The mission traces its origins to September 8, 1565, when Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés landed with a band of settlers to found St. Augustine. This location would be the starting point for the oldest continuously occupied, non-indigenous, city in North America. Avilés landed and proclaimed this site for Spain and the Church by kneeling to kiss a wooden cross presented to him by Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales, chaplain of his expedition. It was soon after that the Spanish and the local Timucua speaking people celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving, the first Mass in La Florida.
In the years of early La Florida, at first the Jesuits and later the Franciscans ministered to the resident Spanish colonists, and made some efforts to evangelize the local Mocama, a Timucua group, at the center of an important chiefdom in the 16th century. The Franciscans were particularly successful in the Mocama village known as Nombre de Dios, converting the chief and her daughter. A formal Franciscan Mission Nombre de Dios was founded near the city in 1587, perhaps the first mission in the continental United States.
Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche
The picturesque Chapel of Nuestra Señora de La Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery) is located in the center of the Mission grounds under a canopy of oak and cedar trees. This area is often referred to as “America’s Most Sacred Acre.” Spanish settlers of St. Augustine established the first Shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the United States in the early 1600s. Commonly referred to as the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche, the chapel today reflects the Spanish mission style of the sixteenth century.
Recent archaeological excavations have uncovered coquina and oyster shell foundations outlining a building approximately 90 by 40 feet. The building, less than 100 feet from the present La Leche chapel, is believed to be a church built in honor of Nuestra Señora de La Leche in 1677-78 at the direction of the Governor of all of Spanish La Florida. Following the destruction of this building in 1728 during the British siege of St. Augustine, and another of similar size, smaller chapels of coquina were built on the present site. The first bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Bishop Augustin Verot, dedicated one of these chapels on November 14, 1875. Shortly after, this chapel was destroyed by a hurricane. The restoration of the present chapel began in 1914.
The Mission Plaque
Nestled along the winding garden paths of the Nombre de Dios property, is a large bronze plaque which memorializes many of the nearly two hundred mission facilities established by the Spanish in the First Spanish Period (1565-1763) to evangelize the native indigenous people. Diocesan priests from Spain began the initial missionary work in St. Augustine, but after settlement, Pedro Menéndez sought assistance from the Jesuit Order. However, the Jesuits withdrew by 1573 as a result of hostile encounters with some of the nearby tribes.
Menéndez made do with lay catechists, mostly military personnel, until the Franciscan priests took up the task in 1578. They remained until the end of the First Spanish Period in 1763. Missions extended as far south as present day Miami and as far west as Pensacola and as far north as the Chesapeake Bay.
The Mission Plaque measures 58” by 42” and is made of solid bronze. Dr. John Hann, author and noted historian at Mission San Luis de Apalachee in Tallahassee, Florida, provided the historical data, especially as it relates to the locations and names of missions. John Walsh, a St. Augustine resident and artist, provided artistic assistance. The plaque was dedicated in 1996.
The Great Cross
This massive structure, made of stainless steel and rising two hundred and eight feet above the marshes of the Matanzas River, stands as a sentinel over the Mission. It was dedicated during an interfaith prayer service on September 8, 1965, and was built to celebrate the Four Hundredth anniversary of the beginning of Christianity in this land and the founding of the City of St. Augustine. Four hundred years earlier, in 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés placed a small wooden cross in Florida’s soil.
The Cross weighs approximately 70 tons and consists of 200 stainless steel panels in various sizes. The loftiest sections of the Cross contain 1.6 ft. X 10 ft. panels 3/16 in. thick, while 4 ft. X 10ft. and 5/16 in. thick panels cover the foundational sector. To prevent substantial storm related damage to the Great Cross, the bottom half is filled with concrete. Lights mounted from the ground provide illumination of the Cross at night. The base of the Cross is covered with granite slabs.
