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5 Fascinating Catholic sites not to miss in Florida

5 Catholic sites not to miss in Florida

Alexander Lukatskly | Rafel | Shutterstock | Jared | Farragutful | Wikipedia | Collage by Aleteia

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 03/09/24

If you’re from Florida or visiting the state, check out these beautiful and significant Catholics sites, perfect for planning a pilgrimage!

You might not realize that some of the earliest Catholic history in the United States began in Florida. 

The Sunshine State is considered  “Europe’s first frontier in North America,” as Spanish Catholics arrived there all the way back in 1565. 

Today some 21% of the Florida population is Catholic, close to 2 million people. 

If you’re from Florida or will find yourself visiting the state, check out these beautiful and historically significant Catholics sites. They would be perfect for planning a pilgrimage!

1
National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche at Mission Nombre de Dios, St. Augustine

On September 8, 1565, five Spanish ships sailed into a small cove on the coastline of what was known to them as “La Florida.” They arrived in hopes of establishing a colony, securing the land for Spain, and converting the natives to Christianity. Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales recorded the day’s events in his diary:

On Saturday the eighth the General landed with many banners spread, to the sounds of trumpets and the salutes of artillery. As I had gone ashore the evening before, I took a cross and went to meet him, singing the hymn “Te Deum Laudamus.” 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 that they saw done.

Following Menéndez’ veneration of the Cross, thus proclaiming this land in the name of God (Nombre de Dios), Father Lopez celebrated Mass at a rustic altar made of wood. The sky served as the roof for this first parish Mass in what is now the United States. It was on this sacred ground that the Spanish settlers began their devotion to Our Lady of La Leche, Nuestra Señora de La Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery), Mary nursing the infant Jesus. In the early 1600s, the Spanish settlers of St. Augustine established the first Shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the United States.

Today, more than 450 years later, an image of Our Lady of La Leche graces a small mission chapel in the heart of the “sacred acre.” Pilgrims come from all around the world to pray for her intercession. They pray for fertility, for the health of their children, and for safe delivery of those expecting. Many return in thanksgiving to share their stories after their prayers are answered. You can read all about it on their website.

Basilica St. Augustine, Florida
Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, St. Augustine, Florida

2
The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, St. Augustine

Besides the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche, that first parish established in 1565 still exists to this day. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine is the oldest Catholic Church in the city and is considered the oldest parish in the country. 

Originally this parish was part of the Diocese of Savannah, Georgia, but by 1870, the Catholic population of Florida had grown considerably. The Diocese of St. Augustine began in 1870. In 1976, the Cathedral of St. Augustine was venerated with the title of Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, an honor that marks a church as historically significant. 

The cathedral’s original structure only dates back to the 1700s, as its location changed during the Spanish and British Colonial periods. A permanent structure was built in 1797, and three of the walls in the Cathedral Basilica are original from 1797. Those original walls are two feet thick. 

James Renwick, Jr., architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, oversaw the renovations in the late 1800s. These included exposing decorated timbers and Spanish mission features such as curving bell gables, clay tile roofs, prominent statuary niches and unadorned walls.

3
The National Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, Miami

Visiting Miami can feel like visiting a different country, if you’re not from the area. More people speak Spanish than English there, and the climate and culture are more typical of Central America than of the northern United States. Of course, these differences are what make Miami so fun!

One site that is emblematic of this one-of-a-kind city is the National Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, “La Virgen de la Caridad.” Our Lady of Charity is the patron saint of Cuba, so her national shrine is a beloved sacred space for Florida’s many Cuban Americans, who make up some 28 percent of the state population

The national shrine is popularly known as “La Ermita de la Caridad” and is located in the Miami metropolitan area, next to Biscayne Bay. It was built thanks to the commitment and effort of the Cuban exile community in the United States.

With more than a 55-year presence, the shrine is an important place of worship, history, and culture in South Florida. If you visit for one of the shrine’s many religious and cultural events, don’t miss the historical mural painted by a local artist. 

4
Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, Orlando

You might think of Orlando first of all as the home of Mickey Mouse and Universal, and sure enough, the city is America’s most-visited destination: It hosts an eye-popping 74 million visitors per year! 

Many of those visitors are Catholic and want to attend Mass while they’re in the area. The solution? The Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, was built conveniently located to Disney World and the theme park area in order to offer religious services to the many Catholic tourists. You can read the whole history here. Their website describes their mission in the following way:

Today this house of prayer continues to inspire those who come to worship, pray, and engage in quiet contemplation. Through the celebration of liturgy, prayer, the viewing of sacred art, and the receiving of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, faithful from all over the world, including those living here in Central Florida find comfort, calm and spiritual renewal amidst the hectic pace of the outside world.

The grounds of the Shrine include a Rosary Garden, an outdoor chapel, a bell tower, and a pond that is home to local wildlife. This special spot is a true oasis for Orlando visitors and residents alike. 

Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, Sarasota, Florida
Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, Sarasota, Florida

5
Our Lady Queen of the Martyrs Catholic Church, Sarasota

Tucked away in this unassuming parish church is a first-class relic of St. Padre Pio, a beloved Italian priest. The relic is a drop of blood from St. Padre Pio’s stigmata in the “shape of a heart” that fell on the altar while he was celebrating the Holy Mass in 1956. A parishioner donated it to Our Lady Queen of the Martyrs, and you can read the full story here

The parish offers plenty of events for spiritual enrichment along with services and devotions, giving many options for visitors to attend.

BONUS SITE
ANCIENT SPANISH MONASTERY, NORTH MIAMI BEACH

How did a medieval monastery built in the 1100s materialize in Florida, which did not even have a European presence at the time? It’s a fascinating story!

Originally built in northern Spain, the Monastery of St. Bernard de Clairvaux (initially named for Our Lady, Queen of Angels) was completed in 1141 and was home to Cistercian monks for nearly 700 years. After a social revolution in the 1830s, the monastery’s cloisters were seized, sold, and converted into a granary and stable.

In 1925, William Randolph Hearst purchased the cloisters and the monastery’s outbuildings and had them painstakingly taken apart and shipped to the United States. But it was not until 1953 that the monastery was finally put back together in what Time magazine called “the biggest jigsaw puzzle in history.” You can read the whole wild history on the website

Today, the ancient building is no longer home to a monastic or even a Catholic community but is in active use as a parish for the local Episcopalian community. While no longer technically a Catholic site, it has a significant Catholic history. The Ancient Spanish Monastery is one of the oldest buildings in the United States and a notable reminder of the region’s Spanish history.

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PilgrimagesTravelUnited States
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