On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed as his motorcade drove through Dallas, Texas.
President 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.
When Gannon spoke with President Kennedy on November 18, 1963, he was a priest in St. Augustine, preparing to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city.
“At the old mission where the first Parrish Mass was celebrated on September 8, 1565, it was decided to build a cross,” Gannon says. 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,” says 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.
President Kennedy’s Catholicism had been an issue during his election campaign, and he gave a national speech on the topic to reassure voters.
Spain controlled Florida for nearly three centuries. Gannon told Kennedy about the extensive and complex history of Catholicism in Florida.
“Everywhere Spain moved politically and economically and militarily, the church moved, too,” says 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 the meeting between Gannon and Kennedy as St. Augustine was preparing for its 400th anniversary celebration.
“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,” says 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,” says 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 says, pausing to recall the moment. “But four days later he was dead.”
Gannon became one of Florida’s most respected historians, teaching at the University of Florida. He has written or edited 10 books, including the recently revised and updated “History of Florida” published by the University Press of Florida.
To recognize the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, the Florida Historical Society is holding their 2015 Annual Meeting and Symposium at the Renaissance World Golf Village Resort, May 22-24. More than 100 presentations on a variety of Florida history topics will be featured, along with exclusive tours of historic sites, an awards luncheon, a banquet dinner, and a picnic at the Oldest House in St. Augustine.