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.
On May 13, 1524, twelve Spanish Franciscan friars set foot on Mexican soil for the first time. After walking barefoot from the coast of Veracruz, they finally arrived at Mexico City, a distance of 250 miles over two mountain ranges. These men “of exceptional worth” became known as “The Twelve Apostles” because of their apostolic zeal. The evangelization of Mexico had begun.
It was three years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, “an unbelievable victory,” in which the vastly outnumbered Spaniards conquered the mighty Aztec empire. The Spanish victory was made possible by the Spanish alliance with the small, independent state of Tlaxcala. A nation of warriors, the Tlaxcalans were only too happy to join forces with the new conquistadores for one principal reason: they detested the Aztecs! And no wonder: The Aztecs were devoted to their pagan god, Huitzilopochtli, a god who had an insatiable appetite for human blood. The Aztecs constantly instigated wars with the tiny state, not to gain land or resources, but to gain captives to offer to Huitzilopochtli. He must be placated at all costs. Human sacrifice was rampant in the culture and children were sacrificed as well.
We have been hearing a lot lately about pagan gods and idols, namely, the Pachamama idol which has been featured in the Vatican Gardens and other churches in Rome. Pagan idols! To the consternation of Catholics everywhere. And spoken of in benign, almost benevolent terms. But what is the reality behind such Idols, these statues of pagan gods?
Bernal Diáz, in his first-person, highly acclaimed account, The Conquest of New Spain, speaks directly about this subject. He accompanied Cortéz as a 26-year-old soldier in the conquest of New Spain and tells of their first foray into Tlaxcala. “I must tell you how in this town of Tlaxcala we found wooden cages—in which men and women were imprisoned and fed until they were fat enough to be sacrificed and eaten. We broke them open and destroyed these prisons and set free the Indians—and these prison cages existed throughout the country.” He said that every province had its own idols: “they had infinite numbers of idols and sacrificed to them all.”
In Mexico City, at Tlaltelolco, he saw scenes of unimaginable horror: “All the walls of that shrine were so caked with blood,” he said. “It was a slaughterhouse.” He described another image, Tezcatlipoca, the god of hell: “It was surrounded by figures of little devils with snakes’ tails—they had offered that idol five hearts from the day’s sacrifices.” He also wrote of doorways with “hellish figures” and a place full of skulls “so numerous you could not count them however long you looked.”
They wasted no time in demolishing those pagan idols. “Some fifty of us soldiers clambered up and overturned the idols which rolled down the steps and were smashed to pieces. Some of them were in the form of fearsome dragons as big as calves and others, half-men, half-dog, and hideously ugly.” Cortéz ordered the shattered idols to be burnt. Historians believed that the Aztecs sacrificed from 15,000 to 20, 000 people annually to their pagan gods.
The Tlaxcalans were the first friends of the Spaniards and the first Christians in the New World. Because of their loyalty they retained a privileged position among the conquered peoples. In 1525 Juan Garcés became the first archbishop of Tlaxcala. He was a protector of the Indians’ rights and looked after their temporal as well as their spiritual well-being. He built a hospital and provided a multitude of welfare services. The Franciscans soon established a school in Tlaxcala under the able leadership of the legendary Fray Toribio de Motolinía (“the poor one”), one of the original “Twelve Apostles”.
Archbishop Garcés spoke of the students at this school: “They are very intelligent—and show great clarity, quickness, and facility of mind.” The Spanish Monarchy decided that the children of the noble classes should be taught first. It so happened that some of the nobles decided against having their children educated at the Franciscan school but would send their servants’ children instead. This had a happy outcome: in this way the lower classes became educated in the faith as well. These newly bilingual children often acted as interpreters for the friars and the rest of the community. In many cases the youngsters were the first Christians in their families and set about evangelizing their parents, some of whom were reluctant to relinquish their pagan gods.
Cristóbal, who was born into a noble family, was one of the first students at the new school. His father, Acxoptécatl, a tribal chief, and ruler of Atlihuetzia, (a village near the town of Tlaxcala) reluctantly allowed his son to attend the school. Cristobal was an eager student and absorbed all the teachings of the Catholic faith with much joy. At first the father was irritated by his son’s evangelizing spirit. He resented being reproached by his son for his polygamy and his excessive drinking. Over time, however, his father became sorely annoyed by Cristobal’s teachings and ordered him to stop. When the boy started smashing the father’s beloved pagan idols the father became enraged. One terrible day in 1527 he picked up his son and began viciously beating him without mercy. He demanded that the boy deny his Catholic faith. Cristobal refused. He then threw the boy into a blazing fire. He died the next day. He was 12 years old.
