She’s the Virgin Mary, the Madonna and the Mother of God. But for many women who make the pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine, Florida, Mary is also the “Mother of Maternal Desires.” Her intercession helps infertile couples conceive and expectant mothers to carry problem pregnancies to full term.
When Anthony and Lisa Smrek of Jeffersonville, Pennsylvania, first visited the shrine in 1996, they had already experienced a miracle—their unborn baby was still alive.
Doctors had originally diagnosed Lisa with a tubal pregnancy and advised her to get an injection to terminate the pregnancy.
“You can die from a tubal pregnancy,” explains Lisa Smrek, a registered nurse.
But a chance telephone conversation with another nurse named Maria, who worked at a health insurance company and knew the symptoms of tubal pregnancies, convinced the couple to wait.
“Trust me,” she told Lisa, “do not get that injection.”
A subsequent doctor’s visit confirmed Maria’s hunch: It was not a tubal pregnancy.
The couple—relieved yet anxious about their first pregnancy—were vacationing in Florida several weeks later when a relative took them to the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche y Buen Parto (Spanish for “Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery”). Anthony and Lisa lit a candle and began petitioning heaven for a healthy baby. Daughter Dana was born six months later.
If every baby is a miracle from God, the Smreks wanted another. Four years later in October 2000, they returned to the humble chapel in the quiet backwaters of Old St. Augustine. This time they asked for a “special delivery.”
“I had medical procedures and surgery, but I couldn’t get pregnant,” Lisa Smrek says. “I remember thinking, I’m a good Catholic girl. My husband and I love each other. Everyone else is having babies. Why can’t I have another baby?”
As the distraught couple poured out their hearts before a statue of the Blessed Mother nursing the Infant Jesus, a peace began to enfold them like a warm blanket. “There is a presence in that place,” says Smrek, her voice breaking at the memory.
The couple left the chapel and any future baby in the hands of God. Several weeks later, something prompted Lisa to do a home pregnancy test. “It was positive,” laughs the 38-yearold leader of a Catholic moms’ faith-sharing group. “I did another test and then another. They were all positive!”
The couple’s special delivery—a son they named David—was an express delivery through prayer. His conception was traced to the time of their stay in St. Augustine.
A Faith Is Born
It’s not a spiritual coincidence the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche is a powerhouse of answered prayers for mothers and fathers, says Eric P. Johnson, director of the shrine. “The first parish Mass in what is now the United States was celebrated here on September 8, 1565—the feast of the Nativity of Mary.”
That historic Mass also marked St. Augustine as the birthplace of Christianity in America, not only for Catholics but also for Christians of all denominations. “This is where the gospel was preached to the native people for the first time,” explains Johnson.
“Prior to that, Spanish explorers and their chaplains came ashore to celebrate Mass and then sailed elsewhere. They did not set down roots or establish a parish community.”
America’s first parish is known today as the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine. The faith of our nation began here on August 28, 1565, when General Pedro Menéndez de Avilés of Spain—commander of a fleet of ships sent forth by King Philip II—sighted land.
Because it was the feast of St. Augustine, Menéndez named the place where he landed several days later in the saint’s honor. On September 8, the general disembarked.
“As I had gone ashore the evening before, I took a cross and went to meet him, singing the hymn ‘Te Deum Laudamos,’” chronicled Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales, a secular priest and chaplain of the fleet.
“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 they saw done.”
Father López then celebrated a solemn Mass in honor of Mary’s nativity. Following the Mass, the Spaniards and the Indians shared a meal—the realfirst Thanksgiving, claim some historians. Menéndez christened the siteMission Nombre de Dios, or “Name of God.”
A Grace-filled Grotto
While the mission is a spiritual legacy, it’s another tradition that entices modern pilgrims to Mission Nombre de Dios: devotion to Our Lady of La Leche. Some believe this ancient Marian piety began in a cave in Bethlehem.
According to one tradition, the Holy Family took refuge there while fleeing Herod’s soldiers during the Slaughter of the Innocents. As the Blessed Mother was nursing the Christ Child, a few drops of her milk spilled to the ground and turned the dark stones a chalky white. Miracles were attributed to the cave, and by the sixth century, pilgrims were venerating the site.
