Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Long-lost church found

At the Nombre de Dios mission site near downtown St. Augustine it's been a hold-onto-your-hats kind of week following the discovery of a Spanish mission church older than the Castillo de San Marcos.

"How many times have we walked over this?" asked archaeologist Kathleen Deagan as she pointed out the foundation corners of the church less than 100 feet from the statue of Father Francisco Lopez, the Catholic priest who was chaplain for the fleet of St. Augustine founder Pedro Menendez.

At the moment the site is little more than a handful of carefully dug holes in lush manicured grass.

"We've promised to put it back like we found it," Deagan said.

By fall, she hopes a full-fledged dig will be under way to find out more about the church that is more than 300 years old.

The Spanish began building the Castillo in 1672, but didn't complete it until 1695. The church was built in 1677.

A team of archaeologists under the direction of Deagan and Gifford Waters of the Florida Museum of Natural History found the site May 27 thanks to a tip from Sister Catherine Bitzer, archivist for the Diocese of St. Augustine and the Sisters of St. Joseph.

While going through the archives, which are in St. Augustine, Bitzer came across notes and records put together by Father Charles Spellman, an historian who was the director of the Mission and Shrine. Spellman found the site in 1951. His records apparently went to the Archives and the boxes of artifacts he discovered including Native American and European pottery and musket balls were sent to the Florida Museum.

Each box was marked with code, but "we never knew where they came from," Waters said.

"Because there was no known map or report of (Spellman's) find, (his discovery) went unrecognized," Deagan said.

Then Bitzer contacted the Florida Museum where some detective work led to the unearthing of "the oldest stone building in all of Spanish Florida," said Waters, who wrote both his master's thesis and doctoral dissertation on the Mission site.

He called the find "really exciting" and says it will allow for an even broader view of the site.

In the test holes, workers are finding artifacts that match those stored in the boxes at the Florida Museum. Some of the coquina foundations are gone.

On Thursday morning the latest prize was a piece of painted plaster that featured a light colored square surrounded by red.

"It's lost some of the red already," said worker Peter Larson of the item that had been out of the ground about an hour. That bit probably came from one of the murals on the wall, Deagan said.

"This is a truly exciting rediscovery of a long-lost building. Nombre de Dios mission was the first and longest lasting of the Spanish Franciscan missions in Florida, and the Shrine of La Leche was famous in its time for its fine workmanship and decoration," Deagan said.

The discovery offers a "wonderful opportunity to learn more about the lives of the Spanish friars and American Indians who lived at the mission," she said.

Bishop Felipe J. Estevez was informed of the find and hoped to get by to see it before the Thursday Mass where he became the 10th bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine. That didn't happen, but he's expected to visit soon.

Future archaeology excavations will help determine when the building was first constructed and if it is built on top of even earlier ruins.

For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.

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