Monthly Archives: September 2019
I was visiting the renowned shrine of Our Lady of Tonatico in the town of the same name in the state of Mexico. It is a ten-minute bus ride from the internationally recognized spa town of Ixtapan de Sal. Whereas Ixtapan is a bustling place, Tonatico is its opposite, a smaller serene spot encircled by mountains. The church of Our Lady of Tonatico is an exquisite place. Enormous in size. All in tones of burgundy and cream and brimming over with flowers to honour Our Lady.
But where was the famous statue? I glanced all around and it was nowhere to be seen. Then I looked up. Way up. And there she was! An unusually tall, elongated figure, situated high above the main altar. A kindly sacristan motioned for me to climb the staircase for a closer look. Before I realized it I was face-to-face with the famous Our Lady of Tonatico!
She looked decidedly different from any statue of Our Lady that I had ever seen before. That tilt of the head. The look of perplexity. Or, maybe of dismay. She looked so down-to-earth, just like everybody’s next-door neighbor. There was nothing ethereal in her expression at all.
And how to account for that unusual tilt of the head? That all began with a catastrophe that happened over two hundred years ago—
All the clergy and guests were gathering on the grounds for the blessing of the new church of Our Lady of Tonatico. A banquet was being held to celebrate the event.
During the festivities two of the townspeople were telling the pastor about a recent dream they had had concerning the new shrine. Oddly, both of the guests had related the identical dream. Its message? That the pastor would have much anxiety concerning this new sanctuary. No sooner had these words been spoken than one of the guests raced over with alarming news. The church was on fire! All stormed over to the calamitous scene. Before their very eyes the roof crashed in! The flames leaped higher and higher. Within minutes all had become a conflagration of burning timbers. Everything was ruined!
Everything, that is, except the statue of Our Lady of Tonatico. It, inexplicably, escaped all damage and beyond all logic, was found outside the church. “How did it get there?” everyone wondered. It was far too large to have been surreptitiously smuggled out of the church. The mystery remains to the present day.
Stranger still, the position of the statue’s head had become altered after the fire; it was now tilted upward toward the church. It was as though Our Lady were standing there—-with anguished eyes—watching the inferno unfold. The unusual angle of the head is visible to the present day.
The story of the miracle spread and the devotion of the townspeople to their favourite patron increased dramatically. She has become known for her extraordinary powers of intercession. Behind the church stands an entire building devoted to testimonials documenting Our Lady of Tonatico’s special favours. All four walls are literally covered with thousands of ex-votos (also called retablos). These are small hand-drawn pictures which depict miracles which have occurred. All are signed and dated by the grateful donors. Usually, the individuals do not paint the pictures themselves. They hire artists to do the work. Since the early 1600’s the statue has been known as “taumataurga” (wonder-working). She has been known to heal paralysis, cure blindness and save people horribly wounded in accidents.
And, according to the dates of some of the ex-votos, Our Lady of Tonatico is continuing her powerful intersessions to this day.
The much-loved statue of Our Lady in the church of Santa Anita has a most unusual and extraordinary talent—but it’s one that is not appreciated by all!
Tradition tells us that the miraculous and legendary image of Our Lady of Purification was able to declare—precisely—whether a sick person would get better or whether they would die! Not by words, but by the colour of her skin; if her face turned rosy pink and bright it meant life, if it turned dark, it meant death.
The stuff of pious legends? Or of naïve schoolchildren? Well, the Franciscan friars at the convent had some experience of this themselves—
But first, some of the history of the shrine is in order: In 1530 two Franciscan friars, Fray Juan de Padilla And Fray Juan de Badillo arrived in the hamlet to preach the faith. Historians relate that a European hermit had brought the statue to the area about the year 1700. The elderly hermit had eventually become ill and a devout Christian Indian woman named Augustina took care of him. On his deathbed, in gratitude, he entrusted the statue to her. Soon, favours abounded to those who prayed through her intercession!
Augustina was known as a “native doctor” and would visit sick people in their homes. She began to notice a strange phenomenon: while praying for a patient she would observe the features of the image—sure enough, if the features darkened it meant sure death for the patient. If the features brightened, it was a sign of imminent health.
The friars soon learned of the mysterious happenings and decided to investigate. To test this hypothesis, they brought the image to an ill friar: the image’s face turned dark. “You are beautiful, O Lady, but very dark,” said the sick friar. Shortly after, he died a holy death.
