Few Americans realize that St. Augustine, Florida, shares a duel distinction in America’s history. Not only was it the birthplace of Catholicism in America, it was also the birthplace of devotion to the Mother of God in America. In fact, Catholic historians would agree that St. Augustine is unique because it continues the devotion to the Mother of God that dates back to the time of Herod’s persecution of the Holy Family.
Spain’s Admiral Pedro de Aviles sighted the Florida coast near Cape Canaveral on August 28, 1565, the feast day of St. Augustine. Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza, chaplain of the fleet chronicled the following text in his writings:
On September 8, the general disembarked. I had gone ashore the evening before; I took a cross and went out to meet him, singing the hymn, Te Deum Laudamos. The general, followed by all who accompanied him, marched up to the cross, knelt and kissed it. A large number of the Indians watched the proceedings and imitated all they saw done.
The first mass was celebrated on the Nativity of Our Lady, September 8, 1565. “This is where the gospel was preached to the native people for the first time,” explains Mr. Eric P. Johnson, the current director of the shrine.
On the tranquil grounds of the Mission of Nombre de Dios is the chapel that houses a replica of the statue of Our Lady of La Leche. This shrine holds the historical title of being the first shrine dedicated to the Mother of God in the United States. Unique as this is, something more unique is the history behind this beautiful devotion.
During Herod’s persecution, Our Lady, with the Infant Jesus and Saint Joseph, fled to a grotto in Bethlehem. Legend has it that while the Blessed Mother was nursing the Infant Jesus a drop of her milk fell upon a large rock in the grotto and changed the stone’s color from gray to chalky white. Miracles were attributed to the grotto, and by the sixth century, pilgrims were venerating the site.
This grotto, known as the Milk Grotto, is still tended by the Holy Land Franciscans and became a place of devotion to the Mother of God because of her intercession for the women who prayed there for infertility and difficult pregnancies.
Mr. Johnson informed me that, according to legend, this devotion came to Spain during the Crusades. It seems in Spain the statue was carved around 1598. A drunken sailor stole the statue, and a Spanish noble rescued it and took it home. He and his wife prayed fervently before the statue because his wife was suffering from an illness that threatened her life and her unborn child’s life. The baby was born healthy and both lives were spared.
Because of this event, King Phillip III erected a shrine in honor of Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto in a church in Madrid. Many miracles for healthy babies and deliveries were credited to Our Lady’s intercession. In his booklet, Mission of Nombre de Dios, Matthew Geiger states that over the years Queen Sophia of Spain was among some of the expectant mothers who visited the shrine.
In the early 1600s, Spaniards brought a replica of the statue of Our Lady of the Nursing Child to St. Augustine, beginning the devotion that continues to this day. Because of the intense devotion to Our Lady by the early Spanish settlers and the converted American Indian tribes, Spaniards decided to build what was to become the first Marian Shine in America.
During my interview, I asked Mr. Johnson how visitors react when they come to the shrine. He said, “It is interesting to note that many of the people who pass through St. Augustine are on their way to Disneyland and they are not giving to much importance to their visit here. But when they enter the shrine you can see by their expressions that something really touches them, they feel a presence. They experience a calmness that they never felt before. Many of them comment about the peace that they felt inside the chapel where Our Lady’s image dwells.”
He continued, “Some pray for spiritual conversions, some for a cure of an illness, some pray for a cross they are carrying.” He also informed me that the original statue that was brought here in 1610 is now somewhere in Cuba. It seems when the British attacked St. Augustine in 1758, the Spanish fled to Cuba with the statue and to this day nobody knows of its whereabouts. Mr. Johnson informed me that when Cubans come to visit the shrine he always requests them to ask their relatives in Cuba if any of them have heard about the missing statue.
More astonishingly is the connection Our Lady has with the women who travel to the shrine to petition her for the grace to conceive a child. Many of their requests are granted, and what was impossible for them before, has become possible. One couple from Pennsylvania, who couldn’t conceive, traced the time of their newborn son’s conception to the time they spent in St. Augustine.
It is hard for American’s to imagine that this devotion has been around for over 400 years in the United States. Thousands of Americans travel annually to Europe to visit the Catholic shrines and historical places, but few Americans know about the tremendous amount of Catholic history in our country.
If you ever get the chance to visit the first American shrine dedicated to the Mother of God in St Augustine, don’t pass it up. You will be richly rewarded by Our Lady of the Nursing Child’s presence in the beautiful chapel built for her by the Spanish explorers and missionaries who arrived here to bring new souls to the Catholic Faith over 400 years ago.
Published in Crusade Magazine, Vol. 109, January/February, 2011, pp. 22-23.
Updated June 10, 2020.