Known today as the Milk Grotto and tended by the Holy Land Franciscans, the grotto is popular with both Christian and Muslim women who seek Our Lady of the Milk’s intercession from infertility or problem pregnancies.
How the piety arrived in Spain nobody knows. One legend states that, around 1598, a Spanish noble rescued a statue of the nursing mother from a drunken sailor and took it home. The noble’s pregnant wife, who was suffering from an illness that threatened both her life and that of her unborn child, prayed fervently to the “Mother of mothers.” The baby was born healthy and both lives were spared.
News of the miraculous statue spread, with King Philip III erecting a shrine toNuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto in a Madrid church. Many happy deliveries were credited to Our Lady’s intercession.
“It is even said that over the years the queen of Spain was among the throngs of expectant mothers to visit the statue,” states Matthew Geiger in his bookletMission of Nombre de Dios.
In the early 1600s, Spaniards brought a 12-inch replica of the statue to St. Augustine and renamed the mission chapel in her honor. The mission that birthed Christianity in America on the feast of the Nativity of Mary had now birthed the country’s first Marian shrine.
“The spiritual connections here are incredible,” Johnson says, marveling at his own connection, one begun when he was a child in the late 1940s. “Whenever somebody in the family was having a baby, Mother would load up the kids and drive here from Jacksonville. She’d light a candle and then we’d all kneel down to say a prayer for that woman.”
When the English finally seized control of St. Augustine in 1763, the Spanish fled with the statue to Cuba, where it was presumed lost. Replica statues would grace the chapel, which was built of native coquina in the mid-1700s and last restored around 1915. Sadly, the statue and church in Madrid were reportedly destroyed in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.
The Baby Boom
Heaven only knows the number of babies conceived in prayer at the chapel. “My mother wanted a baby but couldn’t, so she came to the chapel to pray, and here I am!” quip pilgrims to shrine workers. Other women come asking for divine help in carrying a baby to full term.
Some hopeful parents experience a miracle of the heart. “Prayers aren’t always answered the way people want or expect,” says Johnson, who prayed for his two sons and three granddaughters at the chapel.
One day while walking the mission grounds, Johnson met a couple from Louisiana who were retracing the steps of a pilgrimage they had made 35 years earlier. Back then they had come to pray for a family.
“Here we found the peace and the courage to accept God’s will,” they told Johnson. “If we couldn’t have a child of our own, we would adopt.” And adopt they did—they became parents to nine and grandparents to 20.
Sheltered under a “Gothic arch” of cedar and oak trees, the ivy-draped, Spanish-styled chapel exudes both calm and humility. A statue of St. Peter above the entrance holds the keys of heaven, while inside small wooden benches seat about 30 pilgrims. Behind the altar, a halo of golden light surrounds the two-foot-tall wooden statue of Our Lady of La Leche.
Seated on a throne, the Blessed Mother is barefooted, her right foot resting on a pillow. At her breast is the infant Jesus and, as babies do, one of Jesus’ tiny hands clutches the fabric of his mother’s dress. There’s more to the hand-carved icon, however, than a maternal image.
According to Old World Spanish iconography, it is believed the cream color of Jesus’ nightshirt and blanket symbolize that he is the Lamb of God. Mary’s red robe represents a sacrifice— the death of her son on the cross—and the deep blue color of her starry mantle depicts her humanity.
And that, says Lisa Smrek, is the special allure of Our Lady of La Leche. “We don’t always think of the Blessed Mother as a nursing mother. We see beautiful pictures of her gazing at Jesus, holding him in her arms. But here she is nursing and nurturing her son.”
Now Lisa and husband Anthony are promoting the devotion in their parish and community. They not only hand out prayer cards but also pray with infertile couples. One couple received a surprising answer to their prayers: They’re expecting triplets!
Mother of Us All
Not all pilgrims who visit the chapel are seeking Our Lady’s intercession in maternal matters. Many are coming to rejoice for favors received, such as a healthy grandbaby or the physical healing of a loved one.
Others are carrying great sorrows: victims of spousal abuse, alcoholics, women grieving their abortions, parents who’ve lost children in accidents or to suicide.