Over time, however, devotion to Our Lady’s image diminished and it became neglected entirely . This was to change however; after the middle of the 17th century, Franciscan Fria, Ignatio Tellez, saw the sorry image: it was in a dilapidated state and its garments were tattered and covered with dust. The friar discovered that this was indeed the miraculous statue he had heard about. He resolved to revive the ancient devotion—and this devotion has continued to the present day.
The Franciscans are in charge of this thriving parish to this day. Each year on the second of February, the Feast of the Presentation, a fiesta is celebrated with great solemnity and rejoicing. The small wooden statue of Spanish origin is about 18″ (cm) in height. She holds a golden candlestick in her right hand and on her left arm, the Child Jesus. Both Mother and Child are vested in sumptuous garments.
She has another title as well: “Help of the Sick.” Many a pilgrim attests to the powers of her intercession!
The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is everywhere in Mexico. On billboards, bus stations, store-fronts, front lawns. Taxicabs. Cars. And of course, in churches. Particularly churches. There is scarcely a town in the country that does not have a church dedicated to her. And the Franciscan church in this story goes one better—it is not only named after her it is in a town which is named after her as well.
The miraculous painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe is in the Franciscan Church and Convento of Guadalupe, Zacatecas, a town 4 miles away from the beautiful city of Zacatecas.
This Convento played a key role in the evangelization of Mexico and beyond. It was founded by the saintly Fray Antonio Margil de Jesus in 1707. This superb Spanish missionary arrived in New Spain in 1683 and eventually became the Guardian of this Apostolic College of Zacatecas. Prior to this appointment he had been the Guardian of the College of Santa Cruz in Queretaro. Personnel statistics from 1796 indicate the immensity of this establishment in Zacatecas: there were 105 priests, 126 religious 56 novices and 45 religious students, a total of 383 persons.
For over a century it was a centre of “tremendous” missionary activity and founded 12 missions in Texas, 15 in Baja, California, and one in Zapopan, Mexico. Two other Apostolic Colleges existed at this time as well: the College of Santa Cruz in Queretaro, founded in 1683, which was the first training centre for missionaries in the New World and the third Apostolic College, San Fernando founded in Mexico City in 1734. This College is best-known for its association with St. Junipero Serra, the Apostle of California; prior to his arrival in California he spent many years at San Fernando. It had a total membership of 114 friars in 1772.
These colleges were schools to “form apostles.” The friars chosen to come here were an elite group, men of exalted spiritual goals and virtues.
In 1843 Venerable Fray Bernardino de Jesus was elected Guardian of the Apostolic College of Guadalupe; he was a man of extraordinary piety and virtue. Shortly after his election he received letters from two Franciscan nuns: They had been receiving messages from the Blessed Virgin Mary to pass on to him. The first was that the College would have to endure a great trial. Being a man of prudence and wisdom he was skeptical! To prove the authenticity of these messages the nuns prophesied three signs all of which were realized.
The first sign: they revealed to him his innermost thoughts about a certain subject of which he had told no one. The second: they would be protected from an impending catastrophe in the convent: sure enough, shortly thereafter, the roof collapsed, and, despite the presence of many people, no one was hurt. The third: a statue would fall from a height in the chapel but would not sustain any damage. This too came to pass!
But back to the subject of the story, the Virgin of the Ring: a strange name indeed for a statue of Our Lady! And its origins are even more unusual: The Virgin requested that Fray Bernardino convoke all the friars on the feast of the Assumption to renew their vows and their “spiritual betrothal” to her by means of a ring. After the confirmation of the messages he wasted no time in calling his friars together. On August 15, 1844, he, together with his congregation, presented Our Lady with the gold ring he had had expressly made for the occasion.
One wonders how a ring could be placed on a painting! Solution: the ring was open on the back so that it could be inserted through holes in the painting. A legend states that the fingers of the Virgin separated when the Father guardian inserted the ring. Franciscan historians point out the peculiar angle of the little finger on the hand, which they believe adds some credence to the story.
Visitors to the church today can see the ring plainly visible on the painting above the main altar.
Our Lady’s initial prophecy was effected in a most dramatic manner: In 1859 the fiercely anti-Catholic government passed the Laws of Exclaustration and the friars were forced to flee the convent. Only a fraction of the College remains; the rest was appropriated by the government and is now art museum. This museum houses an exemplary collection of colonial art and is considered the second finest art museum in the country.
Also to be noted: this church was the childhood parish of the renowned Mexican martyr Blessed Miguel Pro, the church where he was baptized. His home (which can be visited) is only a few steps away.