Puebla is one of the most picturesque cities in Mexico. It is one of the country’s oldest and is known for its distinct signature Talavera tile, its magnificent colonial architecture and its—Volkswagen Beetles! (Thanks to a large Volkswagen plant in the city). And if that were not enough it is surrounded by four spectacular volcanoes! It was founded in 1531 by a charter from Queen Isabella of Spain. It is the country’s fourth largest city with a population of 1.5 million people and was declared a UNESCO national heritage monument in 1987. It is a city teeming with churches and has the largest concentration in the country.
The oldest church in the city and one of the most stunning is the Church of San Francisco which is dedicated to the five wounds (or stigmata) of St. Francis of Assisi. Construction began on the church in 1535, four years after the city’s founding.
FRAY TORIBIO DE BENAVENTE (1491-1568), who became the Father Guardian in 1525, laid the first stone. He was born in Zamora, Spain and was one of the founders of the city. He was renowned for being one of the “Twelve Apostles” the first group who arrived in New Spain in 1524 to begin the evangelization of Mexico. They came shortly after the conquest of the Aztecs by Cortes in 1521, an event which made possible the entrance of Christianity into these new lands. He was known as Motolinia which means “very poor and very humble”. The church was finished in 1767. It is a typical Franciscan church of the era. It is built on a grand scale, almost fortress-like and has a single nave. The façade is glorious—it is in the Churrigueresque (rich Baroque) style featuring elaborately carved stone combined with brilliantly coloured Talavera tile.
The church is home to the much revered statue of LA CONQUISTADORA, OUR LADY OF THE CONQUEST. It is reputed to be the oldest Marian statue in the country. The 15th Flemish statue has the most fascinating history! It all goes back to the time of Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer who founded America under the auspices of the Spanish empire. What American school child does not remember the familiar child’s verse—“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue”—-?
Well: Columbus and his compatriots did not want to sail across the ocean without the protection of Our Lady! So he spoke to a Franciscan friar, Fray Juan Perez, about his concern; this friar just happened to be, providentially, the confessor to the Queen of Spain, Queen Isabella! The friar generously presented to Christopher Columbus this precious statue of La Conquistadora. This explains how the statue was thus brought to the Americas. It was brought by Columbus himself. One of the Spanish conquistadors who accompanied Cortez in Cozumel, Mexico, Pedro de Alvarado, was very devoted to the Virgin Mary. He spoke to Cortez about the statue and Cortes said to him: “The Virgin will be called La Conquistadora (she who conquers) because she will give us victory when we do battle with the Aztecs!” And this is how the statue received her name! The statue accompanied Cortez in 1521 during the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City).
The Tlaxcalans (from the nearby state of Tlaxcala) became Cortez’ staunch allies in the battle; so grateful were the Spaniards for their immense help (they were fierce warriors and were sworn enemies of the Aztecs) that Cortez gave the statue to his distinguished loyal friend, the chief Tlaxcalan Senor, GONZALO AXOTECATL COCOMITZI. He loved her dearly and venerated her in his home, adorning her with flowers and painted cloths. He even took her to dances and celebrations, carrying her in his arms with the utmost respect and devotion.
The Franciscans, understanding the immense historical value of the image, asked the Senor if they could place the image in the Franciscan Church in Puebla. The senor readily agreed to this new arrangement. In 1582 the first hermitage dedicated to LA CONQUISTADORA was established. A chapel was built and she was placed in the interior of a silver eagle which represents the royal arms of the House of Austria. The chapel was finally completed in 1631. The statue is 42 cm (16.5”) in height and features Our Lady holding the Infant Jesus in her right hand and a sceptre in her extended left hand. In 1635 she was declared the Patrona of the city.
The incorrupt body of BLESSED SEBASTIAN APARICIO (1502-1600) is also in the chapel of LA CONQUISTADORA in the Franciscan church. He was born in Spain and came to Mexico in 1525. He built the first highways and roads in the country and became a very wealthy man. Living a radically Christian life, he gave away all of his money to the poor, especially to the Chichimeca Indians with whom he had very amicable relations. He became a Franciscan later in life and lived at this convent for many years. He was beatified by Pope Pius Vl in 1787.
