At Thanksgiving time we usually think of the feast shared by the Puritans and Native Americans in Massachusetts in 1621. But the true history of thanksgiving in America goes back earlier to the founding of the city of St. Augustine, Florida by the Spanish in 1565.
When the explorer Don Juan Ponce de Leon first spotted the south-eastern tip of North America on April 2, 1513, he named the land Pascua de Florida or “Feast of Flowers” because it was spotted on Palm Sunday. Sadly, the Spanish were led by soldiers called conquistadors, who treated the Native Americans badly. The mistreatment of these people had been condemned by Pope Paul III in 1537 in the bull, Sublimus Dei. Unfortunately, though, Catholics do not always listen to the Pope.
Nevertheless, it is also true that most of the other people who came with the conquistadors, including farmers, families, and priests, treated the Native Americans well. This was especially true of the priests, who showed them God’s love through acts of kindness. Though the priests never forced them to become Christian, in time many of the Native Americans came to love Jesus and asked to be baptized.
The founding of St. Augustine took place on September 8, 1565, on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This was more than 40 years before the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, making St. Augustine the oldest permanent European city in America.
The place where the Spanish came ashore was named Mission Nombre de Dios or “Name of God.” Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales placed a cross there, singing the Latin hymn, Te Deum Laudamus (“We Praise You God”). As the Spanish knelt before the cross a large number of Timucuan Indians who were there observing did the same. Father López then offered a Mass. (Remember, Eucharist means “Thanksgiving.”) Following the Mass, the Spanish invited the Timucuans to join them for a feast of thanksgiving, the first communal meal between European Christians and Native Americans.