When one thinks of America’s most historic Catholic churches, most people think in terms of cities like Boston, New York and Chicago, where enormous Catholic communities boomed during the immigrations of the late 19th and early 20th century. However, it is neither the Northeast nor the Midwest, but rather the South, that is the true birthplace of the Roman Catholic Church in America. Here, along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, the Spanish and French colonial empires established America’s earliest Catholic diocese, as well as almost all of America’s earliest cathedrals.
Cathedral of San Juan Bautista
San Juan, Puerto Rico (built 1540)
There are many different churches in the United State that claim to be the oldest. However, although not located in one of the fifty states, the truly oldest church on American soil is the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista on the island of Puerto Rico. Discovered by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, Puerto Rico was one of the earliest colonies established by the Spanish in the New World. The first wooden church was built here in 1521. It was replaced by a permanent stone building in 1540.
After the Spanish American War in 1898, Puerto Rico became an American territory and overnight the cathedral became America’s oldest. One of the cathedral’s congregants, Carlos Manuel Rodriguez Santiago, rose to prominence in the Church, and was beatified in 1997. His relics are preserved on the site. The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista as it stands dates back nearly five centuries. Large by colonial era standards, it is typical of early Spanish architecture, with a simple white façade crowned by saintly statues. The cathedral is located in the historic center of old San Juan.
Cathedral of San Fernando
San Antonio, Texas (built 1750)
The Cathedral of San Fernando is one of the most historic Catholic churches in the United States. During the early 18th century, Spain established an archdiocese in Texas in order to prevent further expansion of French territory from the east. The church was completed in 1750, and after Texas was annexed to the United States in 1845, it became the oldest Catholic cathedral in the continental United States.
Thanks to its strategic location, the cathedral played a small role in the Texas War of Independence. During the Battle of the Alamo in 1836, it was seized by the Mexican army and used as a military observation point. Several heroes of the Texas revolution are buried on its grounds. The Cathedral of San Fernando is one of the best examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the United States, and its prominent position on the old city plaza of San Antonio a magnificent throwback to old European city planning. The city’s other great historic church, the Alamo Mission, is less than half a mile away on the east side of the city.
Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis
New Orleans, Louisiana (built 1794)
The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis is the oldest cathedral in the United States not constructed by Spain as well as the oldest in continual operation, having been in non-stop use since its completion in 1794. French colonists built the first church here in 1718, with a more permanent structure a few years later. This church famously burned down on Good Friday in 1788, after which it was replaced with the cathedral.
The cathedral has not been without its share of problems. Over the years the main bell tower has collapsed, the building was shattered by a bomb blast, and several hurricanes have wreaked havoc on the place, most recently in 2005. Despite these misfortunes, the cathedral has come through with flying colors, and is now considered one of the best surviving examples of French colonial architecture in the United States. In 1964, the cathedral was designated as a minor basilica. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis dominates one side of Jackson Square in the historic center of New Orleans close to the French Quarter.
Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine
St. Augustine, Florida (built 1797)
The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine enjoys an odd status among America’s churches. While not the oldest cathedral in the continental United States, it is by far the oldest cathedral site. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, Spain attempted numerous times to build a permanent church here. It was destroyed twice by fire and once in a pirate raid led by none other than Francis Drake. A permanent church was not completed until 1797, by which time it was one of the longest church construction projects in American history.
Ironically, by the end of the 18th century, the population of St. Augustine had dwindled considerably, and the congregation did not stabilize until after Florida was acquired by the United States in 1819. Since then it has enjoyed the distinction of being America’s oldest Catholic parish. In 1976, more than four hundred years after its first incarnation, the cathedral was designated as a minor basilica. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine is located in the heart of the city’s historic district.
Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
Mobile, Alabama (built 1850)
The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is one of the younger major Catholic churches on the Gulf Coast, but its history is the oldest. French settlers established a parish here in 1703, the first on the American Gulf Coast, predating its rivals in Texas, Louisiana and the west coast of Florida. An early church stood on the spot as far back as 1711 when it was known as the Our Lady of Mobile. It was renamed the Immaculate Conception during a brief occupation by Spain. In 1829 Mobile became a diocese, and plans were made for the construction of a new cathedral.
Substantially completed in 1850, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was among the earliest major Catholic cathedrals in the South built not in a European colony, but in an existing American state. The cathedral has weathered several major catastrophes, including a fire, a hurricane, an explosion during the Civil War and an airplane collision during World War II. In 1962 the cathedral was designated as a minor basilica. It is located on Cathedral Square in Mobile’s historic district.