Florida, that land fancied by Ponce de Leon as a bouquet of Paschal flowers, stands at the beginning of the Catholic story of the United States. My last column spoke about the pilgrim nature of human life, and now I find myself on pilgrimage again, back in this florid land where I hunkered down for my doctoral studies. Fortunately, I’m not moving again, but I have finally arrived as a pilgrim to the oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine, visiting the shrine of Our Lady of La Leche.
The Church herself walks as a pilgrim through history, awaiting the return of her King as she enters new territory and declines in others. The story of America is bound up with the spread of Christianity, and its two continents now contain almost half of the world’s Catholics. When we tell the story of the United States, however, Catholics often look in from the outside. 1565 should stand out to us as the founding of the US’s first enduring city, but in school we rather hear the narration of a failed plantation in Jamestown, set down in 1607 (even though a Jesuit mission already existed in the area), or of severe Puritans landing on a rock in Massachusetts in 1620.
Plymouth Rock has become a national myth, of Puritans setting out for religious freedom (but only their own) and surviving through the miraculous intervention of an English-speaking stranger, Squanto, who was rescued out of English slavery by the Spanish Franciscans. In giving thanks for God’s blessing on their new beginning, they imitated what the Spanish had done in 1565 in celebrating the true Thanksgiving of the Eucharist, followed by a feast with the Timucua Indians.
Even if the 13 colonies gobbled up the Catholic lands surrounding them, in God’s providence the continental U.S. has been sanctified by the blood of saints. From St. Augustine, a network of 38 missions spun out across the Southeast, temporarily reaching up to the Chesapeake and to Santa Elena, just south of Charleston. As the British pushed back against them, both Spaniards and Native converts died for the faith, including the layman Servant of God Antonio Inija from the Apalachee mission of San Luis de Talimali, whose name has been placed at the head of the Florida martyrs. Catholic martyrs stretch across the nation, from the Jesuit North American martyrs in New York to the Franciscans of New Mexico.
When Pedro Menéndez de Avilés came ashore to found St. Augustine on September 8, 1565, he claimed the land “in the name of God,” providing the name for the mission that arose there: Nombre de Dios. Despite the competing colonial powers’ grasp for North America, God had his own plans. The conquistadors were caught up in a plan greater than their lust for gold, as we see in Our Lady of Guadlupe’s intervention to the native saint, Juan Diego, leading to the great spiritual conquest of the continent in the name of God.
These greater plans can be discerned in the history of St. Augustine. The first recorded marriage in the continental U.S. occurred between a Spanish man, Miguel Rodriguez, and a free black woman, Luisa de Abrego. The city would become a refuge for runaway slaves from the 13 colonies, with the blessing of King Charles II, who allowed those who converted to the Catholic faith and were willing to serve in the local militia for four years to settle there. They created the first free black settlement in the current boundaries of the U.S. in 1738, known as Fort Mose (Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose), which grew to 3,000 residents. Under Spanish colonial governance, Native tribes also found refuge in Florida, coalescing as the Seminoles.
But these things were not to last. The British temporarily took control of Florida in 1763, causing the evacuation of Catholics — Spanish, black and Native — to Cuba. After Spain regained control, it soon ceded Florida to the United States in 1821 through the Adams–Onís Treaty, forced through Andrew Jackson’s occupation of Pensacola in the First Seminole War, breaking up the last free zone for Native Americans on the East Coast. After that, the Catholic presence in the oldest city in the nation nearly disappeared, and with it the alternate history of the country that most chose to forget. Things could have been different, with Our Lady serving as a unifying force across peoples and cultures, but it is not too late.
As I kneel in the shrine, before the statue of Our Lady nursing her Creator, I’m grateful for her own care for my family. As our Mother, she has seen us through a fair share of difficult moments, as she has done for Catholics across the continent. We kneel here together in this place where Catholics have venerated Mary’s motherhood for almost 500 years. We are still here and are still hoping that the foothold established here for faith will continue to blossom, founded not on any ordinary rock, but on the cornerstone of Christ the King.