The impressive bronze statue of Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales, chaplain of Menéndez’s fleet; celebrant of the First Mass here; and first missionary, stands eleven feet tall. Dr. Ivan Mestrovic, a native of Croatia, executed this heroic monument and portrays Father López in priestly vestments, preaching the Gospel. Dr. Mestrovic was Dean of Art at Notre Dame University at South Bend, Indiana when he fashioned this work. He is noted for several outstanding sculptures in many parts of the world, including The Notre Dame campus and the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
Father López’ diary recorded the landing of Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Captain General of the Indies Fleet and Adelantado of Florida at the village of Seloy on September 8, 1565:
“On Saturday the eighth the General landed with many banners spread, to the sounds of trumpets and the salutes of artillery. 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 that they saw done.”
Following Menéndez’ veneration of the cross, thus proclaiming this land in the name of God (Nombre de Dios), and raising of the King’s flag, thus proclaiming this land also in the name of King Phillip II of Spain, Fr. López celebrated Mass at a rustic altar made of wood. The sky served as the roof for what was the first parish Mass in what is now the U.S. Fr. López is therefore considered the first parish priest and the first pastor of the U.S. The feast for that day, September 8, 1565, was the Nativity or birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Catholic Church continues to mark this feast on September 8 every year.
When the celebration of Mass was completed, Pedro Menéndez hosted a meal of thanksgiving and invited the Native Timucuan People to participate. The Spanish would have served a stew made from salted pork and garbanzo beans, laced with garlic, and accompanied by hard sea biscuits and red wine. It is likely that the Timucuans would have contributed turkey, venison, gopher tortoise, mullet and other fish, corn, beans and squash. When noting the significance of the Mass and meal, noted historian Michael Gannon wrote in his book Cross in the Sand: “It was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent (European) settlement in the land.” This thanksgiving meal was celebrated 56 years before the Puritan-Pilgrim thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation (Massachusetts).