La Conquistadora is one of the earliest Christian images to be venerated in Mexico. She is known for her many miracles—even bringing dead children back to life!
Monterrey, in the northern state of Nuevo Leon, is the third largest city in Mexico (after Mexico City and Guadalajara) with a population of about three million people. It is a prosperous, bustling place and is considered the high-tech centre of the country, along with Mexico City. Surrounded by the Sierra Madre Mountains, it is dominated by a uniquely shaped mountain peak known as the Cerro de la Silla (Saddle Hill) which has become the signature emblem of the city. Monterrey is one of my favourite cities in Mexico because of its wondrous MACRO PLAZA or “grand plaza.” It is six blocks long and covers 100 acres. Filled with parks and fountains and monuments it is considered the most stunning plaza in the country. It is certainly the largest! It is larger than the zocalo in Mexico City or even Red Square in Moscow.
Steps away from the gran plaza is one of the most majestic churches in the city: The Basilica of Our Lady of the Oak or LA BASILICA DE LA VIRGEN DEL ROBLE It is home to the miraculous statue of Our Lady of the same name. Its story is a fascinating one—-
The Spanish conquest of Mexico by the conquistador, Hernan Cortez, in 1521, made possible the introduction of Christianity to the New World. The first missionaries to arrive were the Franciscans. Twelve of them, referred to as “the twelve apostles,” landed in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1524. The evangelization of Mexico had begun! They first settled in the centre of the country and then eventually moved north to the Nuevo Leon area. In 1592 Spanish Franciscan Fray Andras de Leon placed a statue of Our Lady in the hollow of an oak tree; this was a Franciscan custom—thus forming a natural shrine for Our Lady. When the Franciscans departed from the area they left the statue in its “leafy hermitage.” Why did they leave the image behind? Perhaps the friars, who had placed the land and their mission under Mary’s patronage, left her image that she would continue her protection for the people of this northern area!
As the years went by, the hamlet continued to grow. In 1596 the ninth Viceroy of New Spain, Don Diego de Montemayor, named the flourishing community, “The Metropolitan City of Our Lady of Monterrey.”
One day, as tradition recounts, a little shepherd girl was tending her sheep in the countryside near Monterrey in the year 1650. She was startled to see a motionless figure of Our Lady standing within the niche of an oak tree trunk. Our Lady was calling to her! Word about the miracle spread throughout the hamlet and all came to see and pay homage to the miraculous statue. They believed that this was the statue that the Franciscan friars had placed in the oak tree so long ago! With solemn reverence and great rejoicing, they carried the image to the chapel where they were accustomed to worship. But—as the legend goes—Our Lady of the Oak did not want to stay in that shrine. She returned one night to her tree-trunk home to indicate: “This is where I want my temple to be erected!” Her mantle was covered by brambles and dust, for she had made the journey walking—“to sanctify by her footsteps the land that she loved.” They built a little shrine for her on the exact location where she was found in the oak tree.
The present basilica was built in the same location as this original shrine. The great portico entrance is so impressive! A mural of Our Lady appearing to the shepherd child adorns the façade and eight stately marble columns stand sentry over the elegant neo-classical church of the Basilica of La Virgen del Roble (oak).
The interior of the church is overwhelming in its beauty! It is designed in the shape of a Latin Cross and has three naves. Stained glass windows abound and 24 columns of mottled marble divide the central from the side naves.
On Oct. 24, 1905, the roof of the church caved in, burying the sanctuary and the image of Our Lady under a pile of rubble. By the providence of God, the statue which was submerged by tons of rock, remained intact and unharmed. A milagro (miracle) in itself. And fortunately no one was hurt or injured by the upheaval.
