Was first Thanksgiving in St. Augustine, Fla.

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- Forget the turkey, the silly Pilgrim hats and the buckles.

Forget Plymouth Rock and 1621.

If you want to know about the real first Thanksgiving on American soil, travel 1,200 miles south and more than 50 years earlier to a grassy spot on the Matanzas River in North Florida.

This is where Spanish Adm. Pedro Menendez de Aviles came ashore on Sept. 8, 1565. This is where he, 500 soldiers, 200 sailors, 100 civilian families and artisans, and the Timucuan Indians who occupied the village of Seloy gathered at a makeshift altar and said the first Christian Mass. And afterward, this is where they held the first Thanksgiving feast.

The Timucuans brought oysters and giant clams. The Spaniards carried from their ships garbanzo beans, olive oil, bread, pork and wine.

Eric Johnson, director of the Mission of Nombre de Dios and Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche -- the site at which Menendez landed -- doesn't expect Americans to change their Thanksgiving traditions that are shaped around the Pilgrims' feast. But he, like other Florida historians, would like folks to recognize that the stories they learned in grade school -- the stories presented in textbooks today -- are wrong.

It all happened in this bucolic 300-acre Catholic mission and shrine that offers a quiet respite amid the frenetic tourist activity of St. Augustine, the oldest European settlement in the United States. A replica of the Rustic Altar sits next to the shore in the general area where archaeologists believe the Mass took place.

Michael Gannon, former director of the mission and University of Florida distinguished service emeritus professor of history, presented the celebration in his meticulously researched book, "The Cross in the Sand," in 1965 and has argued that this feast should be recognized as the first Thanksgiving.

If you go

The Mission of Nombre de Dios and Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche is at 27 Ocean Ave. St., Augustine, FL 32084; 1-904-824-2809 or 1-800-342-6529; www.missionandshrine.org It is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Visits to the grounds and gift shop are free but donations are welcome.

This year, construction has started on a 3,000-square-foot museum that is projected to open late next spring. It is intended as a place to celebrate and study the history of the Catholic faith in Florida from Sept. 8, 1565, until now. Among its permanent exhibits will be the coffin of Pedro Menendez de Aviles, which now sits in an alcove by the shrine gift shop.

Each year the city's founding on Sept. 8 is celebrated with much pageantry, including cannon fire, a mayor's proclamation, speeches by historians and Mass at the Rustic Altar. A grass-roots group and city commission have been set up to plan festivities to celebrate the city's 450th anniversary in 2015.

"It is a part of history," Mr. Johnson said. "Our 450th anniversary of the founding will be held in 2015. Our hope is that between now and then people can learn more about the history of Florida and the establishment of St. Augustine."

Florida school teacher Robyn Gioia felt so strongly about this lack of recognition that she wrote a children's picture book, "America's REAL first Thanksgiving," in April 2007 that is helping to spread the word. (At right, see story and recipe.)

Coming ashore

After Juan Ponce de Leon discovered the peninsula, named it La Florida ("Land of Flowers") and claimed it for Spain in 1513, the Spanish Crown tried without success to permanently colonize the land. By 1564, the French had established a fort and colony on the nearby St. John's River. King Philip II named Menendez governor of Florida and commissioned him to establish a permanent settlement and gain control of the territory.

After a failed attempt to cross the sea because of bad weather, Menendez landed at a harbor in Northern Florida on Sept. 4, 1565, that he named San Agustin (St. Augustine) in honor of the saint upon whose feast day, Aug. 28, he had first sighted land near Cape Canaveral.

The fleet's chaplain was a secular priest named Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, who not only was the fleet's spiritual leader, but also kept a log describing the historic passage and landing.

"On Saturday the 8th, the general landed with many banners spread, to the sounds of trumpets and salutes of artillery," according to a translation of what Father Lopez wrote. "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 they saw done."

The Spanish named the landing spot Nombre de Dios, or "Name of God," and it became missionary headquarters in the new land. Father Lopez was named pastor of the new settlement.

"The Timucuans were gentle people in terms of manner and disposition," Mr. Johnson said. "They didn't have any reason to believe that the Spanish were enemies."

Menendez wanted to find a way to co-exist with the native people in a peaceful way, he said. "He treated the chief as he himself wanted to be treated."

Praying for safe deliveries

The mission and shrine draws between 100,000 to 120,000 people annually. Among the biggest attraction is the chapel that houses a replica of the statue of Our Lady of La Leche, the first shrine dedicated to Our Blessed Mother in the United States.

Its centerpiece is a replica of the Blessed Virgin nursing the infant Jesus. Many visitors -- Catholics and non-Catholics -- ask for the blessing of motherhood.

"People who are pregnant come to pray for a safe delivery and healthy children," Mr. Johnson said, recalling that his own parents made a pilgrimage here from nearby Jacksonville when he was a child to pray for their new baby. And when he later moved to Maryland with his wife, he, too, journeyed back here to pray for his own children.

And more so now than ever before, couples who have been unsuccessful in having children come to pray.

"There's a great level of frustration and pain associated with infertility. I see more and more couples and more and more of their family members coming to pray," he said.

For many it gives them a time for prayer and reflection. During the visit, some may accept the fact that they have not been called to have their own child and they resolve to consider adoption.

One of Mr. Johnson's favorite stories involved a family he encountered one day walking through the grounds.

The Louisiana couple had visited only one time before, they told him, 35 years ago. He asked why it took them so long to return. "We had to raise our family," they said, explaining that they had nine children and 21 grandchildren.

"They had come here because they were unable to conceive. They both prayed to have children. But they came to the resolution that they should go home and adopt a child. That led to them adopting nine children."

There also are the many stories of shrine babies -- those whose prayers were answered. "We call them our own little miracles."

'Beacon of faith'

The grounds hold other fascinating artifacts. Dotted throughout the property are weathered tombstones, almost all from the 1800s.

An epidemic of yellow fever hit St. Augustine in 1821. Catholics felled by the disease were buried at the mission, away from the regular cemetery, because people were worried that the disease was contagious, even among the dead. Also included among these were six African American Union soldiers who had been part of the United States Colored Troops.

The most striking feature of the mission is the 208-foot-tall stainless steel cross that was erected in 1965 to mark the 400th anniversary of the city's founding. It stands as a sentinel over the mission and what Billy Graham called a "beacon of faith" for all who pass through the area.

Still on most days, this is a very quiet place and is easily overshadowed by the nearby Spanish fort, Castillo de San Marcos, which was constructed between 1672 and 1695, and other tourist sites in town.

"It's like an oasis of calm, tranquility and beauty in the middle of a tourist town," Mr. Johnson said about the mission and shrine. "A lot of people find it by accident."

Virginia Linn can be reached at vlinn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1662. First Published November 22, 2009 5:00 AM


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