The National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche, located at the Mission Nombre de Dios in St. Augustine, is the historical site of the first parish Mass and the first shrine dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the United States. The Mission Nombre de Dios traces its origins to the founding of the city of St. Augustine, America’s oldest city. On Sept. 8, 1565, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pedro Menéndez de Aviles came ashore and proclaimed this site for the church and Spain. The first act was to build an altar and celebrate Holy Mass. Each year, Catholics and the local community celebrate Founder’s Day with a reenactment of the landing followed by the celebration of Mass.
The first Spanish settlers and soldiers, true to their religion, brought with them a great love for Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the late 1500s, they established on the mission grounds the Holy Virgin’s first sanctuary in the United States. They built a chapel and dedicated it to Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto – Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery. They placed a statue of the nursing, smiling and watchful mother in the chapel. The Holy Virgin holds the infant Jesus with her right arm and offers Him her breast. The devotion spread rapidly among the converted Timucua, Guale, and Apalache Indians native to the area. That God sent His Son, to be born of a virgin and live among them, was a powerful image in helping newly converted souls understand the incarnation. The original chapel and several reconstructions were damaged by storms and attacks. The chapel was rebuilt in 1875 by Augustin Verot, the first bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine. It too fell to the ravages of a major hurricane just a few years later.
The present chapel was reconstructed in 1915 and enshrined a replica of the original statue of Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto – Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery. Throughout its existence, the shrine has remained a comforting place of prayer for mothers-to-be, for families, for special intentions and for those seeking to strengthen their faith.
The original chapel seats 35 people. As the feast day celebration grew, and pilgrimages increased, the diocese enlarged the existing Prince of Peace Votive Church located on mission grounds, now known as the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche. Bishop Felipe J. Estévez invited the Immaculate Conception Community to serve at the shrine. Today, two priests from the community live on the grounds and provide pastoral care and pilgrimage planning and support. They offer and share a special Marian Spiritual Seminar in three parts for all pilgrim groups. A new liturgical calendar of scheduled times for celebration of the sacraments of confession and Holy Mass are offered daily. Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, the Rite of Blessing a Child in the Womb, and daily rosary have encouraged many to deepen their faith, add Marian devotion in their spiritual lives, to heal and bring many closer to God, and even some back to the church.
In 2012, the Holy See’s Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline of the sacraments granted a petition for a feast in honor of Our Lady of La Leche to be inserted into the liturgical calendar of the Diocese of St. Augustine each year on October 11. And in 2019, the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche at Mission Nombre de Dios was approved for national shrine status by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops.
In 2015, realizing the absence of any Marian shrine in the western counties of the diocese of 11,000 square miles, Bishop Estévez was moved by the needs of the poor rural workers unable to travel to the extreme east of the diocese to honor Our Lady of La Leche. On Dec. 5, 2015, a solemn blessing of the new Santa Fe Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche took place. The 18-acre shrine is located at St. Madeleine Sophie Catholic Church, just off Highway 441 in High Springs, and provides the people living on the western side of the diocese a place for pilgrimage and spiritual renewal. More than 1,600 visitors have since signed the visitor book representing eight different countries and 20 different states in the U.S