The miraculous statue is 20”(58 cm) in height and is made from a type of clay (made from cornstalks) known as pasta de Michoacan. The statue resides over the main altar in the Basilica. Her hands seem a bit large: this is to show that she is offering her graces and protection most generously to all who ask for her intercession! One niche in the church portrays her statue, surrounded by hundreds of photos and letters from grateful petitioners.
May 31, 1964 was an important date in the history of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Oak: Not only was Our Lady crowned with the approval of Pope Paul Vl on that date but the newly completed temple (the previous one on the site was built I n 1947) was solemnly consecrated by the ecclesiastical authorities. In 1976 the pope elevated the church to the level of a Basilica. Our Lady of the Oak is the official patron and protector of the city of Monterrey.
Our Lady of the Thunderbolt is known as one of the principal advocates for those with urgent needs. Along with St. Jude, of course! She resides in the city of Guadalajara, the second largest city in the country in the western state of Jalisco. It is an elegant, bustling city, abounding with parks and fountains and plazas. It also boasts as having one of the best climates in the world on a parallel with Nairobi, Kenya. That is why frozen Northerners often flock there in the winter.
Her miraculous statue is located in the convent adjoining the Church of Jesus Maria, a five- minute walk from the Guadalajara Cathedral and the zocalo (the central plaza of the city). She could well be called “the St. Jude of Guadalajara” so popular is she in that part of the country. And to top it all off, she has the most fascinating history:
It all began over 200 years ago on August 13, 1887. That was a night to remember in the Dominican convent of Jesus Maria. At 2:30 in the morning a violent thunderstorm erupted. This was a common occurrence in the “rainy season” (July to October) in Guadalajara. Since 1792 the nuns had lived in the convent uneventfully. This was all to change—
While the nuns were asleep in their quarters on this fateful night the storm raged in full force. Thunder rolled and crackled all around the sky; rain pounded at the windows. Waking everyone, a tremendous crash shook the convent to its foundations.
In the dormitory lightning had hit the statue of Mary! Smoke filled the room, and the smell of burning wood was everywhere—the convent was on fire! The terrified nuns fled for their lives.
Once the fire was safely extinguished the nuns returned to the convent to assess the damage. A sad sight met their eyes—the statue of Mary, long neglected and forgotten, had been damaged beyond repair; its crystal eyes had been shattered, its face blackened and blistered, its vestments, scorched. The pearl rosary which encircled the statue was now black and twisted.
Strangely, the Infant Jesus in His Mother’s arms was completely untouched by the fire, as were the two paintings hanging on the wall on either side of the statue, one of St. Dominic and the other of the Most Holy Trinity. All the nuns were safe. One of the nuns who was sleeping inches away from the statue miraculousy escaped, unharmed in the slightest.
A Mass of thanksgiving was offered the next day in gratitude for Our Lady’s protection during the disaster. The statue of Mary (heretofore neglected) was relegated to a place of honour in the convent chapel.
This is not the end of the story. Five days later, on August 18, 1807, two workmen and some nuns were in the chapel in the middle of the afternoon. Without warning, the chapel turned as black as night. Another storm was on its way. Before the startled eyes of the onlookers, the statue of Mary began to shine with an intense, unearthly glow. The stupefied occupants of the chapel were petrified! They wanted to bolt from the room but found themselves unable to move. Mesmerized, they stood as if “turned to stone,” their eyes riveted on the image.
In the next moment a loud bolt of thunder crashed through the chapel, followed by an “extraordinary” flash of lightning. The whole chapel became illuminated with an unusual, brilliant light. The drama was just beginning!
Several times the statue changed color, from rosy pink to white, then back again. As if this were not enough, the eyes which had been shattered opened up and became as bright as diamonds. The blackened features of Our Lady’s face turned to peachy-pink. In fact, the entire statue looked better than it had originally. The Rosary which had become darkened and distorted by the first lightning strike, became perfectly restored by the second.
These events were verified by an official investigation conducted by the chaplain of the church of Jesus Maria and the future Bishop of the state of Michoacan, Don Jose Maria Gomez y Villasenor. Understandably, the fame of Our Lady of the Thunderbolt grew exponentially as the events of August 18th were made known.
