Do you know the date and place of the First Thanksgiving?
If you guessed 1621 and Plymouth, Massachusetts, you are wrong.
Surprised? Me too.
I made this incredible discovery while visiting the Mission Nombre de Dios and Shrine of Our Lady of Le Leche in St. Augustine, Florida.
On September 8, 1565 – the same day the city of St. Augustine was founded – Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles landed on the eastern shore of what is now the State of Florida and proclaimed the site for Spain and the Church. Menendez was Captain General of the Indies Fleet and brought with him colonists and soldiers. He also brought with him a Spanish diocesan priest named Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, the fleet’s chaplain.
Upon landing, Fr. Lopez offered a Mass of Thanksgiving at a makeshift altar on the shore. This was the first Catholic Mass ever to be said on what is now the United States of America. Historian John Gilmary Shea wrote of the event:
Mass was said to hallow the land and draw down the blessing of Heaven before the first step was taken to rear human habitation. The altar was older than the hearth.”
After the Mass, Pedro Menendez hosted a wonderful feast for his companions and new native friends, the Timucuans. This became the first permanent Christian settlement in our country.
The Thanksgiving held by Pedro Menendez, his companions, chaplain and Timucua Indians beat the English pilgrims’ Thanksgiving by 56 years!
Why haven’t we heard of this before? Speculation holds that it’s because of the eventual English dominance on this continent and the spread of the English language.
A replica of that makeshift altar stands on the grounds today in the same spot as the original was built. Not far from there is a bronze statute of Fr. Lopez, his arms extended in praise of God. Across the creek from him is a giant cross made of stainless steel and filled three-fourths to the top with concrete to keep it stable. The cross is 208 feet high and represents the great wooden cross erected by Fr. Lopez upon landing. Why 208 feet? The answer is much simpler than the date of the First Thanksgiving. Airplanes. Federal Law requires any structure over 208 feet to have a light at the top as a caution to aircraft and the shrine custodians did not wish to ruin the marvelous effect of the cross to be ruined by a light at the top.
Standing at the shore near the cross, I caught myself taking long, deep breaths – not because I was in need of oxygen but rather because I wanted to breathe in the ocean air just as Pedro Menedez and Fr. Lopez had done. I wanted to breathe in God’s glory and the fervency of their mission to spread Christianity to all shores. For a brief moment, I stood straight and spread my arms in imitation of the bronze image of Fr. Lopez. I heard the voices of the soldiers, colonists, and Timucuans – the prayers of praise and thanksgiving, the laughter, the chatter. I heard the clatter of the dishes and the crackling of the cooking fires. For that brief moment I felt the joy of the Real First Thanksgiving.