Dating back to the early 1700s, at first it was a Spanish friary, but was converted into a British military facility. Later, parts of the grounds became a US National Cemetery.
Located at the southern end of the historic district of St. Augustine, the St. Francis Barracks has an unusual story to tell of religion and war. In 1565, when the settlement of St. Augustine was created, the community included Catholic Jesuit priests who would make up the religious center of the community. They were there to lead mass, minister to the people and convert natives. Sometime in the 1570s, the Jesuits were replaced by Franciscan Friars. By 1588, they were working and living on land that was provided by the government for their friary and church.
The Franciscans is a religious order within the Catholic Church founded in 1209 by Francis of Assisi in Italy. The term monastery, which is occasionally used to describe the Franciscan building, is a general one used for many different types of religious communities. The Franciscans are considered friars, because their work is directed towards the community around them, not turned inwardly like the work of monks. Because of this, the St. Francis building was more appropriately called a friary. The church connected with the friary was named Nuestra Señora de la Concepcion (Our Lady of the (Immaculate) Conception).
At first, the friary and church were built of wood with thatched roofs like the other buildings in the small town. However, in the year 1702, the British pirate Robert Searles raided the town and burned down the main buildings. Around 1730, the Friars began the process of rebuilding using the native coquina stone that had also been used to construct the Castillo de San Marcos located at the north end of the town.
In 1763 the British took control of the Florida and St. Augustine and nearly every Spaniard left, mostly leaving for Cuba. This included the Franciscan Friars. The British converted the friary to military use and added additional buildings constructed of wood. Much of the original Spanish building along with the new ones were used as barracks for the town’s garrison. The other structure the British built was the King’s Bakery which, because of its function, was made out of coquina, just like the nearby monastery.
Both the Spanish Franciscan Friary/Barracks and the King’s Bakery survive today. The Bakery is believed to be the only British-built building still standing in St. Augustine.
After the surrender of the British at the end of the American Revolution, the British turned Florida back over to Spain in 1783. The former friary continued to be barracks for Spanish troops during this second Spanish period. Some 40 years later, the barracks would change hands once again, as did all of Florida, when the US gained possession of the peninsula in 1821.
The US also kept its use as barracks for the military. It was federal property and housed Army staff stationed at Fort Marion, the renamed Castillo de San Marcos. Part of the land was converted to a cemetery, primarily for soldiers who died during their service at Fort Marion, but it also became the repository of soldiers who died in the long-running and costly Seminole Wars.
During the Civil War, Confederate forces took control of St. Augustine for about a year, but it was retaken by the US and stayed under Union control for the rest of the war. Some years after the war, the cemetery became a National Cemetery for military burials. The addition of wood-framed buildings designed to be officer’s quarters (which still stand) happened around 1882. Those are located next to the St. Francis Barracks. But by the 1900s the US Army had decided they no longer needed the barracks along with Fort Marion.
In 1907, the federal government leased the land to the state of Florida and that’s when the headquarters of the Florida National Guard was moved from Tallahassee to the St. Francis Barracks. In 1915, a fire damaged the Barracks. They were reconstructed in 1922, one year after the property was officially turned over to the state by an act of the US Congress.
Today the St. Francis Barracks are the state arsenal and the headquarters for both the State of Florida Military Department and Florida National Guard. They’re located near the Oldest House Museum at the southern end of historic St. Augustine.
Fort Marion was also decommissioned, given its original name back and operates as a National Monument.
Being military facilities, the St. Francis Barracks and King’s Bakery aren’t specifically tourist attractions, but a visit to them, along with the St. Augustine National Cemetery, can help complete the story of historic St. Augustine. The tie-in with the Spanish, British and American histories is unique and important. The facility was once considered sacred ground, was then a military installation and then yet again, both military and sacred ground – that’s an interesting and telling story in a city that spent much of its life situated on the frontier.