She was pontifically crowned on Aug. 18, 1940, in the Cathedral of Guadalajara. The sixth Archbishop of the city, Don Jose Garibi Rivera, acted as the Papal delegate. The majestic statue is 41” (104 cm) high and the eyes have a slightly downward cast. The Infant Jesus is carried in her left arm. Both Mother and Child are dressed in exquisitely adorned vestments and gold crowns studded with precious gems and jewels. Thousands of testimonies placed near the sanctuary give witness to her powerful powers of intercession. Such evidence gives proof that she is well deserving of her title “Patroness of Urgent Needs.” It seems that St. Jude just might have some powerful competition coming his way!
This article has been re-printed with permission from THE CANADIAN MESSENGER OF THE SACRED HEART
St. Junípero Serra is most famous for founding nine missions in California and is subsequently known as “the apostle of California.” A statue of him in the US Capitol Building commemorates this achievement: California Senator B. Dockweiler said of him in 1927, “He is worthy of first place among the immortal heroes who created our nation.”
He was born in Majorca, Spain, in 1713. At the age of 16 he entered the Franciscan Order at Palma, taking the name of Junípero in honour of an early companion of St. Francis of Assisi. During his novitiate he became absorbed in reading the lives of the great Franciscan saints, particularly missionary saints. His heart was stirred—how he longed to become a missionary!
In the meantime, the clever Junípero, who was ordained at the age of 24, received a doctorate in philosophy and became a university professor at the age of 30. But his missionary dream never left him. When the missionary call came, he was more than ready!
But before he ever reached California he spent two decades in Mexico, work which provided the foundation for his evangelization of the state. For 200 years the Spanish missionaries had been unsuccessful in their evangelization efforts in the rugged mountainous Sierra Gorda region of Central Mexico. The Pame Indians of the region resisted their efforts every step of the way until Father Serra arrived in 1750. His work with the Pames was enormously successful and resulted in the construction of five Mexican Baroque mission churches, all of which are active parishes today.
Father Serra, who had a fervent devotion to Our Lady, dedicated two of these churches to her: The one in Tancoyol is dedicated to Our Lady of Light and the other, in Aguas de Landa, is dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.
These mission churches, designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 2003, are notable for their extraordinary, elaborately carved facades, “sermons in stone,” facades which are unique in the Americas. They are a synthesis of the two cultures, blending Christian symbolism with superb indigenous artistry.
In 1749 he set sail for America, accompanied by friars Juan Crespi and Francisco Palou, his former student (who would also become his biographer). The three would be lifetime companions in the New World. After a tortuous crossing they arrived in Veracruz, Mexico, on December 6, 1749. Junípero decided to walk (in imitation of St. Francis) to Mexico City, a distance of 275 miles over four mountain ranges. Walking (despite his injured foot) became his preferred mode of transportation in the new country.
When he reached Mexico City he headed straight for the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. There he would pass the night in prayer. It was December 31, 1749. Father Serra would dedicate all of his future missionary works to Our Lady of Guadalupe on this night.
The kindly Father Serra worked tirelessly for his beloved Pames. His years in the Sierra Gorda, according to biographer Abigail Fitch, were “arduous years of unremitting labour.” “He habitually spent his entire salary on the Indians,” she says. “He won the hearts of them all” states Father Palou. He sewed brightly-coloured clothes for the children (“they squealed with delight when he came round”), taught the Pames skills and trades and worked alongside them in constructing the churches. By the time of his departure nine years later, the missions were not only thriving spiritually, they were thriving agriculturally and economically as well.
His one primary goal was to transmit the truths of the Catholic faith. “His religion was alive, a glowing spark burning in the depths of his soul. It was his one great passion in life,” records Fitch. A plaque in the museum at Jalpan records his final words to the Pames: “I arrived with nothing. I leave you with nothing, but I leave you with a great treasure, the faith.”