The two other boys, Antonio and Juan, were martyred in 1519. Antonio, two years younger than Cristóbal was the son of a prominent Tlaxcalan nobleman, by the name of Xiochténacti. Antonio also attended the Franciscan school in Tlaxcala, as did his young servant, Juan. Both boys were the same age and both became fervent Catholics, full of zeal for their new-found Christian faith. One day as they were destroying some pagan idols, an infuriated crowd surrounded them and clubbed them to death; the onlookers cheered as the two children died. All three boys literally took to heart St. John’s words: “Little children, keep yourself from idols.” (I Jn. 5:21)
Two years later Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to St. Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill, in Mexico City (two hours west of Tlaxcala). Within a decade nine million indigenous people had converted to the Catholic faith. In 1990, at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Pope John Paul ll beatified the three boys declaring them to be martyrs for the faith “in odium fidei” (in hatred of the faith). They were canonized by Pope Francis in 2017. They were the first martyrs in the Americas.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Cristóbal, St. Antonio, and St. Juan: pray for our church in its time of great need.
North Bay, Ontario
This article is reprinted with permission from ONE PETER FIVE.COM
The church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Puebla, a city about 60 miles (100 km.) southeast of Mexico City, is considered one of the most beautiful churches in the country; some say it is the second most beautiful, after San Francisco Atepec in nearby Cholula. This, of course, is not THE basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The original one is in Mexico City. There are many churches dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe throughout the country.
Puebla is one of the oldest colonial cities in the American continent; it was founded in 1531. One of its founders was a Franciscan friar, Fray Toribio de Benavente. He was one of the original “Twelve Apostles” (known by this name to signify their apostolic mission) to arrive in Mexico in 1524 to evangelize the newly conquered peoples after the Spanish conquest in 1521. The Franciscans were the first to arrive, later to be followed by the Dominicans and the Augustinians. In their wake, missions and churches sprang up everywhere. Construction on this church began in 1694.
Puebla is known world-wide for its signature “Talavera-tiled” architecture, a style which typifies many of the buildings in the historical centre of the city. The church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is an example of this: Talavera tiles decorate the façade of the church depicting the events in the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico city to Juan Diego in 1531. Between 1550 and 1570 potters came from Talavera de la Reina in Spain to teach the indigenous craftsmen of Mexico their techniques. These Mexican potters were already experts in the art, greatly aided by the rich volcanic clay surrounding the area. Puebla is a city surrounded by three volcanoes! A photograph of one of these active volcanoes is shown at the bottom of this webpage.
They adapted the Talavera techniques to produce their own unique and striking form of ceramics known as Poblano Talavera. It is these artistic masterpieces which adorn not only the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe but many churches and buildings in the historic centre of Puebla, making the city home to some of the most stunning churches on the continent.
It is no wonder that Puebla was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987.
Meet the oldest statue of Our Lady on the American continent!
“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”—a chant familiar to every school-aged child in America. That famous date, marked, of course, the year that the Italian-born navigator, Christopher Columbus, departed from Spain and discovered the continent of America.
Over the next two and a half decades more Spaniards would follow in his wake. One of these would be the conquistador, Hernan Cortes, whose miniscule army would defeat the massive military might of the Aztec empire.
He left Spain prepared for battle, both military and spiritual. As well as soldiers, cannon and horses, he brought with him priests, crucifixes, and several wooden statues of the Virgin Mary. One would become the most revered of them all: the statue of Our Lady of the Remedies.
Sculpted in the city of Tolosa, Spain, in the 14th century, she has the distinction of being the oldest statue of Mary on the American continent.
Our Lady of the Remedies was to play a role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico. She accompanied Cortes and his soldiers in 1519 on their grueling march from Veracruz on the Mexican coast to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, (site of present-day Mexico City), a journey of 400 miles over two mountain ranges. She also witnessed the triumphant entry of the Spaniards into the capital and the dramatic encounter between Cortes and the Aztec leader Moctezuma. For a period of time she even replaced the “hideous” blood-thirsty idol of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, that graced Moctezuma’s private apartment.
During the Noche Triste (the Night of Sorrows) on July 8, 1520, she was “implored with tears” as the Spaniards fled from the Aztecs in terror, suffering terrible losses. The diminutive 11”(28cm) statue was hastily hidden under the leaves of a cactus plant and she remained lost for twenty years!
She was found in 1540 by a newly converted Indian chief, Juan Cuautli, and was venerated for several years in his private chapel. In 1575 a shrine was built in her honour in Naucalpan, eight miles northwest of Mexico City.
Even in the 1500’s this shrine was well-known. Bernal Diaz refers to this shrine in his famous 16th century first-hand account of the struggle for Mexico, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain: “After the great city of Mexico was finally captured we built a church which is called Our Lady of the Remedies and it is now much visited.” Diaz was a young 26-year-old soldier when he fought alongside Cortes in the battle for Mexico. He wrote this book while he was in his 70s.
