Tag Archives: Mothers

Marian Shrine For Mothers – Beckoning All To Christ

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.


“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.”


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.


Touching The Nurturing Heart Of A Mother

Before Legate Bobby Williams set out to open a new pro-life Women’s Care Center in Indianapolis, he did what he always does: he asked the local bishop for permission – and for help.

The help came in the form of names of three key people in the Indianapolis Archdiocese who might aid in kick-starting the project. As it happened, they turned out to be fellow Legates — the late Tom Spencer, and Joan and Bob Smith. With their assistance and that of countless others, the Indianapolis center opened in 2014 next to the nation’s fifth-largest Planned Parenthood facility and since has become the fastest-growing pro-life pregnancy-resource center in the country.

It also is the largest of the 32 centers in Women’s Care Centers’ rapidly expanding network spanning 11 states. The 6,000-square-foot facility provides more than 3,000 3D/4D ultrasounds annually and now serves one in seven babies born in Marion County. In just three years, it has saved more than 6,000 babies from abortion.

Each Women’s Care Center offers free pregnancy tests, ultrasound imaging, counseling, and parenting and child development classes in a homey, accessible setting with eye-catching signage and full- time hours.

Williams, who serves as director of the WCC Foundation, credits the involvement of Legatus members with the success of the Indianapolis facility as well as the care center network’s remarkable growth over the last few years. Although the first Women’s Care Center dates to 1984, much of the network’s development has come more recently, thanks in large part to the prayers, volunteer service, and financial support of Legates, who have caught the vision of Women’s Care Centers and in some cases, have worked to bring them to their communities.

“There is no question that Legatus members have been the prime movers behind Women’s Care Centers’ national success,” Williams said. Last year alone, he added, the centers performed 21,365 ultrasounds and saved 15,052 babies with 94 percent of the pregnant women served choosing life for their babies. “It is no overstatement to say that one of the biggest factors in this success is the quiet, effective, behind-the-scenes support and counsel of Legatus members.”

For example, before he died unexpectedly Feb. 23 at the age of 64, Spencer served on the Indianapolis center’s board and had been among the first to support the project when it was proposed. He also was effective in attracting other supporters, making him someone who will be remembered as one of the center’s “founding fathers,” Williams said.

Likewise, the Smiths were early supporters, contributing a major gift that was instrumental in moving the project forward. “Their boundless generosity gave us the momentum we needed to purchase the property and get the construction well underway,” Williams said. “We were honored to name our main reception room in their honor.”

Bob Smith, who prays daily for the work of WCC, said he and his wife were impelled to help the center primarily through their daughter, Meg Ryder, who serves on the Indianapolis center’s board.

“They’re not only saving babies, they’re also saving mothers, and I think that’s a very crucial difference,” said Smith. Before becoming involved with Women’s Care Centers, he said he and his wife had marched outside a Planned Parenthood facility. “That was quite an experience, but it didn’t do anything to change minds or hearts. What this does is it changes hearts.”

Unlike other organizations seeking to stop abortions, Smith said, Women’s Care Centers go directly to the source – the mother – persuading her with the help of ultrasound technology. “Once a mother can see what’s living inside her – that it’s actually a human being, not just a blob of flesh – she is going to be very much committed to maintaining that life and nurturing it.”

Legate Marianne Price, a WCC supporter whose husband, Frank, is on the board of the Indianapolis center, agreed. “Once women see their baby, it really helps them form a bond.” She said what she and her husband found exciting about the Women’s Care Center approach is that it offers women an attractive and affirming option that can help them make a good choice. “So much of the debate about abortion is vitriolic. People are saying a lot of negative things about both sides. Women’s Care Center is very positive and tries to provide an appealing alternative.”

That the approach works is evident from statistics showing every community with a Women’s Care Center has seen exceptional abortion declines, Williams said. Where centers are more established, abortions have declined an average of 65 percent and abortion clinics have closed. But even communities where centers have opened more recently are seeing decreases.

For instance, in Milwaukee, where the Women’s Care Center was founded in 2010, abortions have already declined 36 percent.

Although there is no shortage of cities that could benefit from having a Women’s Care Center, the organization does not choose where to locate new facilities without an invitation. “There needs to be a committed and passionate person leading the effort for it to be successful,” Williams said.