Recently I attended the Saturday 7pm Mass in Jalpan, the principal mission church of the Sierra Gorda. It was standing room only. The church was packed. Father Serra had done his job well.
He was canonized by Pope Francis in 2015. His feastday is July 1st.
Excerpts from this article have been taken from an article I wrote on the saint for ST. ANTHONY MESSENGER magazine.
On one sunny February day in 1888, a record 16,000 people from the state of Michoacan crowded into the municipal centre of Jacona to witness a momentous religious event: the solemn crowning of the statue of Our Lady of Hope by the papal authority of Pope Pius Xlll. The pope even blessed the statue personally, an unusual honour, rarely given.
What was even more noteworthy about this event is that this was the first statue of Our Lady to be crowned in Mexico. She was even crowned before Our Lady of Guadalupe,who was crowned in 1895 as the Patroness of Mexico.
Our Lady of Hope has the most intriguing history!
In 1614 two fishermen from Jacona, Michoacan, were casting their nets into the waters of Lake Chapala. One fisherman’s net was overflowing with fish. The other fisherman caught no fish but his net became strangely heavy and bulky. He realized that he had snagged a tree root! But this was no ordinary tree root: To his utter astonishment, when he glanced at the root, he discovered that it contained a remarkable image of Our Lady,“modelled to perfection.”
The two fishermen delivered the statue to the local parish priest who, full of wonder, immediately placed it on the altar. She became known as OUR LADY OF THE ROOT. In 1867 a new era began for the statue: the parish priest Father Plancarte y Labastida promoted the miraculous statue with passionate zeal. He had had a great love for her since childhood. From now on she became known as Nuestra Senora de Esperanza, or Our Lady of Hope. She became the Patroness of the diocese of Zamora.
Historians recount that the people of Zamora received “singular protection” and great benefits from her intercession. She became the “comfort and refuge” of all the region. The photos that you can see on this webpage are of the actual statue found in 1614 in Lake Chapala.
The statue is 40” (73cm) tall and has a singular “beauty and grace” that is “neither ancient nor modern in feeling”. Even today if you look very closely you can see traces of the ancient root in the head of the statue. Her right heel rests upon the head of the ancient serpent and her right arm encloses a bouquet of white lilies. She is a representation of the Immaculate Conception and is the reason why Pope Pius lX calls her “Mother of Most Holy hope.” The church has a mural on its exterior wall illustrating the fishing boat and the sacred root.
St. Bishop Rafael Guizar y Valencia (1878-1938), ( pictured on this website,) who was born in the state of Michoacan, had a fervent devotion to Our Lady of Hope. He has the great distinction of being the first born bishop in the Americas to be canonized. He was canonized by Pope Benedict XVl in 2006 and his body had been exhumed and found incorrupt in 1950. The bishop spent his early years of the priesthood in Zamora and gave many missions, attracting thousands at a time. Accompanied by his ever-present accordion, he brought many people to conversion in the early years of the 20th century. His great goal was evangelization and with this in mind he founded a congregation of missionary priests in Zamora which was named after Our Lady of Hope. He became the fifth bishop of Veracruz in 1915 and his remains are to be found in the Cathedral of Xalapa, the capital of the state.
As always, his fervent prayer was: “Mother of Hope, pray for us!”
On May 16, 1937, disaster struck Tlalpujahuac, a town in the northeast section of the state of Michoacán in central Mexico. In the early 20th century Tlalpujahuac was the leading producer of gold in the country; it was a bustling mining centre teeming with prosperous engineers, families and gold-miners. Today much of the gold is gone but a far greater treasure remains in the town: the 300-year-old painted image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the parish church.
On this fateful morning in the month of May a large dam had burst, pouring the cyanide-filled tailings (the byproducts of mining operations) over the church which housed the miraculous image. It was the pastor who bellowed Catastrofe! Catastrofe! “I must save Our Lady’s image!” The tailings were engulfing the church to a level of 27 ft. “It is about to be demolished!” he said of the painting.
