I awoke this morning to the terrible news that 49 people had been mercilessly killed while dancing at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, a place located only two blocks from where I have worked as an English teacher for the past 12 years. Conflicted on whether or not I should actually take this trip, I decided that if I let the fear settle, terrorism would truly win and opted to pick up Cori for our annual girls’ weekend as scheduled.
Strangely enough on this day where terror and excitement were continuously trading places in my heart, I found myself on the grounds of the Mission Nombre de Dios and the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche
From the angels guarding the bridge, to the Great Cross, to the shrine to the Virgin Mary, and the prayer to St. Francis of Assisi, I was continuously reminded that even though great tragedy had struck my community, God is truly in control.
I wandered that property mesmerized by the ivy covered shrine that sat in the middle. As I entered the structure, I was greeted by a statue of Our Lady of Le Leche and surrounded by the glow of candles–burning beacons of the prayers of those who stood before me. While most people visit this shrine to ask Mary to bestow them with the blessing of motherhood, I found myself asking Mary to bestow peace on all the mothers that awoke to news that their child had been murdered.
Continuing my exploration of the grounds I was drawn to the Great Cross, standing 208 feet above the Matanza River. Pedro Menendez de Aviles, whom I had been introduced to at the Fountain of Youth, planted the first cross in the ground 401 years prior. And though this stainless steel cross was erected in 1966, it serves as a reminder that this is the first place that Christianity was introduced to our country.
In front of the cross stands a bronze statue of Fr. Lopez, the first person to hold Mass on the soil of the United States. Strangely enough the artist of this stature was from South Bend, Indiana an hour from my childhood home. With this information, I found myself feeling strangely rooted in two places for the first time in my life–my childhood home of Indiana and my adult home of Florida had found a place and a moment to converge.
As I was leaving the grounds of the shrine, I came upon a statue of St. Francis of Assisi who ,I knew from my five years of Catholic school, is often associated with birds and animals. Next to him was his prayer on a plaque that held such significant meaning on such a day of despair. I read it and was reminded of how life should and can be.
I know it was Cori who wanted to stop by the nation’s oldest shrine, but as I wandered those grounds contemplating all that had taken place in just 24 hours, I wondered if a greater force was drawing us to this sacred space. And just before leaving, Cori pointed out this bench to me which served as a personal reminder that each day should be seized and lived in joy instead of fear.