What’s in a Name: Who is St. Augustine?
As America’s oldest city, St. Augustine understandably has a very rich history. From its earliest days as a mission and military installation, through its current life as a vibrant coastal city, it’s undergone many changes and a steady evolution. Even so, one thing has remained consistent: our city has been called “St. Augustine” since its original settlement in 1565. But many locals and visitors alike may not be aware that there’s actually a man behind the moniker. So — who is St. Augustine? And why was the city named for him?
Let’s take a closer look at the saint behind St. Augustine.
The Once and Future Saint
The man who would come to be known as St. Augustine was born Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis in the year 354. His family were of Roman descent, and belonged to an indigenous ethnically African people known as Berbers. Their home was in a region of Northern Africa which is known as Algeria today. The young St. Augustine is thought to have spent his days studying history and Latin before being sent to a nearby school in a neighboring city at the age of 11.
As an adolescent, St. Augustine continued his studies in Latin and literature. But a formative experience with some mischievous boyhood friends is credited with setting him on the ecclesiastial path that would eventually define the rest of his life. In his autobiography “The Confessions,” St. Augustine talks about his classmates goading him into stealing some fruit from a garden near their school. The incident resulted in his becoming reflective on the nature of morality, and led him into exploring religion as a means of understanding right and wrong.
St. Augustine continued studying rhetoric as a young man, but followed a somewhat unconventional approach to his education. He mingled openly with a wide variety of people — some living hedonistically, and well outside the influence of the church’s accepted standards of behavior — as a means of experiencing a wide range of human behaviors. He even lived as they did during certain periods. This earned him some scorn from his traditionalist family. But in later writings, St. Augustine stated that he considered these choices essential to his practical understanding of the philosophy of human nature.
The Student Becomes The Teacher
Soon, St. Augustine’s reputation as a scholar earned him a position as a teacher of grammar and rhetoric at universities — first in the Tunisian city of Carthage, then Milan, and eventually his family’s ancestral home of Rome. Even as a professor, St. Augustine never stopped learning. Eventually, he came to be a de facto apprentice of St. Ambrose of Milan, an extremely influential religious scholar of the time and region. It was then that St. Augustine began studying Christianity in earnest.
Conversion to Christianity
Despite dabbling in a variety of religions, appetites and philosophies as a young man, St. Augustine did not fully commit to his eventual destiny until the age of 31. As he wrote later in life, he one day appealed to the heavens for a sign, and heard a voice that told him “pick up, and read.” So he opened a nearby book to a random page, and landed on a passage written by St. Paul that read, “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” St. Augustine took this as divine inspiration to abandon his freewheeling life, and commit himself to his faith.
Priesthood and Beyond
After making the choice to dedicate himself to the church full time, St. Augustine’s influence on history grew by leagues. He achieved a high level of demand as an orator of sermons, as his preaching was widely regarded to be clear, authentic and effective. He expressed in his writings that he felt as though bringing the church’s message to the masses was his true calling. By the age of 41, St. Augustine was ordained as Bishop of Hippo, a position he held for the rest of his life.
St. Augustine lived until the age of 76, passing in the year 430. During his life, he was praised as a dedicated educator, prolific author, and one of the best orators of early Christianity, and his death was widely mourned. He was so respected that, after his passage, a tribe of Vandal warriors that had been besieging and burning his home city in an invasion attempt spared his cathedral and library from destruction. His influence only grew after his passing, and he has been widely regarded as one of the central figures in the church’s evolution to modern thinking. St. Augustine was canonized as a saint by Pope Boniface VIII in 1303, and is today known as the patron saint of brewing, printing, and a host of other disciplines.
The City of St. Augustine
The city that bears St Augustine’s name was first settled by Spanish explorers in 1565. A crew led by Don Pedro Menéndez dropped anchor here on September 7th of that year, coming ashore a day later. But because Menéndez and his sailors had first spotted landfall on August 28th — a day which had long been celebrated as the Feast of St. Augustine — Menéndez christened this early settlement in honor of its namesake. Coincidentally, St. Augustine had also been the patron saint of Menéndez’ Spanish hometown of Avilés, which struck him as particularly serendipitous.
Today, the city of St. Augustine still bears the name of its favorite saint as we honor our rich past, celebrate our vibrant present, and look forward to a future filled with even more excitement.