Site of the first Catholic mass in the continental US.
Site of what may be the oldest Catholic mission in the US.
Site of the tallest cross in the US.
While Christianity has played a role in Florida tourism for many years, Mission Nombre de Dios is a sheep of a different color. Unlike the now-closed attractions Great Masterpiece in Lake Wales or Prince of Peace Memorial in Silver Springs, this St. Augustine landmark is a working church and pilgrimage site as well as part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine.
Originally established as part of the Spanish Colonial Mission System in La Florida, it was founded to spread Christianity to the native population. This mission and further ones were established next to Spanish fortifications for the protection of the friars.
The mission was established in 1587 and today is located on the site where the first mass was held in 1565 by a landing party led by Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the first such mass held in what would become the continental US. That first mission was founded by Franciscans.
The name Mission Nombre de Dios means name of God. Today, the mission is made up of several parts. There have been interesting archeological research efforts on the grounds and there is an early cemetery.
The main parts of the mission include the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche, the Prince of Peace Votive Church and a small museum.
The Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche (Our Lady of the Milk) is an ancient Marian shrine, likely to be the first shrine of its sort in the US. While the current shrine was built in 1914, it’s a replica of earlier shrine buildings on the same site. It’s a significant pilgrimage site in the US. In October 2019 the Shrine was elevated to the status of National Shrine by the US bishops’ conference.
The Prince of Peace Votive Church was built in 1965 in honor of the 400th anniversary of the first mass and the founding of St. Augustine. It’s regularly used for weddings, memorials and other religious events.
The most obvious structure on the Mission’s property was also erected for the 400th anniversary. That would be the Great Cross, a 208 foot (63.4 m) tall, stainless steel cross that is located on the shore of the Matanzas River. Even 50+ years after its construction, it’s still the tallest cross in the US.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires any structure of at least 200 feet in height have a signal light on the top for safety sake, yet the Great Cross doesn’t have one. This could be speculation, but one reason why the Great Cross remains the tallest in the US could be the idea that people and churches don’t think it’s appropriate to put a red blinking light on top of a cross. I’m not sure how the Great Cross gets around this, but at night it’s bathed in light all the way to the top and being constructed of unpainted stainless steel, it certainly appears as bright as the typical signal light.
So yes, the Mission Nombre de Dios is firstly a working Catholic church. But it’s also a popular tourist destination that plays a significant role in telling the story of the city of St. Augustine. Whether or not visitors are Catholic, most everyone enjoys the beautiful grounds, the museum and the views out to the Matanzas River. It’s close enough to the main historic area of St. Augustine but like the other attractions nearby – Ripley’s Believe It or Not and the Fountain of Youth – it has its own dedicated parking, something that’s rare in the old city.