‘FIRST’ CITY: St. Augustine might have hosted country’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade

While reading centuries-old Spanish documents, history professor Michael Francis found something surprising: Evidence that St. Augustine had a parade for St. Patrick before anyone else in the country and perhaps beyond.

“It was one of those wow moments,” Francis said.

The documents indicate that St. Augustine residents publicly celebrated St. Patrick in 1600 and 1601, including a parade that well predates parades in New York and Boston.

“It certainly doesn’t threaten what happens on St. Patrick’s Day celebrations all over the world. …. One of the fascinating things about it is it forces people to pause and say, ‘There’s an Irish priest in a Spanish garrison town in a remote borderland location in Spain’s empire,’” Francis said.

Francis, a professor at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, has been using his research to work on a project that’s set to launch soon in Washington, D.C, he said. It is a searchable database of biographical information on thousands of people who lived in Florida between 1513 and 1821, he said.

Francis, who is trained to read Spanish handwriting from centuries ago, made his St. Patrick’s Day discovery as he looked through gunpowder records for St. Augustine in 1600 and 1601.

A record listed gunpowder used during religious festivals in 1600, which included a festival to St. Augustine in August of that year.

“Then there was this curious entry that said we also expended gunpowder in honor of [St. Patrick],” Francis said.

A cannon blast or gunfire would have been used in honor of the saint, Francis said. It’s likely that a parade was held that year, too, though that wasn’t noted.

Another recording said that on March 17, 1601, city residents processed or paraded through St. Augustine’s streets in honor of St. Patrick.

The documents don’t provide detail about what the processions looked like, but Francis said people probably walked through the streets as cannons fired from what was then a wooden fort, and someone probably held an image of St. Patrick during the parade.

Those are the only two references to St. Patrick that Francis said he has seen in the documents so far, he said.

Francis believes Irish priest Ricardo Arturo, sometimes written Artur (the English version is Richard Arthur), introduced the practice to St. Augustine — he was the city’s parish priest at the time, Francis said.

Arturo was also St. Augustine’s first Irish pastor, said Sister Catherine Bitzer, archivist for the Diocese of St. Augustine and the Sisters of St. Joseph.

“I would say if you even had one Irish person in the city, they would celebrate St. Patrick’s day,” Bitzer said.

At the time of the celebration, people in the city identified St. Patrick as protector of the city’s maize fields, according to Francis’ blog on pbs.org.

“In other words … he was proclaimed the protector of the agricultural fields,” Francis said.

Corn was the main crop of Native Americans in Northeast Florida at the time and was also critical to St. Augustine, Francis said. Corn was the main food of Spanish slaves.

Albert Syeles, an organizer of this weekend’s St. Augustine Celtic Music & Heritage Festival, said he’s known all along about St. Augustine’s Celtic connections and has been trying to get the word out.

Francis’ discovery provides another layer to that story.

“That they celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by firing cannons from the fort, and the next year they held a parade, oh, that’s awesome,” he said. “So I’ve been saying for years it’s been the oldest Celtic city in all of America … But I didn’t know it was the oldest Irish city.”

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