“They come seeking solace and forgiveness,” says Johnson. “This place offers an incredible sense of peace and an atmosphere of prayer. It allows the small but significant miracles to take place in the heart and the spirit.”
One day, it was a 12-year-old girl who arrived with a heavy burden. Johnson was giving a tour of the mission to a group of public school students when they stopped at the chapel.
After explaining the chapel’s history and the practice of praying for pregnant women, he invited the students to step inside, see the statue and perhaps say a prayer. Most of the students went in, but the 12-year-old stayed behind.
“What do I say?” the girl asked Johnson.
“What do you mean?” he responded.
“You said people can go in the chapel and pray if they have something they’re concerned about. I don’t know how to pray.”
“What is it that concerns you?” he inquired gently.
“My 15-year-old sister is going to have a baby,” she replied. “She’s not married and she’s scared. I’m scared for her.”
Johnson instructed the girl on what she might do. She went inside the chapel, sat down on a little bench and lifted up her head to the Mother of Life. Nobody knows what happened to the sister, but that day prayer was birthed in a young girl’s heart.
Mission Nombre de Dios
The birthplace of Christianity in America—Mission Nombre de Dios—is a pilgrimage of both history and heart. Nearly 200,000 pilgrims annually visit the 20-acre holy site, which is owned by the Diocese of St. Augustine.
A walking tour begins at Prince of Peace Church, a votive church erected in 1965 to commemorate the mission’s 400th anniversary and dedicated to world peace.
Proclaiming the birth of Christianity in America, the Great Cross—erected in 1966 and made of stainless steel—towers 208 feet over St. Augustine. Illuminated at night, the Great Cross can be seen many miles out to sea.
A huge plaque nearby details the network of missions that once stretched from present-day Miami up the Atlantic coast to Chesapeake Bay and westward to Pensacola. Known as America’s “Sacred Acre,” the Chapel of Our Lady of La Leche is the nation’s first Marian shrine. A victim of war, pirates and storms, the current chapel is the fourth and was last restored around 1915.
A life-sized statue of St. Francis of Assisi pays tribute to the enormous role Franciscan missionaries played in evangelizing the New World. As the saint would have liked, squirrels play at his feet and birds dance on his head.
Other devotions on the beautifully landscaped grounds include Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Byzantine icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, monuments of the Seven Sorrows of Mary, a pietà and Stations of the Cross.
The mission and shrine are open daily from sunrise to sunset. On the Saturday nearest September 8—the feast of the Nativity of Mary—the city of St. Augustine reenacts the landing of Menéndez at Nombre de Dios, followed by Mass at the rustic altar.
The Franciscan Connection
St. Augustine was already an “old town” when the English founded Jamestown in 1607 or the pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock in 1620, states Timothy J. Johnson, associate professor of religion at the city’s Flagler College. “Generally speaking, what brings the Spanish to the New World is not the same thing that brings the English.”
The Spaniards “came very much wanting to evangelize,” says Johnson. “The English came wanting to get away from the Church of England.”
Saving souls wasn’t helped by a priest shortage. Three of seven secular priests defected when Menéndez’s fleet stopped in Puerto Rico. Later, when several Jesuits arrived and were murdered, the Order withdrew from Florida. During a trip to Spain in 1572, Menéndez petitioned the Franciscan friars to come to the New World. What happened next was literally an evangelism explosion.
“Records indicate that in 1595 the friars undertook a large-scale missionary effort in Florida,” says Johnson, a scholar on Franciscan matters and author of two books about St. Bonaventure. “Within 100 years, there were over 30 thriving missions and some 26,000 Indians were brought to the Faith.”
When the bishop of Santiago de Cuba came to Florida in 1674 to ordain seven men (possibly the first ordinations in the United States), he confirmed 13,152 Catholics, writes Matthew Geiger in his booklet Mission of Nombre de Dios.
With Nombre de Dios as “home base,” the missions spanned south and west across Florida, up through Georgia and as far north as Chesapeake Bay. Unlike the missions in New Mexico and California, virtually nothing remains of the Florida missions.
“Many were built of wood and either deteriorated over time or were burned by the British,” says Johnson.
Marion Amberg is a freelance journalist from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her wish is that Our Lady’s intercession will deliver many miracles to readers around the world.