Founder’s Day Honors Oldest City in America

Photos and story by Fran Ruchalski

Bishop Estévez kisses a cross held by an actor playing Father Francisco López.

On Saturday, Sept. 4, the Diocese of St. Augustine celebrated and reenacted the founding of America’s oldest city and the establishment of the oldest parish of a permanent European settlement at the 456th Founder’s Day on the grounds of the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche at Mission Nombre de Dios, the oldest Marian shrine in the country.

Founder’s Day celebrates the anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, discovered 55 years before the English landed in Jamestown or the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.

On Sept. 8, 1565, Don Pedro Menéndez de Aviles and nearly 1,200 Spaniards and Catholic priests landed on the city’s shores, claiming the land for God and Spain. They named the new settlement St. Augustine in honor of the saint on whose feast day they first sighted land. Later that day, Father Francisco López celebrated the first Mass of Thanksgiving on these shores.

A reenactment of these events was held, followed by a Mass at the rustic altar celebrated by Bishop Felipe Estévez. Along with the reenactors, the celebration included Los Floridanos, the Menorcan Cultural Society, The Confraternity of Our Lady of La Leche, and The Royal Family of St. Augustine.

In his opening remarks, Jon Carres, executive director of the shrine and mission, stated, “This site is special to the Diocese of St. Augustine who as good stewards of the land we own, maintain, and share with all who come to visit. It serves as the heart of our Catholic faithful, a place of rest, prayer, comfort, healing, and peace.” 

“It is special to the community of St. Augustine,” he continued, “the people who value and keep their history alive as evidenced by the many who have come to celebrate this 456th anniversary of the founding of the city with us.”

In his homily during the Mass, Bishop Estévez asked the congregation, when you look at the image of Our Lady of La Leche, “Where is her gaze? What is she looking at?”

“She’s looking at Jesus. She is in contemplation about the gift she has received…the Word made flesh in her womb. Look at her eyes. It’s all about Jesus.”

As the bishop summed it up, “Everything about Mary is to lead us to Jesus.”

“What a privilege it is,” exclaimed Bishop Estévez, “to be in continuity with that first Mass celebrated on the First Coast by Father López in 1565.”