On August 28th, 1565, Saint Augustine of Hippo's feast day, sailors belonging to Philip II's Spanish fleet and commanded by the Admiral Don Pedro Menedez de Aviles sighted land. The flagship San Pelayo anchored off the north inlet of the tidal channel. His fleet briefly skirmished with the French fleet under Ribault before returning to the anchorage site on September 6th. On September 8th, the feast day of the nativity of the Blessed Virigin Mary, the Spanish came ashore. The priest attached to the expedition, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales recorded the following in his diary:
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.
Father Grajales and General Menedez followed the veneration of the cross by proclaiming the land in the name of God (Nombre de Dios) and the first mass was celebrated with a wooden altar. The Spanish settlers continued their devotion here to Our Lady of La Leche, Nuestra Senora de La Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of the Milk and Good Birth or Delivery).
The devotion to Our Lady of La Leche is an ancient devotion and one of the precious few depictions of the Blessed Lady on the walls of Rome's catacombs. The council of Ephesus defined the doctrine of Our Lady being the Mother of God and the feast day celebrates this motherhood. Pilgrims in the first years of Christianity would often visit a hallowed chapel known as the "Milk Grotto" a grotto just south of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Tradition holds that as Mary and Joseph were fleeing Herod's soldiers on their way to Egypt, they stopped in the cave to nurse. A small drop of milk fell upon the stone and it turned totally white. The first structure was built over this stone sometime around the year 385 AD and recognized by a proclamation of Pope Gregory XI in 1375.
In the 16th century, an image of Nuestra Senora de la Leche y Buen Parto was rescued and enthroned in a home of a married couple. The husband prayed intently to our Lady of La Leche for a safe delivery of their child - the unborn child and mother were in extremely poor health. Miraculously, after prayer, the Virgin Mary interceded on their behalf and the pregnancy went without any further issue. This miracle spread quickly throughout Madrid and Spain, reaching even King Philip who ordered a shrine to be erected in honor of Our Lady of La Leche.
A short time later, a replica of that statue was brought to the new colony at Saint Augustine, Florida and enshrined at the Mission of Nombre de Dios. This became the very first shrine to the Blessed Mother in the United States and was erected where the first Mass had been offered 55 years ago.
Today the feast is celebrated on October 11th, the traditional feast of the Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Here is the prayer for expectant ones, mothers and all who seek her maternal help and intercession:
Lovely Lady of La Leche, most loving Mother of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and our Mother, please listen to ourhumble prayer. Your heart knows our every wish, our every need. We trust, dear Mother, that you will shelter us beneath your protecting mantle, like what you did to your Son. Intercede to Him that we may have the courage and the strength to overcome whatever difficulty surrounds us. Give us the grace to be faithful to you always and may you be our shining inspiration now and forever.
Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto, pray for us!