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An Excerpt from “Catholicism and Native Americans in Early North America,” edited by Kathleen Deagan

Catholicism and Native Americans in Early North America explores the ways in which the church negotiated the founding of a Catholic society in colonial America, beginning in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565. Although the church was deeply involved in all aspects of daily life and institutional organization, the book underscores the tensions inherent in creating and sustaining a Catholic tradition in an unfamiliar and socially diverse population.

Soledad was a sixteenth century shrine and hermitage dedicated to our Lady of Solitude (a hermitage is a chapel or shrine with a resident attendant friar or friars). Its year of established is not known other than it was after 1573 when the first Franciscan friars arrived in Florida, and before 1597 when the town’s first hospital was built at the hermitage. The Governor of Florida established a six-bed hospital at La Soledad in 1597 and assigned an enslaved African woman, Maria Joijo, to care for the patients. It was supported by a mandatory deduction from the pay of the presidio soldiers. The hospital remained attached to the Soledad church until the mid-eighteenth century, and although renovated several times, it sustained a reputation as, in the words of one governor, “a miserable hole”.

The hospital was attached to the west side of the church, behind the altar, and had an adjacent kitchen. These were constructed of palm thatch and wood. The 1702 attack on St. Augustine by the English Carolinians under James Moore (discussed throughout this volume) burned nearly everything in St. Augustine, including the parish church of Los Remedios. The hospital and church at Soledad, however, were spared and although damaged, remained standing. As noted, Los Remedios was never rebuilt after the English raid, and so after 1702 the church at Nuestra Señora de la Soledad served as the parish church until the Spanish departure in 1763. The church itself underwent intermittent repair and renovation. In 1735 when Bishop Buenaventura arrived in St. Augustine, he described the Soledad church as “an unkempt disgrace” and set about renovating it. A masonry church and sacristy, and an arched masonry façade holding bells were constructed. A description of the church by Father Solana in 1760 indicated that it was of stone, and about 21 meters (69 feet) long by about 9.75 meters (32 feet) wide. The sanctuary was 4.25 meters (or about 14 feet) leaving an area of about 55 feet by 32 feet for the nave. During the British period (1766-1783), the church at Soledad became St. Peter’s Anglican Church, and today day the Soledad site is a parking lot serving the Convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

Excavations took place the site in 1976 and 1977 through the Florida State University archaeological field school, supervised by Joan K. Koch. The work located a portion of the eighteenth-century masonry church, and a burial area covering some 30 by 20 meters. No unequivocal evidence was located for the hospital portion of the site, or of medical practice there. The Florida State team located 27 articulated burials and recorded at least ten more burial pits that were not excavated. Estimates based on the parish records, however, suggest that more than 500 people were interred in the area during the First Spanish period. As at Los Remedios, the burials at Soledad are overlapping and tightly packed together. Eleven internments were present, for example, in one three-meter by 1.5-meter unit toward the center of what was hypothesized to have been the church. Another unit of the same size near the south interior wall of the church contained at least seven burials. The excavation units outside what is thought to have been the church confines also contained burials, but these were not as densely arranged.

Most of the burials were from the Spanish period, however there were several graves that dated to the British period Anglican Church. Koch was able to determine very distinct cultural differences between the Catholic Spanish burials and the Anglican British burials. The latter were all located outside the area thought to have been the Church, to the west and south. The British burials all faced east (heads at the west) and the Spanish burials all faced west (heads at the east). While the Spanish burials had arms crossed on the chest, the British burials had straight arms at their sides. Clothing elements were present with some of the British burials, and none accompanied any of the Spanish burials. One Spanish burial inside the church had a rosary around his neck, potentially suggesting that he may have been a priest or friar. The cross of the rosary preserved a tiny bit of white linen shroud material.

All of the British deceased were buried in hexagonal-shaped coffins with elaborate metal decoration. The Spanish burials were principally interred in shrouds, although four Spanish period coffin burials were present. These tended to be in graves dating to the late 17th or the eighteenth century and were quite different from the British coffins. Rather than the hexagonal shape with decoration, the Spanish coffins were simple, tapered rectangles without apparent embellishment (Figure 2.3).

In 1976 and 1977 the advances in isotopic studies, DNA analyses and computer-programs enjoyed by contemporary bioarcheologists were not yet available. Fifteen of the articulated Spanish skeletons, however, were studied for osteological data and potential pathologies. They included five Spanish men, four Spanish women, one Native American man and three children, which is a very small and probably not representative sample of the population. All of the men died between the ages of 25 and 40, but only one woman lived past the age of 25, suggesting the rigors of childbirth. The stature of men ranged from 5’4”to 5’10”, with a mean of 5’7”, and the women’s heights ranged from 51”to 5’3” (average of 5’2”). Virtually everyone over 25 years of age suffered from osteoarthritis and dental problems, including caries, abscesses and peritonitis. In the small available sample, deaths appeared to have been related to age or infection rather than trauma.

One possibly health-related feature of the Spanish burial was the presence of lime packed around portions of several skeletons. This may have been due to burials intruding into earlier, but not yet decomposed internments. It could also be related to presence of the hospital as part of the complex, and the need to prevent the spread of infection. Such a practice has not been reported from other colonial cemeteries in St. Augustine. The parish burial records suggest that before 1702, when La Soledad became the principal parish church, most of the people buried there were those who died at the hospital, were slaves, or were poor. Of the 15 burials recorded between 1623 and 1638, eight were listed as having died in the hospital. The preferred resting place for people of high social standing and wealth was not at La Soledad, but rather at the Franciscan convent chapel in St. Augustine.

(excerpted from chapter 2)

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