St. Augustine offers so many things to see, and so many ways to see them: walking tours, trolley tours, wine tours, bike tours, Segway tours, boat tours, carriage tours.
But this small city—home to 12,000, travel destination for some 1 million visitors per year—has appeal that goes beyond its unique history, charming downtown and devotion to preservation. Just north of the city’s famous Castillo de San Marcos is the Mission Nombre de Dios, site of the first Christian worship service in North America.
Today, the mission grounds offer a respite from the tourist trappings of St. Augustine. In fact, most tours stop at the mission—but they go no farther than the parking lot, providing ample distance between the solemnity of the mission grounds and the busy goings-on of downtown St. Augustine.
“It’s like an oasis for people because they’re all busy with activity and distractions and in a hurry,” says Eric Johnson, director of the mission and shrine. “The come here and find peace and quiet, and they bring their hearts here, and for the most part, they leave here being strengthened and their spirits lifted.”
Beyond being a simple break from the city, the mission is a destination itself, with rich history and interesting draws. Its centerpiece is the chapel and shrine of Nuestra Senora de la Leche y buen parto (Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery), established in the early 1600s as the first shrine to the Virgin Mary on American soil.
Spanish troops bombed the chapel in 1728 during a battle with British soldiers who were trying to seize St. Augustine and took positions on the mission grounds. The chapel was rebuilt in 1875, then restored again in 1914 after hurricanes ravaged the site.
Elsewhere on the site, visitors will find walking paths, a cemetery in the shadow of the chapel, interpretive signs to give context to the mission’s history. In a small onsite museum and gift shop that offers limited hours, visitors can pick up informational brochures and watch a short video about the history.
The centerpiece of the property is a 208-foot cross constructed of stainless steel. An 11-foot statue at its base depicts Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza, the chaplain of Menendez’ ship. Lopez offered a Mass of Thanksgiving on Sept. 8, 1565, the day the Spanish arrived, from a rough altar built nearby.
On a recent Sunday afternoon outside the chapel, a Puerto Rican family celebrating a child’s First Communion gathered for photos outside the chapel, while other visitors searched for dates on gravestones on the property.
Randall Taylor, 55, who a high school history teacher in Columbus, Ohio, said he was walking back to his St. Augustine hotel when he took a Sunday afternoon detour through the mission grounds.
“I saw the mission on maps, but I had no idea what to expect,” Taylor said. “It’s so quiet. Completely separate from anything else we’ve done in St. Augustine. I’m glad I happened to get to come here by myself, but I think I might bring my family here with me tomorrow.”
Johnson notes that the mission grounds are meant to be an inspiration for not only Catholics drawn to its significance to their religion, but to anyone who can appreciate the tranquility. “It’s not just for Catholics; that’s for people of all faiths,” Johnson says.
Visitors to the mission grounds pay no admission fee, although a donation box is available.
“It’s beautiful, but it’s also peaceful and calm, and people need that in their lives,” Johnson says. “They may be in a hurry to get to Mickey Mouse, or they are on their way back from Mickey Mouse, and they need to just find this place of quiet and peace.”
Points of interest:
Mission Nombre de Dios, 27 Ocean Ave., St. Augustine, 904-824-2809, www.missionandshrine.org
Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, 11 Magnolia Ave., St. Augustine, 904-829-3168, www.fountainofyouthofflorida.com
Castillo de San Marcos, 1 S. Castillo Drive, St. Augustine, 904-829-6506, www.nps.gov/casa