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
“You can die from a tubal pregnancy,”
explains Lisa Smrek, a registered
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
“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.”
PRAYER TO OUR
LADY OF LA LECHE
LOVELY LADY OF LA LECHE, most loving
Mother of the Child Jesus, and my mother,
listen to my humble prayer. Your motherly
heart knows my every wish, my every need. To
you only, his spotless Virgin Mother, has your
Divine Son given to understand the sentiments
which fill my soul. Yours was the
sacred privilege of being the Mother of
the Savior. Intercede with him now,
my loving mother, that, in accordance
with his will, I may
become the mother of other
children of our heavenly
Father. This I ask, O Lady of
La Leche, in the name of
your Divine Son, My Lord
and Redeemer. Amen.
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
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
“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
real first Thanksgiving, claim some historians.
Menéndez christened the site
Mission Nombre de Dios, or “Name of
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 to
Nuestra 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 booklet
Mission 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
“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
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
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
“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
“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
“What is it that concerns you?” he
“My 15-year-old sister is going to
have a baby,” she replied. “She’s not
married and she’s scared. I’m scared
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.
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
“Many were built of wood and either deteriorated over
time or were burned by the British,” says Johnson.
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.
For more information, call 800-342-6529 or visit www.missionandshrine.org. Prayer petitions can
be mailed to Our Lady of La Leche, 27
Ocean Avenue, St. Augustine, FL 32084.
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.