Make a Pilgrimage to Florida

Front of Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche, Saint Augustine, Nombre de Dios. Image credit: CC: GLemmen1

Places of prayer await in the Sunshine State

By Suzanne Riordan

To go on pilgrimage is not simply to visit a place to admire its treasures of nature, art or history. To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendor and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe. (Pope Benedict XVI)

The word “pilgrimage” may bring to mind images of European shrines such as Lourdes and Fatima, or the famous 500-mile walk to St. James Cathedral in Spain, featured in the movie The Way. But if, as Pope Benedict said, the purpose of a pilgrimage is to encounter God, we can meet him in many different ways and many different places.

If you’re planning a summer trip to Florida, why not add a spiritual dimension and make it a pilgrimage, as well? Florida is known as the land of Disney, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Kennedy Space Center, and miles of gorgeous beaches. But it’s also home to many distinctly Catholic sites: Spanish mission sites in St. Augustine and Tallahassee; the modern basilica, Mary, Queen of the Universe, in Orlando; and many more. With a little planning, your summer vacation can become a true Catholic pilgrimage and a great learning opportunity.

Florida has a very long and rich Catholic history. Franciscan missionaries first arrived on the eastern coast of the state in 1565. They established a mission called Nombre de Dios (the Holy Name of God) in St. Augustine. From there they spread the gospel throughout Florida. Many were later killed for the faith when the missions were attacked by enemy native tribes and English troops. These “martyrs of Florida” may one day be canonized. Whether or not they’re officially recognized as saints, faithful Catholics can learn about their lives and honor their memories by visiting the mission sites.

In addition to the Spanish missions, there are many magnificent historic churches, cathedrals, and basilicas in Florida, as well as simpler places of quiet reflection and prayer.

St. Augustine

While many early colonial establishments were destroyed or have faded into history, St. Augustine has remained. Known as “America’s Oldest City,” it’s the longest continually inhabited European settlement in the country.

The mission at St. Augustine, Nombre de Dios, has become a site of pilgrimage and is often called “America’s most sacred acre.” The heart of the mission site is a tiny chapel dedicated in the early 1600s to Our Lady (this was America’s first Marian shrine). Dedicated to Mary as a nursing mother, the chapel is a favorite spot for families and young couples to pray to conceive a child, for the healthy delivery of an unborn baby, or for other intentions involving families and children.

After praying and lighting a candle in the chapel, your family can stroll through the quiet, shady grounds and take in the other sights: a rustic altar that is sometimes used for outdoor Masses; archeological dig sites; a large statue of Fr. Francisco Lopez de Mendoza (the first pastor of the mission); and other statues, plaques, and devotional areas. Spend some time in the museum to learn about the mission’s history. There you can see the casket of Fr. Mendoza, models of the original mission, and artifacts recovered from the excavations.
The mission is located near a bay, so cool breezes and the view of shimmering water add to the peaceful atmosphere. A towering 208-foot cross, illuminated at night by spotlights, was installed in 1966 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the mission.

Statue of Fr. Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, the first parish priest in St. Augustine, Fla. Image credit: CC-Ebyabe

While in St. Augustine, visit the city’s historic Cathedral Basilica, home of the first Catholic parish in the United States, founded in 1565. Though earlier church buildings burned down, the faithful of the city kept rebuilding, and the cathedral stands as a testament to their faith. Murals painted on the cathedral walls portray scenes from the history of the Catholic Church in the New World. Stained-glass windows depict the life of St. Augustine of Hippo, for whom the city was named. For a small fee, the cathedral offers tours for visitors to learn about its history, art, and architecture.


In Tallahassee, Florida’s capital city, there is another Spanish mission site: Mission San Luis. A few years after the founding of Nombre de Dios, the natives of Northwestern Florida invited the Franciscan friars to come across the state and set up a mission there. After a few years, the missionaries finally came, and they baptized more than 5,000 people in two years!

A tour group at Mission San Luis, Tallahassee. Photo courtesy of Mission San Luis, Florida Department of State. Used with permission.

