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April 15, 2006     546 Words

Hopeful Couples and Parents-to-Be Find Comfort in This Holy Shrine

CINCINNATI—The Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche may look like an unassuming chapel in St. Augustine, Florida, but the miracles attributed to it are countless for expectant mothers hoping for healthy babies and for childless couples seeking to start families. Aside from being a place of great peace, the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche is also historically significant for Catholics. 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.

This revered and holy shrine is featured in the May issue of St. Anthony Messenger in the article “Baby Wanted: The Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche.” Author Marion Amberg takes readers on a journey of St. Augustine and writes of the chapel’s significant chapter in Catholic history and the miracles attributed to it. After April 24, the article can be found at: AmericanCatholic.org.

Conceiving a child is a miracle. But for many couples, that miracle needs a little push. Just ask Anthony and Lisa Smrek from Jeffersonville, Pennsylvania. After a turbulent but successful first pregnancy, the couple visited the shrine in St. Augustine in 2000, hoping to be blessed with another child. Several weeks later Lisa discovered she was pregnant with David, baby number two. His conception was traced to the time of their stay in St. Augustine.

Eric P. Johnson, director of the shrine, knows the power of this place and its history. The historic Mass there in 1565 marked St. Augustine as the birthplace of Christianity in America, not only for Catholics but for Christians of all denominations. “This is where the Gospel was preached to the native people for the first time,” Johnson explains. Prior to that, Spanish explorers and their chaplains came ashore to celebrate Mass and then sailed elsewhere.

The shrine has been a spiritual mecca for thousands of faithful pilgrims over the centuries, but it has an even richer history as the place where many childless couples pray to become parents and where pregnant women pray for healthy deliveries. Many hopeful parents have experienced a miracle of the heart. One day while walking the grounds, Johnson met a couple from Louisiana who was 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 him. “If we couldn’t have a child of our own, we would adopt.” And they did—they became parents to nine and grandparents to 20.

But the shrine isn’t simply a place for hope-filled couples. It’s also a place where the sorrowful come for peace: Victims of spousal abuse, people dealing with their own or another’s alcoholism, women grieving their abortions and parents who’ve lost children in accidents or to suicide pray at the shrine for the Virgin Mary’s intercession.

“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.”

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