By Savanna Kearney

The Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche at Mission Nombre de Dios in St. Augustine is known for its quiet, and historic sacred grounds which attracts visitors from all over the world. But community members and neighbors to the shrine voiced concerns over plans to construct an open-air memorial (formerly referred to as an amphitheater) and parking garage.

Joanna Stark, director of the shrine, talks about property’s plans for construction. (photo by St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband)

The Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche hosted an open house last night (March 14) inviting residents of St. Augustine to come and see what is planned for the near future.

The evening began with a presentation by Joanna Stark, executive director of the shrine, which detailed past and future renovations for the Shrine property. She shared that the new vision for the shrine is “preserving, protecting and advancing its history.”

Stark shared that much of the renovations would repair damage caused by Hurricanes Matthew and Irma. There was extensive damage to the mission grounds and the office and gift shop building. A Pilgrim Center and Pavilion are under construction that will not only provide office space but will include room for church supplies and meeting spaces for pilgrims and group retreats.

Neighbors were particularly concerned about the new fence installed on the perimeter of the 26-acre site and the open-air memorial. Many residents enjoy walking their dogs and using the mission grounds much like a public park.

Form mayor of St. Augustine, George Gardner, shares his concerns about the open-air memorial. (photo by St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband)

“We have two outdoor altars, and the shrine, which is holy ground that should be respected by all who visit the property. At night, people party on the grounds and cause nuisance vandalism,” said Stark. “We must protect our investment and ensure the property is secure and safe.”

Stark also shared that a pedestrian gate has been installed on the back end of the property for neighbors to use during operating hours, so they don’t have to walk to the front of the property to enter. The gate will be open after construction is completed.

Other renovation plans include an open-air memorial which will provide seating for about 800 people who visit the mission. The open-air memorial will be built behind the Shrine Church and will include planting about 240 trees to replace what was lost during the hurricanes.

“The open-air memorial is needed for larger groups requesting outdoor seating and for groups who come to the shrine as pilgrims and for other church events. It is not a venue for rock concerts,” said Stark.  She emphasized, “It is for events that we already conduct at the shrine which has not caused a problem.”

Plans also include a master landscape design, maintaining archeological preservation, putting up educational signage and building a rosary garden.

Next, Ellen Avery-Smith, an attorney for the diocese, explained the complexities of the permitting and re-zoning process.

“When the city adopted its Comprehensive Plan in 1990, it gave a majority of the mission property a Future Land Use Map (FLUM) designation of Public/Semi-Public. This designation is for governmental land uses and does not permit churches,” said Avery-Smith. This means she said, “historic church properties in St. Augustine are inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan. The diocese discovered the error last summer when it applied to the city to rebuild the old church office and gift store.”

Brad Beach, architect of Kasper Architects and lead on the shrine’s construction project, shows concerned residents where construction on the property will take place. (photo by St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband)

The diocese is hoping the St. Augustine Planning and Zoning Board (PZB) will recommend to the City Commission that churches be added to the designation of  Public/Semi-Public. The PZB meets again on April 2.

After Smith’s presentation, those in attendance were provided an opportunity to ask questions, most of which, concerned the potential noise of larger crowds and increasing traffic on the already busy San Marco Ave.

It was explained that the proposed parking garage would be built according to the new entry corridor standards (35 feet tall), and it would be built on the existing parking lot footprint. The parking garage has the potential of reducing traffic on San Marco Ave. Currently, many residents and tourists attending city events park on residential streets next to the shrine, or at the shrine.

The gathering ended with tours of the property by Brad Beach of Kasper Architects. Residents were able to see exactly where the open-air memorial would be built and that it has been angled for sound to travel toward the Great Cross and water.

For more details, click here for a Q&A that was passed out at the meeting. Shrine officials have offered to meet with anyone who has questions and concerns about the development.