ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. • Dr. Mary Soha is a Catholic wife, mother, pediatrician, chair of the canonical coronation of Our Lady of La Leche at the national shrine to her and vice postulator for the sainthood cause of the Martyrs of Florida.
The Eucharist is central to all she does, and in her presence, one is warmly welcomed into her embodied faith.
"It's in my genes," explained Dr. Mary, as she prefers to be called. "It's an understanding of how you live life. We are physical and spiritual beings. It resonates within me – Eucharist."
And it resonated within the hearts of Native American peoples when the Spanish arrived at what is now St. Augustine and celebrated Mass in 1565. Their own belief in their one God's presence in all things made it easy for Native Americans to embrace Jesus as the Son of God and his real presence in the Eucharist. It became the center of their lives, which they would ultimately be called to defend to their death.
"As a first grader, it was my job to clean the kneelers in the chapel and my first opportunity to have a conversation alone with Jesus. I learned to listen," Dr. Mary told OSV News.
In second grade, she heard the call to become a medical missionary nun – a passion that persisted until it was revised in eighth grade.
"I was praying before the statue of the Sacred Heart," Dr. Mary said, "and I heard Jesus say, 'You can be a doctor. That's OK, but I don't want you to be a nun. I want you to be married and have children and live your Catholic life in the secular world.'"
Less than a year later, a "little old lady" approached her in church as she was praying.
"She gave me her engagement ring and told me that every time I saw the colors flash in the ring, that I was to pray for my intended, and that when he proposed, the money he would have spent on an engagement ring should be donated to charity," Dr. Mary recalled.
She wore the ring daily through high school and college, but removed it when she went to medical school. "I decided it was time that my intended show himself and I put it in my jewelry box," she said.
Michael Soha proposed in their senior year of medical school. Mary said yes, and to celebrate, he went out to get steaks and wine, while she made a salad.
"He was gone two hours, but when he returned, he apologized and explained that he was planning to buy a ring, had stopped by Camillus House – the soup kitchen where we volunteered – and with the money that he was going to use to buy a ring, he made a donation in my name" Dr. Mary said. "I showed him the ring (from her jewelry box), told him the story and he burst into tears. God erases our doubt and anxiety and fear. If you're going to follow the will of God, every breath you take is his will."
He is an anesthesiologist and she is a pediatrician. Her profession is an extension of her faith.
"I understand as a doctor and as a mother this act of intimacy – to have a parent bring their baby to a doctor," Dr. Mary shared. "They are someone who needs help caring for their most precious person in the world. They put their life in your trust. It gives you a share of looking at other people as God does – that infinite love."
The doctors married and have eight sons – six are their biological children and two are emancipated twins whom they adopted into their family at age 13. All eight were required to earn the rank of Eagle Scout before they were allowed to drive. Eagle Scout is the highest award given by the Boy Scouts of America.
The Soha home is adjacent to the Sacred Acre in St. Augustine, the site of the landing of the Spanish in 1565 and the subsequent Mission Nombre de Dios and National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche. It includes a chapel to Mary and bears a sign, "La Casa de Nuestra Senora" (Our Lady's Guest House), where all are welcomed.
For many Native Americans living in Florida, the Catholic faith introduced by the Spanish resonated with them.
"They believed in one Creator God and related to God in nature," Dr. Mary said. "When they heard the Word of God, were introduced to God's Son, the reality of God's presence in Jesus and in the Eucharist resonated with them."
The Spanish discovered that the Native Americans shared a well-developed language, Timucua, for which the Franciscans later provided the letters. They also had an accounting and merchant culture. The Spanish learned their language and found ways to communicate the Catholic faith so the Native Americans could inculturate the faith with their own cultures.
"The statistics are an amazing testimony to this faith," Dr. Mary said. "Thus far, 157 missions have been discovered. The Spanish priests catechized the Native Americans and when the bishop of Cuba visited in 1605, he baptized 1,000 people. He returned in 1607 to confirm 2,500. And in 1609, he formed the first class of seminarians. By 1655, there were over 26,000 baptized Native Americans."
Devotion to Mary also was very much a part of the Spanish faith and especially the image of Our Lady of La Leche – the Nursing Mother. By the early 1600s, the Spanish also had built a shrine to her on the Sacred Acre. It is the oldest Marian shrine in the U.S. and is now a national shrine.
In 2019, Bishop Felipe J. Estévez of St. Augustine asked Dr. Mary to lead the process for the canonical coronation of the image of Our Lady of La Leche, which took place Oct. 10, 2021.
"It is of particular significance to note that in the catacombs of Priscilla in Rome can be found the oldest Christian icon, Maria Lactans – the Nursing Mother. Both images are at places of martyrdom," Dr. Mary said.
French Huguenots and British Protestants also arrived seeking to eradicate Catholicism and enslave the Native Americans. The stories of the brutal torture and murder of the Spanish and Native American Catholics between 1549-1712 is only outdone by their beautiful stories of devotion to their faith and Jesus in the Eucharist. In her view, Dr. Mary said, "The martyrdom of these Native Americans is the most significant Eucharistic event in our continent's history."
On June 30, a Mass will be celebrated to launch a weeklong process of examining the diocesan documentation of these stories to advance the cause of sainthood for 86 of these martyrs to beatification in the next year. In the case of martyrs, beatification does not require a miracle.
Laura Dodson writes for OSV News from Florida.