It is located in one of America’s most beloved tourist cities where traffic, tour buses and pedestrians compete for attention in the nation’s oldest city. To most visitors, the Spanish Mission of Nombre de Dios (also known as the chapel of Our Lady of La Leche) and its grounds might seem as if they do not belong in St. Augustine, Florida. The truth is that, after a full day of sightseeing and eclectic attractions, this is the best possible place you could ever come to unwind.
Beauty is found quite suddenly as you approach the sloping bridge that covers the lagoon. You can already see the grassy grounds stretching out before you, and as you look down over the lagoon, you might feel a warm breeze. St. Augustine’s weather is normally very enjoyable, and even “cold” days rarely dip below the comfort level. At the end of the bridge you will find a statue commemorating the first priest to initiate a Catholic Mass in this country. His name is Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales; this is one of the most impressive statues on the grounds.
The chapel of Our Lady of La Leche is the crowning jewel of the mission grounds. Created to resemble a 16th century Spanish mission, plain yet graceful, the current chapel was built in the early 20th century. A mission has stood on or near this spot since the beginning of the colony’s occupation. The successive chapels were either destroyed or became decayed, but the current reproduction is faithful to the early forms. Come inside, preferably on a Sunday morning or a time when tourists aren’t flooding the grounds, and contemplate how important faith was to the Spanish settlers. The wooden benches and magnificently simple altar, complete with a statue of the Virgin Mary after whom the mission is named, make a beautiful place to relax and find peace. You will agree that there is an aura of tranquility inside the chapel that is not experienced in the rest of the city.
There are many other things to visit as you walk through the Nombre de Dios grounds. The Stations of the Cross are represented in huge mossy monuments, and benches, fountains and statues of Catholic saints adorn the rustic pathways. Underneath the canopy of trees you will also find a gazebo, an antique bell, a Byzantine-style pavilion and much more. The colorful tile statue of Mary (known as the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe) is a must-see, as well as the 18th century graves of nuns who once lived and worked in St. Augustine. The stones have been lovingly kept, and they rest inside a picturesque walled space when travelers can pay their respects.
One of the most noticeable things you will see on the grounds is a huge bronze plaque showing where all the missions in America were once located. The plaque was created fairly recently and dedicated ten years ago by St. Augustine’s Bishop Snyder. It is a sort of raised relief on bronze and is like touching Braille. It is quite interesting to see.
You cannot visit Nombre de Dios without visiting the striking Matanzas Bay that winds peacefully around the land. Although the bay is beautifully idyllic, its history is not so gentle: In 1565, at a place known as Matanzas Inlet from which the bay flows, French settlers were martyred by the Spanish soldiers who brought their culture and religion to the New World. Despite this gory history, the bay is now serene. If you’re lucky enough to come to Nombre de Dios on a breezy day, you may be able to smell the salt breeze that seems to invigorate non-native Floridians.
Stretching out over the Matanzas Bay is an even more inspiring sight: The 208-foott-tall Great Cross, commissioned in 1965 for the 400th anniversary, is one of St. Augustine’s most striking sights. It can be seen from many places throughout the town and from the water, and is an important reminder of the Catholic faith’s history in “San Agustin.” Standing on the platform beneath the Cross makes even the tallest person feel small; but this is a good place to find some humility! If you’re wondering how to capture special photos of the Cross, try framing it through bushes or making sure to include one of the sailboats that sometimes wander by.