Descendant of Juan Ponce de Leon leads  re-enactment of ancestor's arrival to Florida
John Browne Ayes, left, who is a descendant of Juan Ponce de Leon, participates in an April 2 re-enactment of his ancestor’s arrival to Florida. The gathering on the sand and a Mass that day at Immaculate Conception Church in Melbourne Beach were part of a 500th anniversary celebration the explorer’s arrival. (CNS photo/Susan Schulz)

My first thought when I saw this photo, was “Why haven’t I seen anything like this done in California? There’s plenty of coastline and history available.” I imagined the media spectacle it would be in California and wondered, with no one surfing or wading in the background in the Florida picture, how many showed up for the occasion. It sounds like related Masses were well-attended and a thoughtful gift from Spain to the city of St. Augustine.

April 2 marked the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de Leon’s arrival from Puerto Rico to the land he named “La Florida,” a Catholic News Service article wrote. Spain was celebrating Easter with many flowers — which they called “Pascua Florida” and the land he saw was verdant with lush growth.

There was a special Mass April 3  in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine with Bishop  Felipe Estevez. Concelebrants included Father Thomas S. Willis, cathedral rector, retired Bishop John J. Snyder of St. Augustine, Bishops John G. Noonan of Orlando and Robert J. Baker of Birmingham, Ala., and numerous priests of the St. Augustine Diocese.

From Margo C. Pope’s  Catholic News Service article:

“What is important for us to acknowledge today is the great heritage the Spanish brought to ‘La Florida,’ as Ponce de Leon named this land, in the aftermath of his landing in this area,” Bishop Estevez said. “The art and architecture of this beautiful cathedral and the other sites in the state of Florida are evidence of Spain’s unique gifts to America.”

“But, from the church’s vantage point, its greatest gift was the faith,” he said.

He said the 208-foot Great Cross at Mission Nombre de Dios is testament to those 17th-century missionaries. It was erected in 1965 under the direction of Archbishop Joseph P. Hurley, St. Augustine’s bishop who received the personal title of archbishop.

Bishop Baker credited his friend, Michael Gannon, a Catholic, a retired professor and the pre-eminent historian of Florida’s Spanish colonial history, for helping him learn the missionary story. “As Dr. Gannon so accurately pointed out, the Franciscans were the first civil rights leaders of the New World.”

Florida’s missionaries, the bishop said, had the zeal that is needed today for the Catholic Church’s new evangelization, an effort set put by now-retired Pope Benedict XVI.

Highlighting the 500th anniversary commemoration was the dedication of a hand-sculpted replica of the baptismal font in which Ponce de Leon was baptized in 1474. The font was a gift to the city of St. Augustine by Santervas de Campos, Spain.

Bishop Estevez said it represents the “true generosity” of the people of Santervas to St. Augustine. The city’s mayor, Santiago Baeza Benavides, his wife, Nuria Rodriguez, and their sons, Andres, Jesus and Miguel, brought water from Santervas for the font.


John Brown Ayes, a descendant of Juan Ponce de Leon, was among many who participated in a re-enactment of Ponce de Leon’s landing on the beach April 2. His mother and grandmother entered through Ellis Island in 1920 from Salinas, Puerto Rico. “It took me 15 years to trace and publish the genealogy,” he told Catholic News Service. “My ancestor initiated our faith and it’s a great honor to represent him.”

Ayes dressed in period garb for the occasion. Michael Gannon, a Catholic and distinguished service professor emeritus of the University of Florida, said de Leon’s trip wasn’t a religious expedition, but the explorer did leave a stone cross as a marker claiming the land for Spain at Jupiter Inlet and eight years later, returned with priests and religious brothers to establish settlements.

Orlando Bishop John G. Noonan thanked the early settlers for the gift of the Sunshine State, saying at a celebration Mass that it has become “new life, families, freedom and faith.”

More from Laura Dodson’s Catholic News Service article:

“Celebrating Ponce is more than the discovery of Florida. In a very special way it is the affirmation of the Hispanic community and a coming together of all of us whether European, Hispanic or American — it was a blend,” said Deacon Sergio Colon, a psychologist and deacon at Ascension Parish in Melbourne who was born in Puerto Rico, raised in New York City and came to celebrate with his wife, Elsa.

There were many festivities to commemorate the anniversary including a re-enactment of Ponce de Leon’s landing on the beach and a presentation by retired Air Force Lt. Col. Douglas T. Peck, who sailed the journey from Puerto Rico in 1990 to confirm the scientific research that on April 2 500 years ago, Ponce de Leon landed at Melbourne Beach.

In St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, there also were also tributes to Ponce de Leon. On April 6, Father Gilbert Medina, who serves at St. Mary of the Lakes Catholic Church in Eustis, portrayed Ponce de Leon in festivities in there.

In Melbourne, event organizer Samuel Lopez, president of a nonprofit civil rights organization called United Third Bridge Inc., told participants that a bronze statue of Ponce de Leon will be installed at the beach location later in the month.