America's Oldest Shrine: Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine, Florida

The National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche is the oldest shrine in the continental United States and the location of the first parochial Mass celebrated on U.S. soil. As the oldest continually used Catholic worship site in the nation, it is one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in North America and a perfect place to visit on a road trip. The site has been called America's "most sacred acre." 

The shrine includes a 26-acre property on the shore of the ocean that is open for pilgrims to visit. For more than 450 years Catholics have been praying here at this exact location in the state of Florida. It is extra special because martyrs shed their blood here for the Faith. In 2015 the cause of the martyrs of La Florida was opened, commemorating various Native American and Spanish Catholics who were killed in Florida (1549-1706), priests and laymen, murdered over the years by Indians and British subjects. Four of the martyrdoms being investigated occurred on the site of the mission, consecrating its grounds with the seed of martyrs.  

The current chapel on the original site was built in the twentieth century by Bishop Michael J. Curley, bishop of St. Augustine, Florida. At the time the newly ordained bishop was in his mid-thirties, one of the youngest bishops in the world. Today the chapel is covered in picturesque ivy with shades of sunshine gleaming through the shade, illuminating its silhouette. The chapel is surrounded by beautiful gardens and trails, all on the shore of the ocean. Construction of the chapel was completed in 1915, made of a special kind of local limestone made by the Spanish - of seashells - called "coquina," which means "tiny shell." This is a rare form of limestone, composed of shell fragments of ancient mollusks and other marine invertebrates that, over time, are stuck together by dissolved calcium carbonate in the shells. The chapel was designed in the charming Mission Revival style with a stepped parapet wall and clay tile roof. The chapel was consecrated in 1918. The interior decoration was completed in 1925.    

The inside has a cozy feeling and holds about 30 people. Every part of the interior is simple, drawing the attention of all to the statue of Our Lady with the Infant Jesus. Archeological evidence suggests the chapel was built atop the stone foundation of the first known stone chapel, with remnants dating from 1677. Next to the chapel is a small cemetery where settlers and parishioners are interred. This includes six nuns, members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Augustine, who following the Civil War came here to teach the liberated slaves.  

A few years ago the interior of the chapel went through a significant renovation and was much improved with a new gold leaf altar. In addition, a new gold leaf Gothic niche was installed behind the altar, with a new statue of Our Lady with the Christ Child. It was fittingly canonically crowned by a papal legate according to custom and enthroned in 2021, the fourth such coronation in U.S. history. 

Below can be seen the stunning statue, enclosed in a Gothic style aedicula, a richly decorated miniature house, symbolic of a reliquary. The only thing missing is a matching tabernacle. We hope one day a proper tabernacle will be installed for the pilgrims and Christian faithful to be able to pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament.  The statue and its enclosure were the creation of Demetz Art Studio in the South Tyrol in the north of Italy. They were hand-carved from Linden wood at the family studio in the town of Ortisei. The sculptor was Reto Demetz, whose family owns the business, founded in 1872, now in its fifth generation. Demetz is one of the world's leading workshops of ecclesiastical art - they have maintained the old tradition of woodcarving with roots that extend to ancient times. In addition, the crowns were also made by Demetz.    

The story of the planting of the cross in Florida has a long and storied history. In 1513 Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish explorer who led the first official European expedition to Florida, named it "La Florida" and claimed it for Spain. In 1565 King Philip II of Spain named Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés governor of Florida and gave him the military title of Adelantado, meaning one who represents the king's interests in frontier areas. Thus the General came to establish a permanent settlement and military defense in Florida that included an explicit missionary agenda. This included bringing missioners to preach the Gospel (the "Good News") in order to convert the Indian peoples to the one true Faith.  

On September 4, 1565 the General arrived with his fleet of five ships into a beautiful cove he named San Augustin (St. Augustine), in honor of the saint upon whose feast day (August 28) his fleet first sighted land. This area where the General providentially chose to land was the site of a Native American village known as Seloy. The native peoples that lived there were the Timucua peoples. When the Spaniards arrived, a great many of the natives greeted the settlers along the shore and there was a festal celebration. This is claimed by many as the first American Thanksgiving. The historic event was documented by the main chaplain of the fleet, Fr. Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales.

The following account gives the first documentation of a permanent Catholic parish in the continental United States, given to us by Fr. Francisco López:
"On Saturday the 8th, the General [Menendez] landed with many banners spread, to the sounds of trumpets and salutes of artillery. As I had gone ashore the evening before, I took a cross and went to meet him, singing the hymn, Te Deum Laudamus. The General, followed by all who accompanied him, marched up to the cross, knelt, and kissed it. A large number of Indians watched these proceedings and imitated all they saw done."  
A Mass was celebrated on a rustic altar made of wood. The sky served as the roof. The American artist Stanley Meltzoff painted inspiring images of the event for the February 1966 edition of National Geographic Magazine, including the two paintings below: 

Following the landing on this day, the feast of the Nativity of Mary, the first Mass was celebrated on the site by Fr. Francisco López, who was one of four priests and eight-hundred settlers who made the voyage across the ocean. Fr. Francisco López therefore became also the founding pastor of the settlement and the mission that was established there, called the Nombre di Dios (Name of God). The nineteenth century writer of American Catholic history, John Dawson Gilmary Shea, reflected poetically on the scene: "Mass was said to hallow the land and draw down the blessing of heaven before the first step was taken to rear a human habitation. The altar was older than the hearth." 

After the Mass a celebratory dinner was shared by the Spaniards and the natives, known as the first Thanksgiving. This event took place fifty-five years before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. Three days later the General wrote to King Philip: "I have offered to Our Lord all that he may give me in this world, all that I may acquire and possess, in order to plant the Gospel in this land for the enlightenment of its natives."  

The following year additional priests arrived, including Jesuits. The missionaries served and taught both the Spanish and Timucua peoples. Later Franciscans arrived and were much more successful in their evangelization efforts, ever the cultural emissaries working to maintain peaceful relations with the native peoples while founding far-reaching missions across the land. 

The Nombre di Dios Mission survived and remained the center of missionary activity in the area for more than two-hundred years despite constant threat of European attacks and local hostility. This was two-hundred years before the first Spanish mission in California. The missions spread from here as far north as the Chesapeake Bay and as far south as the Florida Keys. Fr. Richard Arthur arrived in 1593, the first Irish missionary in the U.S., followed by countless Irish priests and nuns who came from Eire to give their lives for the cause of the Gospel.    

By 1615 a sizeable chapel located on the grounds of the Nombre di Dios Mission became known as Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery). This was a mission church large enough to serve 200 souls. The motherhood of Mary is one of the Chruch's ancient devotions, evident with the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem, where legend has averred for centuries that a drop of milk of the Virgin Mary fell on the floor of the cave where the Holy Family was staying in Bethlehem and changed its color to white. The statue depicts the "Nursing Madonna" (in Latin, the Virgo Lactans), an iconography, seen for centuries that depicts Our Lady breastfeeding the Infant Jesus. 

From that time until today the faithful have visited here to invoke Mary's intercession for those suffering from infertility, to pray for expectant mothers, for the health of their children, and to pray for all Catholic moms. The feast day on the diocesan liturgical calendar is October 11.    


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