BY LUIS CASTILLO
Not that one needs an excuse for a trip to St. Augustine, but with the spirit of Mother’s Day and motherhood in mind, a May visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche and Mission Nombre de Dios in America’s Oldest City could be in order.
Mission Nombre de Dios (the Mission of God’s Holy Name) sits on the west side of Matanzas Bay, just north of downtown. Its signature landmark is a stainless steel 204-foot cross. The grounds date back to 1565, some fifty five years before the pilgrims founded Plymouth Rock, when Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the Admiral of Philip II’s Spanish fleet, landed here and began America’s first Mission.
From the cross follow the path to a small, ivy-covered, Spanish-style chapel where the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche (our nursing mother) is housed. The centerpiece is a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary breastfeeding the infant Jesus. This image dates back to Spain in the early 1600s and Our Lady of La Leche is considered the patroness of mothers and mothers-tobe. The shrine is where thousands have asked and given thanks for a safe, happy delivery and healthy children as well as other maternal matters — or to just simply pray. The original chapel was built in 1615 by Spanish settlers and is the first shrine dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the United States. It was destroyed during the British siege of St. Augustine in 1728. In 1875 it was rebuilt only to be ruined by a hurricane. The present chapel was reconstructed in 1915 in the same coquina shell-stone style as the original.
The grounds are great place to step back, not only in time, but away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life to enjoy some peace and serenity. Be mindful that the mission and shrine are operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine and visitors are asked to be respectful of the setting’s prayerful atmosphere. Catholic masses are celebrated each day at noon along with the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament from 1 to 3 p.m. Also be aware that Mother’s Day might be especially busy if you are not into crowds.
In addition to the shrine, Mission Nombre de Dios also features archeological excavations, a historical cemetery, a museum and gift shop, and the Prince of Peace Church.