“East were the
Dead kings and the remembered sepulchres:
West was the grass.
And all beautiful
All before us
America was always promises.”
-from the book length poem “America was Promises”, 1939, by Archibald McLeish
According to the US National Park Service, the first thanksgiving was held in St Augustine, Florida. Spanish Captain General of the Indies Fleet and Adelantado of Florida Pedro Menendez de Aviles landed at the village of Seloy on September 8, 1565, and re-named the area St. Augustine.
There are two written narratives of the events. One comes from the diary of the chaplain on the voyage, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales. The second was written by the voyage’s physician, Dr. Gonzalo Solis de Meras , Pedro Menendez’s, brother-in-law.
Blaring trumpets and thundering artillery serenaded Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés as he waded ashore on September 8, 1565. The Spanish admiral kissed a cross held aloft by the fleet’s captain, Father Francisco Lopez, then claimed Florida for both his God and his country. As curious members of the indigenous Timucua tribe looked on, the 800 newly arrived colonists gathered around a makeshift altar as Father Lopez performed a Catholic mass of thanksgiving for their safe arrival in the newly christened settlement of St. Augustine. At the invitation of Menéndez, the Timucuans then joined the newcomers in a communal meal.
The First Thanksgiving Mass in North America was celebrated in what is today St. Augustine, Florida, on September 8, 1565. Captain General Pedro Menendez de Aviles came ashore amid the sounding of trumpets, artillery salutes and the firing of cannons to claim the land for King Philip II and Spain was received peacefully by the local natives. Fr. Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, who had gone ashore the previous day, advanced to meet him, chanting the Te Deum Laudamus and carrying a cross which Menendez and those with him reverently kissed. Then the 500 soldiers, 200 sailors and 100 families and artisans, along with the Timucuan Indians from the nearby village of Seloy, gathered at a makeshift altar, and a Mass in honor of the Nativity of the virgin Mary was said. The Mass was followed by a feast shared by the Spanish and the Timucuan Native Americans. The place where the Spaniards landed is the oldest continually-inhabited city in the United States—St. Augustine, Florida, so named because land was sighted on the traditional feast of St. Augustine: August 28th. The parish established there is our country’s oldest Catholic parish. The word “eucharist” means “thanksgiving,” and so it is providentially fitting that the first Thanksgiving in America was—first and foremost—the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Conquistadors bearing flags watched as Pedro Menendez kissed the foot of a cross. On September 8, 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and 800 Spanish settlers founded the city of St. Augustine in Spanish La Florida. As soon as they were ashore, the landing party celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving. Afterward, Menéndez laid out a meal to which he invited as guests the native Seloy tribe who occupied the site. The celebrant of the Mass was St. Augustine’s first pastor, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, and the feast day in the church calendar was that of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. What exactly the Seloy natives thought of those strange liturgical proceedings we do not know, except that, in his personal chronicle, Father Lopez wrote that “the Indians imitated all they saw done.”
What was the meal that followed? From our knowledge of what the Spaniards had on board their five ships, we can surmise that it was cocido, a stew made from salted pork and garbanzo beans, laced with garlic seasoning, and accompanied by hard sea biscuits and red wine. If the Seloy contributed to the meal from their own food stores, then the menu could have included turkey, venison, gopher tortoise, mullet, drum, sea catfish, maize (corn), beans, and squash.
This was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent European settlement in North America. It took place just 300 yards north of the Castillo de San Marcos, at what is now the Mission of Nombre de Dios. This event is commemorated today by a 250 foot cross which stands on the original landing site.
Did you know that the first thanksgiving meal in the USA was celebrated by Spanish settlers, in what became Florida? And that first Thanksgiving was Eucharistic! The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1565, at what is now the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, Florida.
This account of the first “thanksgiving” reflects what was found in Father Francisco’s memoirs. In it we read, “the feast day [was] observed . . . after Mass, ‘the Adelantado [Menendez] had the Indians fed and dined himself.‘”
Additionally, before the Mass was celebrated, “Father Francisco López, the fleet chaplain…came ashore ahead of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the leader of the founding expedition, and then went forward to meet Menéndez holding a cross… Menéndez came on land, knelt and kissed the cross.”
-Jacque Le Moyne’s engraving of the Timucuan chief showing Rene Laudonniere, who established the French Huguenot Fort Caroline atop the St. Johns Bluff, near present-day Jacksonville, the marker erected by Jean Ribault in 1562
From the very beginning the European peoples dreamed of America as the Fortunate Isles, the land of promise here below. What they expect from America is: Hope. And please God that this critical fact may never be forgotten here.
It is possible to be more specific, and to say: what the world expects from America is that she keep alive, in human history, a fraternal recognition of the dignity of man – in other words, the terrestrial hope of men in the Gospel.
The place where the Spaniards landed is the oldest continually-inhabited city in the United States—St. Augustine, Florida, so named because land was sighted on the traditional feast of St. Augustine: August 28th. The parish established there is our country’s oldest Catholic parish. The word “eucharist” means “thanksgiving,” and so it is providentially fitting that the first Thanksgiving in America was—first and foremost—the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.