In South Bend, Ind., where the first Women’s Care Center opened more than 30 years ago, that person was Dr. Janet Smith, then a young professor at the University of Notre Dame. From her efforts and humble beginnings in a little blue house has emerged a nationwide network that includes three new centers opened this year in Berea, Ky.; York, Pa., and Chicago. In just two months, the Chicago center has saved more than 100 babies, indicating there may be a need for additional centers in that city to meet the demand. An existing pregnancy center with three locations in North Dakota also is working to convert its sites into Women’s Care Centers. Future expansion plans include centers in the states of Texas, Virginia, Connecticut, and Florida.

Once an individual or group invites Women’s Care Centers to a community, an assessment is conducted to determine the need for services that would be provided. Next, the local bishop’s permission is sought and, if granted, a location, preferably one next to an abortion provider, is identified. Currently, 22 Women’s Care Centers are near or adjacent to abortion clinics.

“We don’t locate next to abortion clinics to picket or protest, to provide confusion to young women, or to somehow trick them or deceive them into coming into our place by mistake,” Williams said, “but rather, we choose to be there because that’s where the women are.” Generally, he added, if a pro-life facility and an abortion clinic are near each other, pregnant women will go to both facilities. “More than 9 of 10 times, when they go to both, they stay at our facility and choose life . . . All we do is provide choice – life-affirming choice – and it works.”


JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer.

Late bloom in Mary’s garden

For many of us, life can take on a faded pallor in the absence of our moms. But there’s one lesson Mom imbued well – never forget the rosary. Pray it, no matter what. There’s no protection, intercession, and advocating like Mary’s.

Did we take it to heart? Not so much. We saw Mom as a zealot without the social calendar we had. She insisted we say the rosary as a family before dinner. My brother and I would glare at each other, eying the chilling meat and vegetables, like they were slow-torturing us. We’d bark the repetitions, stare at the ceiling, and sigh obnoxiously when it was finished. In hindsight, I realize that we hurt our mother, and we hurt Our Lady. But like the best Mother, she would patiently await our maturity… even if it might take decades.

Thankfully, those seeds ran deep and have re-germinated after Mom and Dad have gone.

Now to be fair, we were immersed in the ‘70s lifeis-good attitude in the Church, where devotions like the rosary were often shelved. They didn’t fit our demeanor, Motown cars, and bell bottoms. We went to Doobie Brothers concerts and the guitar Mass on Sundays. No rosaries there.

And we didn’t get strong foundational teaching on the rosary, even in Catholic school – like why the rosary exists, where it came from, and why it is so supernaturally remarkable. We just thought Mom and Dad were like cultish European streetprocessors, trying to turn us into fanatics. When friends knocked at the door, we’d grab the ministatues, prayer books, and rosaries, ram them into a drawer, and run straight out.

We escaped all right … not yet seeing the abyss.

Lesson time. We enrolled our eldest in the parish school, and in first grade he came home with a reminder. “Look, Mommy; we made rosaries,” he said, pulling the blue-crystal strand from his pencil case. “Would you say it with me?” It had been 15 years since I’d said a rosary, and had forgotten entirely. “Don’t worry, Mommy,” he continued, “we have rosary booklets, too.”

I thumbed through, struck by the meditations and gorgeous art-renderings of Christ’s face, Mary as mother, and the Holy Family. I was heartsick … it came flooding back, those evenings praying as a family. He watched me with his wide brown eyes, waiting.

God lets our children rework our heart when it needs some reconstruction. And so I began again.

I read St. Louis de Montfort’s The Secret of the Rosary and other books, and realized my parents were right-on – there are amazing promises from Our Mother on her rosary. I researched her 13th-century apparitions to St. Dominic, why she introduced him to the rosary, and her promises for each person, the Church, and the world. So incredible was this protective Mother whom Christ has gifted to us.

The rosary has reordered my daily life. It’s the greatest anti-stress treatment, and my appeals are often answered before I put them into words. ‘Bring flowers of the rarest’ to our sweet Heavenly Mother. And a rosary in gratitude for our incredible mom.

CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK  is Legatus magazine’s Editor.