But first he had to cut through the three-centuries-old adobe stone which portrayed the Virgin’s image. After managing that feat, he had to carry it over a “rocky ledge more than a half-mile in a fierce rainstorm.” He rescued the legendary image! It was unharmed and resides today over the main altar of the sanctuary.
The original shrine was erected during the 16th century. The image of Our Lady was painted on the adobe walls of a chapel belonging to a wealthy hacienda owner. Over time, however, the roof of the chapel caved in and the interior of the chapel was exposed to the elements. The shrine was in ruins. All that was left was the adobe wall which contained Our Lady’s portrait. It had been left abandoned for many years subjected to the virulent summer rains and dust storms of the region.
Three centuries later a group of townspeople decided to rebuild the chapel and contracted artisans to conduct the renovation. To the astonishment of the artists the colours on the figure’s face were as bright as new. Only the clothing on the painting needed retouching.
In later years a new shrine to house the image was built of solid masonry. The adobe wall containing Our lady’s image was placed in the sanctuary of the main altar. For the discerning Marian pilgrim this beautiful painting can be seen today. It is in its original form. If you look very closely you can still see traces of the adobe, from the chapel that existed centuries ago!
In 1903 disaster befell the image yet again. A fire destroyed the sanctuary but the image was preserved in an “extraordinary fashion.”
On May 16, 1930, a singular honour was bestowed on the shrine—the Vatican approved the pontifical crowning of Our Lady of Tlalpujuahuac. An honour bestowed on very few churches in the country.
At the time of this writing the world is being ravaged by the CORONA VIRUS. Schools and churches are closed, sports and entertainment venues are shut down, and border restrictions are in place everywhere. Travel is nonexistent. We are in “lockdown.” Most countries agree that it is the worst crisis they have faced since World War ll.
Five hundred years ago Mexico was also facing a devastating plague. It was an epidemic of smallpox and it “swept through the country like a tidal wave.” In many areas as many as nine out of ten indigenous people died from the disease.
In 1541, ten years after the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego, Our Lady appeared to another Juan Diego, this time in the town of Tlaxcala, 95 miles (152 km.) east of Mexico City. After the visitation of Our Lady, the town of Tlaxcala was cured of the plague!
She appeared to the startled Juan as he was fetching water for his sick family members. She said to him, “I will give you water to cure the disease. It will cure all who drink of it. MY HEART IS EVER READY TO HELP THOSE WHO ARE ILL, FOR I CANNOT BEAR TO SEE THEIR MISFORTUNE.”
She led Juan—who was one of the first Christians in the area— to an unknown spring. He filled his jug and gave this water to his ill relatives. All who drank the water were cured! The “Beautiful Lady” had another message and she asked him to relay it to the friars at the Franciscan convent where he worked.
It was a curious message! “Tell the friars that they shall find my image in this place. Through it I will generously BESTOW FAVORS AND KINDNESSES. When they find the image they are to place it in the church.” But Juan wondered to himself, “Where would they find the image in the middle of this huge pine forest?”
By a series of mysterious signs the friars were directed to one particular tree in the forest. When they took an axe to this tree (the ocote tree, a type of pine) they were stunned to discover a full-size image of Our Lady inside the intact tree trunk. Today the original statue resides above the main altar in the Basilica of Our Lady of Ocotlan in Tlaxcala.
This apparition has been approved by five popes: from Pope Clemente Xll (in 1735) to Pope Pius Xll (in 1941). The miraculous spring in the Capilla de Pocito (Chapel of the Well), near the Basilica, is still healing people to the present day. The Basilica is considered one of the most beautiful churches in Mexico.
Our Lady of Ocotlan, please pray for us now!
