Located on the grounds of Mission Nombre de Dios in St. Augustine, is the oldest Marian Shrine in the United States.
The Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche or Nuestra Senora de la Leche (Our Lady of Milk) was established by the early Spanish settlers to St. Augustine, who brought with them their great love and devotion to the Virgin Mary. This devotion is known to be one of the oldest of Marian devotions.
Enshrined in the chapel, is a statue of a nursing mother, smiling as she tenderly holds her son and offers him her breast.
Many believe the devotion dates back to a dark cave in Bethlehem, where the Holy Family fled Herod’s soldiers. As the Blessed Mother was nursing the baby Jesus, a few drops of her milk fell to the ground and turned dark stones chalky white. Many miracles were attributed to that cave, known today as the Milk Grotto. It is said that the Crusaders brought the special devotion to Mary to Spain in the Middle Ages.
Stories told throughout the centuries tell of a drunken Spanish soldier who took a carved wooden statue of the Blessed Mother nursing the Christ child from a church in Madrid. The soldier sold the statue to a pious man who brought it home to his expectant wife who suffered an illness that threatened her life and that of her child. However, through her devoted prayers to the image of the nursing mother, the woman recovered and delivered a healthy child. When King Phillip II of Spain learned of this, he built a shrine in Madrid in honor of the nursing mother in 1602.
The Spanish settlers who came to St. Augustine in the early 1600s, brought with them a small replica of the statue and placed it in chapel built in the 1700s.
When the British gained control of St. Augustine in the early 1760s, they destroyed most of the religious references to Catholicism. However, some Spanish settlers who fled to Cuba, took the replica statue with them. In 1914, the present-day chapel was restored and houses a replica of Our Lady of La Leche.
On April 20, 2012, the Vatican bestowed upon the Diocese of St. Augustine, the diocesan-wide feast day in honor of Our Lady of La Leche on Oct. 11.