Most Rev. Thomas G. Wenski, archbishop of Miami and apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, presided tonight at the Solemn Celebration of the Eucharist inaugurating St. Michael the Archangel Church in Pensacola to the honor of basilica. Concelebrating the Mass with Archbishop Wenski were Most Rev. Oscar H. Lipscomb, archbishop emeritus of the Mobile archdiocese, and the priests of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. Deacons of the diocese assisted. The Diocesan Choir, under the direction of Deborah Ross, accompanied by Larry Hughes on the pipe organ and Dale Riegle on trumpet, provided music for the Mass.
A basilica is a church that enjoys special honor and status bestowed by the Pope. Pope Benedict XVI announced the designation of St. Michael as a basilica in January of this year. The designation, in addition to expressing in a significant way the union of the local Church with the Chair of Peter, brings a number of privileges with it. A basilica church is entitled to display the Coat of Arms of Vatican City on its façade and the crossed keys of St. Peter on all its furnishings and liturgical appointments.
Also, in procession preceding the Archbishop at the beginning of the Mass, the special symbols of a basilica were carried by long-time St. Michael parishioners. Bill Smith carried the tintinnabulum, a bell mounted on a post that once heralded the approach of the Pope to a basilica. Nancy Fetterman, Claire (Sissy) Perry and Phil Pfieffer carried the ombrellino, a small umbrella created in the papal colors of red and gold that was traditionally used to protect the Pope from inclement weather as he traveled to a basilica church. An apostolic decree from the Holy Father declaring St. Michael a minor basilica was carried in procession by Elie Zetouni and read aloud to the assembly of more than 400. Archbishop Wenski presented the decree to the rector of the basilica, Father Peter McLaughlin.
In his homily, Archbishop Wenski praised Archbishop Lipscomb for his role in preserving and promoting the history of the basilica, which was until the establishment of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee in 1975 a parish of the Mobile diocese. Archbishop Wenski also praised Most Rev. John H. Ricard, bishop emeritus of Pensacola-Tallahassee, for working tirelessly to petition the Holy See to bestow the honor on St. Michael Church. (The full text of Archbishop Wenski’s homily is attached.)
The Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel was designated in part due to its long history. Tracing its roots to the Spanish exploration of northwest Florida in the 16th century, the parish was canonically established in 1781 and is the oldest continuously operating parish in the state of Florida. The current church building was dedicated in 1886.
From this one church, which experienced multiple rebirths due to destructive fires and hurricanes, sprang over 25 parish churches in the Pensacola-Gulf Breeze area of northwest Florida. Appropriately, the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel is called Mater Ecclesia – Mother Church.
The church that is standing today has housed generations of local Catholic families for well over a century, serving as a sanctuary for their baptisms, weddings and funerals. And although St. Michael experienced numerous natural disasters, many of the original furnishings from 1886 are still in use, including the carved wooden altars, Stations of the Cross and church bells. The remarkable stained glass windows, which were imported from Munich, Germany, replaced an older set sometime after 1906 because of an 1896 hurricane.
The church was heavily damaged again in September 2004 by Hurricane Ivan. Restoration was completed in 2007 under the direction of Father McLaughlin, who has served as pastor since July of 2004.
Note: Basilica is title of honor bestowed on a church of historical and spiritual importance by the Holy Father. Churches honored with the title Basilica belong to two classes, major and minor. There are four major basilicas in Rome (St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul Outside the Walls) and 72 minor basilicas in the United States, in addition to more than 1500 other minor basilicas throughout the world. The Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel is the fourth basilica in Florida. The others are the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine in St. Augustine, the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe in Orlando and the Basilica of St. Paul in Daytona Beach. The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is located in Mobile, Alabama.