Statue of Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales
The bronze statue of the chaplain of Menéndez’s fleet, the celebrant of the first Mass in La Florida, and the first missionary, stands eleven feet tall. Father López’ diary recorded the landing of Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Captain General of the Indies Fleet and Adelantado of Florida at the village of Seloy on September 8, 1565:
"On Saturday the eighth the General landed with many banners spread, to the sounds of trumpets and the salutes of artillery. As I had gone ashore the evening before, I took a cross and went to meet him, singing the hymn 'Te Deum Laudamus'. The General, followed by all who accompanied him, marched up to the cross, knelt and kissed it. A large number of Indians watched these proceedings and imitated all that they saw done."
Following Menéndez’ veneration of the cross, thus proclaiming this land in the name of God (Nombre de Dios), and raising of the King’s flag, Father López celebrated Mass at a rustic altar made of wood. The sky served as the roof for what was the first parish Mass in what is now America. Fr. López is therefore considered the first parish priest and the first pastor. The feast for that day, September 8, 1565, was the Nativity or birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Catholic Church continues to mark this feast on September 8 every year.
The First Thanksgiving
When the celebration of the first Mass in La Florida was completed on September 8, 1565, Pedro Menéndez hosted a meal of thanksgiving and invited the native Timucua-speaking people to participate. The Spanish would have served a stew made from salted pork and garbanzo beans, laced with garlic, and accompanied by hard sea biscuits and red wine. It is likely that the Timucuans would have contributed turkey, venison, gopher tortoise, mullet and other fish, corn, beans and squash.
In talking about the significance of the Mass and the meal, noted historian Dr. Michael Gannon wrote in his book Cross in the Sand: "It was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent (European) settlement in the land." This thanksgiving meal was celebrated 56 years before the Puritan-Pilgrim thanksgiving at Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Artwork from"America's REAL First Thanksgiving" by Robyn Gioia
Since 1993, the University of Florida has made significant strides in unearthing some of the most important findings in St. Augustine’s history. This work, conducted on the Mission grounds, has led to evidence of one of the earliest, if not the earliest, Spanish fortifications in Florida. The following text, prepared by Dr. Kathleen Deagan, Curator of the Florida Museum of Natural History and Archaeology as well as professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida, appears on a sign located between the Mission chapel and the Rustic Altar:
A collaborative project of the Florida Museum of Natural History, the Florida Department of State, the National Geographic Society of the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine. On September 8, 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés of Spain landed near here and claimed Florida for the Spanish Crown. He built the first Spanish fort in Florida by fortifying the Chief’s house at the nearby Timucua Indian town of Seloy. Archaeologists from the University of Florida have recently discovered a moat from a sixteenth-century Spanish structure believed to be that of Menéndez on the grounds of the Nuestra Señora de La Leche Shrine (Mission Nombre de Dios). Excavations are underway to uncover it and study the remains of some of the earliest European presence in what is now the United States.
The Mission Nombre de Dios Museum seeks to educate and inform visitors about the faith history of the founding of St. Augustine, the missionary effort extending throughout Spanish Florida, and the growth of the church to the present. The museum extends an open atmosphere of welcome to visitors of all faiths. The Mission Nombre de Dios Museum opened on September 4, 2010 in conjunction with the 445th anniversary celebration of the City of St. Augustine, Florida and the relocation of the casket of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the founder of the city.
Exhibits Include: The original casket of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, founder of the city of St. Augustine, dating to 1574. Menéndez, whose remains were in this casket until 1924, is buried in his hometown of Avilés, Spain. Artifacts uncovered on the mission grounds during archaeological excavations led by Kathy Deagan, Ph.D. University of Florida A replica of the oldest written European documents in the U.S. Coquina stones from 1875 foundation of a shrine chapel built by Augustin Verot, the first bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine A diorama (hand carved description) of the first parish Mass in the U.S. celebrated by Fr. Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales on September 8, 1565. Chalices and vestments from archives of the Diocese of St. Augustine. A reproduction of the 1155 document from Avilés, Spain.
PLAN YOUR VISIT
Mission Nombre de Dios
27 Ocean Ave
St. Augustine, FL 32084
9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Sunday Noon to 4:00 p.m.
*Museum closes at 4:00 p.m. every day
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page information credit: Diocese of St. Augustine, Mission Nombre de Dios Museum, University of Florida, Old City
photos from the sources listed above, as well as publicly posted online sites with thanks to the contributors