I have waited to see this famous church for many years! It is very old and dates back from the beginning of the 17th century. Several years ago we took a taxi to the church which is in the middle of the historical area of Mexico City; however, because it was a Saturday, the crowd of people both inside and outside the church was so dense it was impossible to get even near it. What a disappointment! Fourteen years later I did get to see it: It was worth the long wait! The church is very small and probably holds only 40 people or so. It was absolutely lovely in its austere simplicity. A single mosaic of Our Lady holding the Infant Jesus adorns the whitewashed façade. The neoclassical interior has only one nave and a statue of Our Lady of the Candles, also dating from the 17th century, is situated above the main altar. But why is the church called La Candeleria?
Candlemas comes from the Latin festa andelarum which means “festival of candles.” The Feb. 2 feastday is very popular in Mexico. The feast commemorates a double celebration: the purification of Mary (not that Mary had to be purified!) and the presentation of the Infant Jesus in the temple. By participating in such an event Joseph and Mary are fulfilling the demands of the Mosaic Law.
It was the custom for Jewish women to remain in semi-isolation for 40 days after childbirth, after which they would present their first-born son to the Lord. (Exodus 2:12) It was at this time that the Holy Family would have had their momentous encounter with the prophets Simeon and Anna (Luke 2: 22-39). The feast day of Our Lady of the Candles is the feast of the Purification on February 2nd, 40 days after Our Lord’s birth.
The church is known in Mexico City as La Candelaria de los Patos (Purificacion de Ntra. Senora).
“What are those strange lights?” Don Antonio wondered. He and a friend, a Franciscan religious, had noticed lights blazing
from a nearby hospice. “It almost looks like the place is on fire!” said the Franciscan. Tamayo sent some servants to investigate. They came back with their findings: “There is no fire there whatsoever!” they exclaimed. “Nor any lights of any kind!”
Don Antonio Tamayo, the proprietor of the Hacienda San Buenaventura, decided to pay a personal visit to the site of the “lights.” His Franciscan friend went along with him. They noticed that the place was littered with worn and discarded objects among which they discovered a statue of Our Lady, considerably damaged. Don Antonio sent the statue to be repaired to Patzcuaro, a centre known for its excellent sculptors. He was so struck by the beauty of the renovated image that he built a chapel in his hacienda to honour the statue of Our Lady. She became popularly known as “Our Lady of Light.”
The phenomena of the lights continued: Many people saw lights emanating from the statue not only in the chapel but also when Our Lady was on pilgrimage to other churches in the region. Very soon “repeated favours and marvels attributed to Our Lady of Light were known far and wide.”
The Bishop of Valladolid, Don Juan de Ortega Montanes, while on a journey to Mexico City, encountered one of these miracles himself. When he arrived at Salvatierra he was seriously ill. He offered a Mass at Our Lady’s altar and experienced an immediate and rapid return to health. The grateful prelate officially bestowed upon her the title “Our Lady of Light”.
“Many are the wonders which this sacred image has worked” according to one historian. A document from 1667 reveals just such a one: it relates that a thief stole into the church and tried to steal Our Lady’s crown during the middle of the night. He was not only unable to lift the crown from the statue’s head, he was unable to leave the church! The sacristan discovered the mortified robber the next morning, rooted to the spot!
On one occasion the statue of Our Lady of Light was severely damaged on one of her pilgrimage trips. Her face was badly disfigured. The disconsolate parishioners feared that their beloved statue was beyond repair. Seemingly, out of the blue, an unknown artisan appeared on the scene. He offered to repair the statue and began work the next day. He was offered chocolate but declined! He was offered tasty bakery treats but declined these as well. Nor would he accept offers of meals from many of the women in the parish. The repairs were completed and the townspeople were astonished by the artisan’s skill. The statue looked like new! And the artisan then left without a trace—and without presenting a bill for his labours! He was never seen again.
In 1743 plans for the present church of Our Lady of Light were drawn up. From 1808 to the present time Our Lady has been venerated in this beautiful sanctuary in Salvatierra. In September 1938 His Holiness Pope Pius Xl authorized the coronation of Our Lady of Light, an honour of profound significance, one of only a few in the country. This was carried out by his papal representative for the occasion, the Archbishop of Morelia, Dr. Don Leopoldo Ruiz y Flores, who crowned the statue with a golden diadem on May 24, 1939.