Mission San Luis has been restored, and you can see it today much as it was hundreds of years ago. This site is owned and operated by the State of Florida, so it’s not a Catholic site per se, but there is a reproduction of the mission chapel, where visitors can pray and remember the souls of the missionaries and the native converts.

A special event at Mission San Luis included a demonstration of antique equipment used to make Communion wafers. Photo courtesy of Mission San Luis, Florida Department of State. Used with permission.

In addition to the reconstructed Franciscan church, the mission site also features a convento (home for priests); an Apalachee Indian council house; a Spanish house, a blacksmith shop, and a fort. Your family can learn much about the lives of the early Catholic inhabitants of the area. Staff and volunteers in period costume offer interpretive programs, share stories and information, and answer questions.

The Theater with a Mission cast re-created the wedding ceremony of a Spanish soldier groom and a Native American bride in 1703 at a special event at Mission San Luis, Tallahassee, Fla. Photo courtesy of Mission San Luis, Florida Department of State. Used with permission.


The first thing many people think of when they think of Florida is Disney World and the many surrounding theme parks in Orlando. If you plan to visit any of these parks, you may also want to put a very special Catholic church on your agenda. The National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, was built especially to serve the needs of Catholic families who visit Orlando. Designated a minor basilica in 2009, the shrine is a vast 2,000-seat church, large enough to welcome the many Catholic tourists who come to visit. A lovely sculpture of Mary near the altar inspires prayer to Our Lady. A beautiful series of stained-glass windows show events from salvation history, while the smaller day chapel contains a unique stained-glass mural of a starry night.

Mary, Queen of the Universe Shrine in Orlando. Image credit: CC-Vince Flango.

The church building and grounds are an oasis in the midst of busy Orlando. There are tree-lined roads, ponds, large statues, an outdoor chapel, a pilgrimage center, and a Museum of Christian Art. A beautiful, peaceful rosary garden invites visitors to come and pray. The shrine offers daily Confession as well as daily Adoration. You can also find many wonderful items in the shrine gift shop.

Key West

If you’re heading to the Florida Keys, be sure to visit the Basilica of Mary, Star of the Sea, in Key West. The architecture and decorative elements of this beautiful church reflect the coastal atmosphere. White and off-white walls cast back the light streaming through the many doors on the sides, which are often opened to let in the fresh air. Above and behind the altar is a large stained-glass window depicting Mary, Star of the Sea.

Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea, Key West. Image credit: CC-Carlos Lumpuy

Outdoors, there’s a grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, whom many locals credit for protecting the island from storms. On the day the grotto was dedicated in 1922, Sr. Louis Gabriel, a nun who served in Key West, remarked that, because of the Blessed Mother’s protection, “Key West would never experience the full brunt of a hurricane.” And while it has been hit by hurricanes since then, Key West has not “experienced the full brunt” — meaning very severe loss of life and property — since that time.

The Basilica grounds also include an Adoration chapel, which is open 24 hours a day for prayer and adoration of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

Plan your own pilgrimage

These are just a few of the many Catholic pilgrimage sites in Florida. Catholic beauty and history is all around us. Wherever you plan to travel this summer — whether Florida or elsewhere — look for Catholic sites. As you learn about the Catholic history of the area, stop a while to remember, pray, and admire. These sites are our heritage as Catholics, and we need to instill an appreciation of them in our children.

A prayer for your journey

God our Father, you led Abraham from his home and guarded him in all his wanderings. You guided him safely to the destination you had chosen for him. Be with us now as we travel. Be our safety every mile of the way. Make us attentive, cautious, and concerned about our fellow travelers. Make our highways safe and keep us from all danger. Guide us to our destination for today, and may it bring us one day closer to our final destination with you. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen. (Sacred Heart League’s Driver’s Prayer)

Not planning a visit to Florida this year?

Our friends at Catholic Digest share an article on visiting shrines all around the country:

Visit Catholic Shrines Close to Home in the U.S.

Suzanne Riordan lives in Florida with her husband and four kids. She’s a homeschooling mom, catechist, and a lover of all things authentically Catholic.

All content copyright © Today’s Catholic Teacher/ All rights reserved. May be reproduced for classroom/parish use with full attribution as long as the content is unaltered from its original form. To request permission to reprint online, email