the famous Castillo de San Marcos, was discovered in 2011 at Mission Nombre de Dios, in operation from 1587 until 1763. Researchers have uncovered the majority of the coquina stone and tabby foundations, but this season Waters will excavate rooms identified last year, including where he thinks the friar’s residence was located.
“We really hope to get better insight into how the friar was interacting with the Native Americans,” Waters said. “In turn, I want to know how that was different from interactions with Spanish that lived inside the colonial city of St. Augustine.”
Past excavations have revealed evidence and artifacts — such as the sherds of pottery pictured above, a Spanish majolica called Puebla Polychrome — dating to the 17th century, suggesting the structure is likely the church commissioned in 1677 by Florida governor Pablo de Hita y Salazar in honor of the Shrine of Nuestra Senora de la Leche. Waters said the site played a key role in the lives of Spaniards in early St. Augustine and in all of Spanish Florida.
“Visitors came from all over Florida to the shrine, which was believed to provide a safe pregnancy and delivery,” he said. “The church was also instrumental in introducing Catholicism to Native Americans.”
Unearthing the stone church will be a multi-year project, culminating in a digital reconstruction of what the church and friar’s quarters looked like during colonial times, Waters said.
Visitors to the site will be given tours and some will have the opportunity to screen wash excavated material for artifacts. Florida Museum researchers will also post daily blog updates.