The headlines today are replete with stories of persecuted Christians: “Fresh Risk of Genocide to Middle East Christians” and “Breaking the Silence on Nigeria’s Christian Genocide” are commonplace in today’s news (Crisis magazine).
This, of course, is nothing new: For almost 800 years (711-1492) Spain was under Muslim occupation. Christians, then as now, were often brutally persecuted. As Christian resistance increased, the jails filled up! Muslim law dictated that only children could bring food and drink to the near-starved prisoners. But woe to those prisoners without children! They faced starvation on a regular basis.
According to a 15th century Dominican tradition, help did indeed come to these unfortunate souls. The story is told that one day in Atocha, Spain, a child dressed as a pilgrim in cape and plumed hat, carried a basket of food into the prison. No matter how much food he distributed, his basket remained full to the brim. All present were astonished by the miracle. The prisoners related that they were filled with peace and consolation when the tiny child lifted his hand to bless them. This was the Christ Child who became known as SANTO NINO DE ATOCHA.
The sacristan related that the Infant Child left his mother’s arms (from the statue) for several nights and journeyed through the dusty streets of the town. When he returned to His mother’s arms, the sacristan reported that His sandals were splattered with mud!
In 1566 Spanish Dominican friars brought a statue of Santo Nino to the Northwestern state of Zacatecas in Mexico. They preached about Santo Nino and his miracles and, eventually, in 1789 a church was built in His honour in Plateros, Zacatecas, a mining centre. The mountainous state of Zacatecas was at one time the largest producer of silver in the world. Consequently, most of its inhabitants were miners. The Dominicans compared the fate of the prisoners in Spain to that of the miners in Zacatecas, many of whom perished in perilous conditions underground. The friars encouraged the miners to pray to Santo Nino for protection.
His reputation as a miracle worker grew. And the grateful Zacatecans left testimonials at the shrine to give thanks. These testimonials are in the form of small paintings, known as EX-VOTOS, which describe the miracle in a pictorial form. They all begin with the words, “Doy Gracias” (“I give thanks.”) The donors’ purpose is to portray publicly the wonders God has worked in their lives.
We read about Feliciano Pitello who was hit by a car while riding his bicycle in Mexico City on June 9, 1959, and was saved from serious injury. He stated in his ex-voto: “I am making this public for the benefit of those who do not believe.”
Alberto Acosta gives thanks in 1973 for “saving me from fractures.” He is pictured, grimacing in pain, with his leg caught under a refrigerator which had fallen from a dolly. In each ex-voto Santo Nino is prominently shown as the One implored for the favour.
Miracles seemed to abound in Plateros through Santo Nino’s intercession! So impressed was the bishop of Zacatecas in 1882 with the “great quantity of acknowledged favours” that he ordered a special “salon” to be built for their display. This can be seen at the shrine today. With walls overflowing with ex-votos! Those from the families of soldiers in World War ll and the Gulf and Iraq wars, are numerous, as well as those with health, migration and family concerns.
It is not only church officials which attest to Santo Nino’s miraculous intercession. Municipal officials do as well! It even calls itself the city of miracles: As one enters the town of Plateros the pilgrim sees an enormous arch which spans the highway, emblazoned with the words, PLATEROS: TIERRA DE LA FE Y LOS MILAGROS (“Plateros, Land of Faith and Miracles.”)
The shrine of Santo Nino de Atocha in Plateros, Zacatecas, is considered the third most venerated shrine in Mexico, after the Basilica of Guadalupe and the shrine of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos in the state of Jalisco. It attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. Santo Nino is the patron of those unjustly imprisoned, travelers and miners. His feastday is January 1.
Let us remember in this coming new year to pray to Santo Nino for justice for Cardinal Pell imprisoned in Australia!
Portions of this article have been reprinted with permission from the CANADIAN MESSENGER OF THE SACRED HEART.