Our Most Holy Mother of Light, Leon, Guanajuato
Shoes. Shoes. And more shoes. That’s what youll find in León… in exuberant abundance. León, the fifth largest city in Mexico, is known as the shoe capital of the country. Not only do they have shoes, they have shoe malls. Devoted to selling nothing but shoes!
As popular as they are, however, the shoe malls are not the main source of pride for the citizens of León. The real treasure of the city is a remarkable painting in the city’s historical centre: the miraculous painting of Our Most Holy Mother of Light which is displayed over the main altar of the city’s elegant cathedral, a church that was begun by the Jesuits in 1746.
Our Lady of Light was named the chief Patrona (Patron) of the city of León in
1849. When the city was declared a diocese in 1872 Our Most Holy Mother of Light was named its Patrona as well. Papal approval of its authenticity was reaffirmed when the painting was crowned, in 1902, with the authorization of Pope Leo Xlll.
Our Most Holy Mother of Light is renowned for her miraculous powers of intercession. One of these interventions occurred in a spectacularly public manner on June 18, 1876. The cathedral was packed that Sunday morning. It was standing room only at the 11:00 am Mass. Suddenly, without warning, a loud crack reverberated throughout the entire church. To everyone’s horror “the keystone of the main arch, a tremendous block of masonry, fell into the aisle.” It looked like the entire ceiling would crash down killing everybody beneath. The people froze in terror. At this terrible moment, “Bishop de Sollano, with great presence of mind and sublime faith, walked down and stood under the arch.” The congregation held its collective breath. He prayed urgently to Our Lady to support the arch so that all would be protected. His prayers were heard.
Miraculously, not a single person was injured. They are still talking about it in León to the present day.The painting originated in Europe: It all began with a Jesuit priest, Father Giovanni Antonio Genovesi, who was born in Sicily in 1684.
He entered the Society of Jesus in 1703 and spent the next twenty years as a missionary priest “traversing the length and breadth of Sicily.” He was becoming disheartened, however, because so few people were converting. Father Genovesi, who had a great love for the Blessed Mother, had an inspiration: “I need an image of Our Lady to carry with me,” he said “, one that will convert sinners and move hearts!” But what image? And where would he find such a one?
He had heard that a holy nun in Palermo was receiving visitations from Our Lady. “I will ask her,” he said,“And she can ask the Blessed Virgin what she herself would like!” Father Genovesi travelled to Palermo to meet with the nun. The year was 1722. She thought it was an excellent idea and proceeded to ask Our Lady this very question. Before long, Our Lady appeared to her in a splendour of light surrounded by a “courtege of angels.” She was holding the Infant Jesus in one arm and, with the other arm, she was snatching a “sinner” from the jaws of a demon. An angel knelt before her holding a basket of human hearts. The Infant took them “one by one, sanctifying them with His hands.”
Our Lady then spoke, repeating the command twice: “I wish the painting to be as you have seen me,” she said. “The title of the painting should be known as “Our Most Holy Mother of Light‟.
The nun passed on the message to Father Genovesi who immediately commissioned an artist to carry out Our Lady’s wishes. No matter how many times he tried, however, the artist was not able to match the nun’s description of the sacred scene. “No, it was nothing like that!” said the disappointed religious. Time and time again this happened. Not even the Blessed Mother was happy with the painting!
She appeared again: “What are you doing here, lazybones?” she said to the nun (who lived a fair distance from Palermo), “when I need you in Palermo for a matter which concerns my glory?”
She told the nun to meet her in Palermo at the artist’s studio and that she, herself, would guide the artist’s brush-strokes! Our Lady would be visible only to the nun. “When the work is done,” said the Virgin, “all shall know by its more than human beauty that a greater mind and a higher art have arranged the composition and laid the colors.” Our Lady was delighted with the finished painting; it became known as Our Most Holy Mother of Light. She raised her hand to the completed work and blessed it with the Sign of the Cross.
Father Genovesi carried the painting with him for the rest of his missionary days; wherever he went conversions multiplied. “Our Lady moved the hearts of sinners!” he said. “The Virgin worked marvels through her image,” reported another historian. And devotion to Our Most Holy Mother of Light spread throughout all of Sicily.
But how did the painting end up in Mexico?
It happened like this: Another Jesuit from Sicily, Father Jose Maria Genovese (with almost the same surname as the original Father Genovese), had arrived in Mexico in 1707. News spread overseas about the miraculous painting of Our Most Holy Mother of Light and Father Genovese began erecting altars to her in Mexico. Devotion to her flourished just as it did in Sicily. The Jesuits decided that the painting should be sent to one of their many churches in New Spain (Mexico). But to which church? Where? In which city?
The Jesuits agreed that the selection would be made by casting lots: The choice? The Jesuit church in the city of León. A second, then a third drawing, confirmed the first. León it would be. On July 2, 1732, the miraculous painting of Our Most Holy Mother of Light arrived in the city in “triumph” amid “indescribable enthusiasm.” Every year on the second of July, to the present day, the people of León commemorate the event with a joy-filled, lively fiesta.
Since then Our Most Holy Mother of Light has became known for her outstanding powers of protection for the people of León: She has saved them from epidemics, from storms, from lighting, from plagues. Even revolutions. León is known as the “City of Refuge” because it enjoyed serene peace during the many revolutions and invasions that plagued the rest of Mexico for almost two centuries.
Although she is celebrated throughout the republic of Mexico, she is especially revered in León. The sumptuous cathedral is the centre of the religious life of the city. And at its heart is the miraculous image of Our Most Holy Mother of Light.
Written by Mary Hansen
This article is reprinted with permission from the CANADIAN MESSENGER OF THE SACRED HEART