ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — Bishop Felipe J. Estevez of St. Augustine made a surprise announcement during Mass Oct. 11 that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has elevated the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche to national shrine status.

For many years, the shrine at Mission Nombre de Dios in St. Augustine has been a renowned landmark for pilgrims who visit from all over the world. It is America’s oldest Marian shrine.

Among the more than 200 people who attended the Mass on the feast of of Our Lady of La Leche were benefactors, members of the recently reinstated Confraternity of Our Lady of La Leche, Knights and Dames of Malta, and many others who cherish the devotion to the Virgin Mother nursing the infant Jesus.

In his homily, Estevez spoke about how Mary exemplifies what it means to have a relationship with God.

“Mary recognizes the living God who closes the door to the mighty of this world and raises up the little ones, the poor in spirit, who are blessed by God,” he said. “She praises God in his great mercy toward those who obey him and open their hearts to him.”

According to the USCCB, the term “shrine” signifies a church or other sacred place to which the faithful make pilgrimages for a particular pious reason with the approval of the local ordinary. The distinguishing mark of a shrine is that it is a place to which the faithful make pilgrimages.

In 1609, the Spanish established on the grounds of Mission Nombre de Dios, Mary’s first sanctuary in the United States. They built a chapel and dedicated it to Nuestra Senora de La Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery). A statue of the nursing and watchful mother of Jesus was placed in the chapel. Mary holds the infant Jesus in her right arm and offers him her breast.

The present chapel was reconstructed in 1915. Throughout its existence, the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche has remained “a comforting place of prayer for mothers-to-be, for families, for special intentions and for those seeking to strengthen their faith,” a diocesan news release said.

In 2012, the Vatican approved the Oct. 11 feast for Our Lady of La Leche to be inserted into the diocesan calendar. This year, the Vatican approved the title “Blessed Virgin” Our Lady of La Leche, and a canonical coronation of the statue will occur Oct. 11, 2020, as part of the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Diocese of St. Augustine. This will be only the fourth statue of Mary to be so crowned in the United States.

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