St. Augustine | Famously known as the oldest established city in the United States, St. Augustine is perhaps known for even something more special — its pilgrimage status for Catholics.
The Florida Catholic visited the historic grounds of the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche at Nombre De Dios Mission to discuss the shrine’s canonical coronation, its pilgrimages and retreats, and how prayer to the Blessed Mother helps its faithful visitors begin a family.
La Leche Babies
Inside the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche is an image of the Blessed Mother breastfeeding the baby Jesus on her lap. Together, they symbolize the hope and importance of family in the name of Christ.
“The uniqueness of the shrine is a chance to experience the humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ because we see him as an infant dependent on his mother,” said Father Christopher Liguori, pastor at St. Patrick Parish in Jacksonville. “Many people travel here specifically for the purpose of asking Our Lady to intercede that they may conceive. There are many, many stories of couples who have come here and prayed, and their prayers have been answered and they have conceived.”
These pilgrims come here “to get away from the world, from all the noisiness and busyness of the world. People have heard about the shrine, about the favors, especially the families who are trying to conceive.”
Father Liguori recalled a time when shrine visitors brought him proof of their answered prayers.
In 2020, during Our Lady of La Leche Feast Day Celebration “three, four, five of my parishioners came up and said, ‘Father, our children are La Leche babies!’ meaning they came to Our Lady of La Leche Shrine and prayed for conception.”
Coronation, a long time coming
With its origins dating back to 1609, the shrine’s eventual national status was hundreds of years in the making.
Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés landed on the shores of northern Florida in 1565. The priest with him on the exploration, Father López de Mendoza Grajales, quickly began its Catholic mission, Nombre De Dios.
Nearly 50 years later, the shrine was constructed on the “sacred acre,” taking the name “Nuestra Señora de La Leche y Buen Parto” (“Our Lady of the Milk and Good Delivery”).
More than 400 years later after the shrine’s initial creation, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops decreed national status to the small chapel in 2019. COVID-19 pushed the canonical coronation event to October 2021. A canonical coronation is a special act designated by the pope where he allows the crowning of a holy image. The crowning symbolizes the image’s special significance to the Universal Church.
Father Ligouri said it was “an absolutely beautiful event.” Cardinal Carlos Osoro Sierra, archbishop of Madrid, served as celebrant at the coronation held at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. The cardinal placed golden crowns on Our Lady of La Leche and the baby Jesus, which were then shepherded back to Mission Nombre De Dios.
“At the end of Mass, we had a motorcade group session to the shrine with hundreds and hundreds of pilgrims who were so delighted, who were cheering, who were receptive to Our Lady being here. People were singing songs, praying the rosary, praying to Our Lady. We did a special consecration to Our Lady. It was a wonderful, fabulous day,” Father Liguori said.
What the future holds
With its national status accomplished, the mission continues to focus on other projects, such as its monthly celebratory events and renovations of the property.
Jon Carres, executive director at the Mission Nombre De Dios, manages the upcoming projects.
“We want to refurbish the pathways along the Sacred Acre,” he said. “We want to construct a candle grotto to be closer to the historic chapel. We will also be revisiting the museum, which is free and open to the public, so that we can renovate and also add some rotating displays into the museum.”
Throughout each year, the Mission holds various events to promote the Catholic faith.
“It’s good for people to know that we start out with the March for Life in January. We also support the cathedral parish school with the festival in February,” Carres said, adding live Stations of the Cross are scheduled outside during Lent and newly ordained Bishop Erik Pohlmeier will celebrate an Easter Mass at the shrine. “Last year we did (Easter Mass) at the Great Cross area, which was a beautiful ceremony.”
On Sept. 3, the mission will celebrate Founder’s Day, in which actors will re-enactment when Spanish explorers landed on St. Augustine shores 457 years ago. During December, it will have several events, including Una Noche de Navidad (A Night of Christmas).
“It’s an outdoor event where we have actors come in. We do the ‘three no’s and a yes’ for Joseph and Mary to find a place to have baby Jesus,” Carres said.
Pilgrimages and retreats are a major part of the mission’s experience. Catholics flock to the site for days to spend time with priests and to bond with Christ and Our Lady of La Leche.
“Retreats and pilgrimages are very wide and very varied,” Father Liguori said. “Most of all, my hope for all of these pilgrims is to grow closer to Our Lord and to evangelize, to take their experiences of what they’ve learned about the devotion, about the history of Our Lady of Leche and their closeness to Our Lord back out into the world.”
For more information about upcoming events at the Mission Nombre De Dios, visit https://missionandshrine.org/ or call 904-824-2809.
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