Like most churches of the earliest Colonial period, it was built at the site of a destroyed Aztec sacrificial temple, thus sanctifying a place which had been a scene of previous abominations. It reflects the influence of the Spanish architect, Juan Herrera, who had been commissioned by King Philip ll of Spain in 1563 to build the monumental monastery and royal tomb, El Escorial, near Madrid. The Herrerian style is characterized by a stark and somber austerity-“a sad somemnity”- and is evident in the facade of the single-tower church of Our Lady of the Remedies.
But the altarpiece and cupola which showcases the statue of Our Lady of the Remedies—Herrerian it is not! It was built at a later period and is a riot of sumptuous splendor, reflecting the Churrigueresque style of Baroque architecture, unique to Spain and Latin America, particularly Mexico. It is named after Spanish architect Jose Churriguera who dominated Spanish architecture for the first half of the 17th century.
She became known for her powers of intercession in great public calamities: From 1567 to the early years of the 20th century, she was carried in procession on 75 separate occasions, in times of urgent needs: epidemics, droughts, wars, and political crises of all kinds—none of these proved obstacles for Our Lady of the Remedies.
Cortes’ “utterly unbelievable victory” in 1521 inititated the demise of paganism in Mexico. Christianity would become the religion of the land. It has been said that the secret weapon of the Spanish missionaries in Mexico was their devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Ten years before the arrival of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Tepeyac Hill, Our Lady of the Remedies arrived on Mexican soil. She was the first. It was she who paved the way.
Reprinted with permission from the NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER.
October 12 is the feastday of Our Lady of Zapopan in Guadalajara, Mexico. According to one travel guidebook “she is one of the most revered religious relics in Mexico.”
What is unusual about this celebration is the homage that the secular media pays to it! One travel guide stated: “the legendary image of Our Lady of Zapopan has enjoyed generations of popularity so enormous that it must be seen to be believed.” Another comments on her “continuous stream of penitents.”
The media are stunned by the multitudes who participate in Our Lady of Zapopan’s pilgrimage every October 12th: she processes from the Cathedral of Guadalajara to her home sanctuary at the Franciscan Basilica of Zapopan; a journey of six miles, in “numbers that are beyond belief.” The Oct. 13, 2005, issue of the Miami Herald reported that one million people participated in the event in 2005. Security personnel estimated the numbers to be two million in 2008, the year I attended the event. EWTN reported that four million people walked in the procession to Zapopan from the Eucharistic Congress in Guadalajara in 2004.
Amid great pomp and pageantry she is escorted back to Zapopan, after traveling through the diocese of Guadalajara for the previous four months. She is accompanied by throngs of rejoicing pilgrims, honour guards, priests and nuns, charros (cowboys or horsemen dressed in traditional clothes), marching bands, Mariachi musicians, jugglers, children’s choirs, and Indian dancers in traditional costumes. Airplanes may strew flowers along the route. Fireworks punctuate the night sky. And Rosaries and stirring hymns are heard all along the route. All to celebrate the diminutive 13” figure of La Zapopanita, who is not only the oldest statue of Mary but the first one to be venerated in the state.
Most striking are the numbers of indigenous dancers. The Mural, Guadalajara’s Spanish language newspaper, reported that “16,000 Indian dancers” participated in the annual procession in 2008. Dicken’s words from Hard Times came to mind as I was watching the procession: “a blaze of splendor.” He could have been describing the befeathered Indian dancers at Zapopan! Splashes of colour going marching by—firecracker reds, brilliant blues, emerald greens, all in exquisitely embroidered and beaded and bejeweled costumes. A dazzling sight! And dazzling too was the sound of their “ankle “rattlers.” A sound I will never forget. These are made from shells of nuts which have been partially filled with small stones and sewn on to leather ankle bands. It is a spellbinding, melodious sound, k-poosh, k-poosh, k-poosh, multiplied a few million times over, like an army on its way to heaven. The dancers spend a year in intense training for the event, training weekly, sometimes daily, until all is just right, each step perfect, to offer to Our Lady of Zapopan.
It all began with the Franciscans: In 1524 the first group of twelve Franciscan missionaries arrived on Mexican soil. In 1525 the second group arrived, among them Fray Antonio de Segovia and his traveling companion, Fray Miguel de Bolonia, who became the first evangelizers in Jalisco. The ascetic and kindly Fray Antonio had a deep devotion to Our Lady and always carried her image with him on his missionary travels. He would wear it around his neck, claiming that it was she who was the evangelizer, not himself! The statue was one he brought from Spain and is the same statue that resides in the Basilica of Zapopan today.
She became known as “La Pacificadora,” the one who makes peace: One day while Fray Antonio was preaching “luminous rays issued from the statue.” So impressed (and startled!) were the Indians with this divine manifestation that they laid down their arms (the Spaniards and the Indians had been at war with each other) and begged to be baptized. Since the earliest days the indigenous peoples of Guadalajara have been devoted to Our Lord and His Mother.
Many are the honours accorded to Our Lady of Zapopan. After reports of numerous miracles an ecclesiastsical investigation in 1641 declared the image to be taumaturga which means “wonder-working.” