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A&E | Vol. 27, No. 5, May 20, 2010
(Fighting For Papa Bear)

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The Public Record

by Maxwell Chase
Dear Maxwell,
I'd like to know the history behind the big cross on Fort Pickens Road.
-Cathy K.

........................
The large white cross that stands solemnly on Santa Rosa Island was placed there to honor the site of our nation's first Catholic Mass.

On August 15, 1559, shortly after Tristan de Luna first made landfall in Pensacola, the explorer gathered his followers for a blessing of the new world. Dominican priests accompanying de Luna performed the first Christian service ever recorded in North America.

In May of 1954, the Knights of Columbus joined with the Pensacola Chamber of Commerce and the Santa Rosa Island Authority to erect the cross as a tribute to the religious milestone.

Ironically, the Knights of Columbus faced terrible weather conditions at the dedication ceremony, similar to those that thwarted de Luna's settlement nearly 400 years earlier. Driving rains and 30-mile per hour gusts of wind came down on hundreds of locals who lined the roads and beaches to form a procession for the cross.

A pontifical field mass was canceled, but the cross was blessed thanks to the dedication of the Bishop of Mobile, Reverend Thomas J. Toolen. Toolen certified the cross by blessing it in hasty ceremonies between downpours.

Today, the cross remains unchanged just as it has for over 50 years. Despite several hurricanes that have laid waste to Pensacola Beach, it has survived in holy wonder. Many locals maintain that it is divinely protected.

The cross itself is made of white cement that is sanded to a smooth finish. It stands 10 feet tall with arms that stretch 8 feet across. At the base of the cross is a marble plaque that dates the Spanish Mass.

To this day, the cross continues to provide religious inspiration -- a sunrise service is held there every Easter Sunday

Do you have a local history question for The Public Record?
Email it to thepublicrecord@inweekly.net & we'll see what we can dig up.