People come for peace and to pray at the oldest Marian shrine in the country, the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche at Mission Nombre de Dios in St. Augustine, Florida. It is on the same acre of land where the first mass was celebrated on the Feast of The Nativity of Mary, September 8, 1565, and draws some 200,000 annually to the 20-acre grounds owned by the Diocese of St. Augustine.
“It is a treasure,” according to Bishop Felipe Estevez. “the image of Mary is embracing and feeding the child in the most beautifully feminine way. At a time when many abortions separate the mother from the child, this image is the opposite; it is evangelization through the eyes.”
When Bishop Estevez was transferred to the diocese of St. Augustine nine years ago, he felt the shrine could be better developed as an evangelization opportunity. “I perceived the potential, especially in a city of so many pilgrims and tourists,” he said. “the purpose of the shrine is to bring people to Christ.”
Bishop Estevez began a campaign in 2018 to expand and attract more pilgrims to the “Sacred Acre” where holiness and history intersect. It was on the feast of St. Augustine, August 28, 1565, that General Pedro Menéndez de Avilés of Spain, commander of a fleet of ships sent forth by King Philip II, sighted land. His goal was to establish a colony for Spain and convert the native people to Christianity. On September 8, the feast day of the nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the sailors, soldiers, tradesmen, and priests came ashore. Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales celebrated Mass in honor of the feast.
Following Mass, the Spaniards shared a meal with the native people who had come to watch—56 years before the first Thanksgiving meal in Plymouth. Menéndez christened the land Mission Nombre de Dios (Name of God). It became the starting point for the oldest, nonindigenous city in North America and the first in a network of missions up the Atlantic coast.
Those same tranquil grounds shaded by tall cedar and oak trees became home to the Shrine Our Lady of La Leche, (or La Leche y Buen Parto— Spanish for “Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery”) in 1577 by the Spanish settlers. It is believed this ancient Marian devotion began in a cave in Bethlehem where the Holy Family took refuge while fleeing Herod’s soldiers during the Slaughter of the Innocents. Known today as the Milk Grotto, it is credited with miraculous answers to prayer and is especially popular with both Christian and Muslim women seeking intercession for infertility or problem pregnancies.
King Philip II built a shrine to Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto in a Madrid church, and Spanish settlers established the U.S. shrine to the Blessed Mother in 1577. The ivy-draped, Spanish-styled chapel, reconstructed in 1915, seats about 40. Three earlier structures fell victim to war and hurricanes. Behind the altar, the two-foot wooden statue of Our Lady of La Leche sits on a throne barefoot, with her right foot resting on a pillow. At her breast is the infant Jesus clutching his mother’s dress.
The original statue was lost, believed to have been taken to Cuba during war with the British. Replica statues were later placed in the chapel. The one there now was made in the 1970s and the museum also holds one dating to the 1930s.
PLACE OF EVANGELIZATION
“The seeds of Christianity were planted here,” explained Joanna Stark, executive director of the shrine. “Some people come just for the history but then we have that additional opportunity to share our faith and our story.”
Even for Catholic visitors, Stark said that the peace and holiness found there leads many to deeper conversions of faith. “For some, it’s learning more about Mary and for some it’s a deeper conversion.”
A leather-bound book in the chapel contains thousands of intentions and testimonies of answers to prayer. Last March, two dozen roses arrived at the shrine with a note from a 42-year-old woman thanking the Blessed Mother for the birth of her first child.
One couple recently had a memorial tree planted in thanksgiving for the renewal of their marriage. After coming to the chapel to pray, they realized their lack of faith was the problem. The couple recommitted to marriage and faith and planted a tree to memorialize it.
“We want our children to grow up knowing the value of faith in the marriage,” they explained to Stark. “And we want them to have a place to celebrate our marriage and their own marriages.”
LEGATES FIND PEACE
Three couples belonging to the Jacksonville Chapter are regular visitors to the shrine. “I believe this is the most important acre in the state of Florida,” says John Clegg, who visits often with his wife Clare. “There is such peace. Pilgrims are not in a rush; they want to observe all that is there and be connected to the Holy Acre.”
The Cleggs, originally from England, first learned of the shrine when they moved from Chicago to Florida 24 years ago. John and Clare are dedicated to pro-life efforts including being involved with Homes of Hope in India where they visited in February. “Our Lady of Le Leche fits right in with our interests and causes for children and the unborn,” John said. “I believe that if enough people pray and visit, it will be a turning point in the abortion issue.”
Mary Pat and Dave Kulik began visiting 30 years ago when their daughters went there on grade school field trips. They go several times a month now. “As soon as you get on the grounds, you feel a sense of sacredness,” Mary Pat said. “Our heavenly mother does that for us.”
One recent Sunday afternoon, she and Dave went to the chapel to pray for a special intention. “It was raining so hard you could barely see the road,” she said. “The number of cars parked here was a surprise—around 50. No matter the dangerous driving conditions due to the weather, the Blessed Mother was drawing us to her, as only she can.”
Jacqueline and Daniel Brown first visited in 2008, praying to conceive a baby. “People would tell me to go there and the Blessed Mother would take care of it,” Jacqueline said. “I would hear, ‘I prayed there and got my baby.’ That’s why I went.
She and Dan had been married for 16 years and had struggled with infertility. “That first time, I just went and prayed,” Jacqueline said. “The beauty of the place and history overwhelmed me.” Instead of a pregnancy, she and Dan came to accept infertility as God’s will. That led to the adoption of their two sons ages nine and eight, from China. “They are such an incredible gift,” Jacqueline said. “I would pick them every time.”
Jacqueline credits Our Lady of La Leche with a deep spiritual healing that began at the shrine. “I now feel massively in love with God, but didn’t then. I did not have a relationship with the Blessed Mother and now I do. I needed the spiritual healing more than physical healing.”
PATTI ARMSTRONG is a Legatus magazine contributing writer.
Expansion And Evangelizing To A Modern World
When hurricane Matthew hit in 2016, the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche at Mission Nombre de Dios was deluged with water and suffered extensive damage forcing it to close for 6 months. But it has been rebuilding better and stronger according to shrine executive director Joanna Stark. “We’ve embarked on a lot but are seeing the grace daily,” she said. Repairs were made and bulkheads were put in to reduce erosions. Being installed now are a pavilion with a covered picnic area, new walkways, signs, mobile maps, and a rosary garden.
Under Bishop Felipe Estevez, the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche had already taken on a new life. Two priests from The Immaculate Conception Marian community in Colombia were brought over in 2013 to offer daily Mass and Confession, oversee adoration and minister to the many pilgrims. In 2015, a church on the grounds originally built in 1965 in thanksgiving for aversion of the Cuban Missile Crisis was expanded to accommodate 225 people and renamed as the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche.
Bishop Estevez started a campaign in 2018 to promote expansion of the shrine to include a pilgrim center, outdoor amphitheater, and excavation (already begun) of the first chapel, believed to be the oldest stone church in the country. Last year on October 11, the feast of Our Lady of La Leche, he announced that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops declared the place a national shrine, worthy of pilgrimages. And at the Holy See’s suggestion, there will be a crowning of Our Lady of La Leche this October on her feast day, making it one of only three other Marian sites in the U.S. to have done so.
A notable attraction on the grounds is the stainless steel “Great Cross,” erected in 1966, towering 208 feet high and illuminated at night proclaiming the birth of Christianity in America. Other devotions include Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Byzantine icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, monuments of the Seven Sorrows of Mary, a pietà, and Stations of the Cross.