The following comes from a May 13 article by John B. Buescher in the Catholic World Report.

Editor’s note: View a map of all the locations mentioned in this article.

When and where was the first Mass offered in America? No one living today knows the answer to this intriguing question. But we can summarize what we do know about the first Masses in various parts of the New World.

….In June 1526, two Dominican priests, Antonio Montesino and Anthony de Cervantes, accompanied several hundred colonists under the leadership of Lucas Vasques de Ayllón from San Domingo and attempted a settlement upon the Atlantic coast of the mainland north of Florida. They first made land at Cape Fear (near present-day Wilmington, North Carolina) but chose to sail on, looking for a more salubrious spot, which they found and established the small settlement of San Miguel de Guandape (or Gualdape) where, during the summer and fall of 1526, they certainly did offer Mass. After the death of Ayllón in October, the colony abandoned the country and returned to San Domingo. But the problem is locating where the settlement was. The original Spanish sources are conflicting about which direction the expedition took after it decided not to land at Cape Fear. One of the sources says that the settlers sailed north and located the settlement in precisely the same spot in Virginia that the English would later establish Jamestown. However, another source has them going south, which would locate Miguel de Guandape settlement perhaps around Georgetown, South Carolina, or even Sapelo Island, Georgia.

Panfilo de Navaez (including Alvar Nuñez Caveza De Vaca) put ashore at present day Stump Pass near Englewood on the Gulf Coast of Florida on Good Friday, April 10, 1528, and the landing party was resting at an evacuated Indian village there on Easter Sunday, where Franciscan priest Juan Suarez would almost certainly have celebrated Mass.

In 1559, Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano commanded an expedition of 1500 soldiers and settlers, including Dominican priests, from Vera Cruz to the northern shore of the Gulf of Mexico, intending to establish a settlement there. He landed a portion of the expedition onshore, including the priests, and they offered Mass there on August 15. The place has long been thought to have been at present-day Pensacola, but close reading of the expedition’s papers has lately made it likely that the first landing—and therefore the August 15th Mass—was at present-day Pascagoula, Mississippi (within a couple of days, the entire expedition moved east to relocate, perhaps to Mobile Bay or to Pensacola Bay). A month later, even before most of the supplies had been unloaded, a hurricane hit and destroyed most of the ships and their cargo. The colonists struggled precariously through the winter, but abandoned the site and sailed away the following spring.

On August 28, 1565, the feast day of St. Augustine, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés put an expedition ashore on the northern Atlantic coast of Florida and established St. Augustine there, and Fr. Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales celebrated Mass on September 8, at a site that was lost for a while but was rediscovered a few decades ago and is probably within what is now (and had been at the time of its rediscovery) the Ponce de León Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. The first Mission Nombre de Dios was built by Franciscans at that site in 1587, and this has lately been reconstructed, after a fashion, as part of the tourist park, although the Mission Nombre de Dios itself has been rebuilt more than once and relocated four blocks away since the first settlement.

On the West Coast of what is now the continental United States, Carmelite friar Fr. Antonio de la Ascension, accompanying explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno, whose ships struggled up the coast of Baja California offered the first Mass in present-day California on November 12, 1602 at a site at Point Loma in present-day San Diego, and continued up the coast to a site at Monterey Bay, where he celebrated another Mass on December 16.

Joshua Flesche, a secular priest, accompanied the French settlers who established Port-Royal in present-day Nova Scotia in 1604. He must have celebrated Mass soon after they arrived, for he was not at all inhibited from a rather expansive demonstration of his Catholicism, despite the fact that many among the settlers were Calvinists. The Jesuits who followed him to Port-Royal criticized him for rounding up local Mi’kmaq natives and baptizing them without catechizing them beforehand or afterwards. In May 1613, French Jesuits, including Frs. Pierre Biard and Edmond Masse, established the first French mission in America at what is now Fernald Point near the entrance to Somes Sound on Mount Desert Island, Maine. They waded ashore, named the place Saint Sauveur, offered Mass there, and set about planting crops and building a fort. In July, an English force from Virginia arrived by ship, killed three of the priests, wounded three more, took the rest of the settlers prisoner, cut down the cross the French Catholics had planted there and burned the buildings they had erected. Some of Fernald Point is now a part of Acadia National Park….

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