Funeral services were held for Florida historian Michael Gannon on Saturday, May 6, at St. Augustine’s Church in Gainesville. He died on Monday, April 10, at the age of 89.
Dr. Gannon was author or editor of 10 books, including “The Cross in the Sand” from 1965. It that book, Gannon demonstrated how the “real” first Thanksgiving happened in St. Augustine in 1565, decades before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
A longtime professor of history at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Dr. Gannon taught several generations of Florida historians who are working in the state today.
Gannon was formerly a Catholic priest, and was working in St. Augustine in the early 1960s, as the town was preparing to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of America’s oldest continuously occupied city.
Gannon remembered his work on the 400th anniversary as St. Augustine was preparing to commemorate their 450th anniversary in 2015.
“At the old mission where the first Parrish Mass was celebrated on September 8, 1565, it was decided to build a cross,” Gannon said. The cross was to be built on the site where Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés first landed to settle St. Augustine, and where Father Francisco López observed the city’s first Catholic Mass.
“Ultimately it was constructed of stainless steel and rose to a height of 208 feet. I think it’s very impressive. It can be seen 14 miles out to sea. It has become a symbol of the first mission to the North American Natives and the first Parrish established by Europeans in this country,” said Gannon.
Also part of St. Augustine’s 400th anniversary celebration in 1965 was the expansion and redecorating of the cathedral church, the construction of a contemporary church called The Prince of Peace, and a bridge linking the new church with the historic mission grounds.
Spain controlled Florida for nearly three centuries, establishing an extensive system of Catholic missions throughout the region.
“Everywhere Spain moved politically and economically and militarily, the church moved, too,” said Gannon.
“The church was always a partner of Spanish expansion. The church was on the forefront. If you want to select any part of the Spanish cultural presence in Florida and the rest of North America, you would have to say that the church was in advance of all other institutions.”
The Florida Chamber of Commerce arranged a meeting between Gannon and President John F. Kennedy as St. Augustine was preparing for its 400th anniversary celebration.
On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was shot and killed as his motorcade drove through Dallas, Texas.
Kennedy spent the week before his death in Florida.
After a short stay at his family’s winter residence in Palm Beach, Kennedy toured the NASA facilities at Cape Canaveral before visiting Tampa and Miami.
On his last day in Florida, President Kennedy met with Florida historian and Catholic priest Michael Gannon. As the first and only Catholic American president, Kennedy was particularly interested in Gannon’s area of expertise, Catholicism in Spanish Colonial Florida.
“It was hoped by the Chamber of Commerce and by the city fathers in St. Augustine, that the president would agree to come down earlier rather than later,” said Gannon.
“It was uncertain if he would be elected to a second term, so they wanted him to come while president and to build up interest in the city that would help generate tourist traffic for the 400th year.”
It was arranged for Gannon to meet the president at the MacDill Air Force Base Officer’s Club.
“I brought him a photographic copy of the oldest written record of American origin, which was a Parrish Register of Matrimonial Sacrament, a marriage between two Spaniards, a man and a woman, here in the city of St. Augustine, dated 1594,” said Gannon.
“He seemed to be very grateful to receive the gift of the photographic copy that was beautifully framed.”
President Kennedy was intrigued by Gannon’s stories about the oldest continuously occupied European city in what would become the United States.
“As he left he said ‘I’ll keep in touch.’” Gannon said, pausing to recall the moment. “But four days later he was dead.”
Gannon became one of Florida’s most respected historians.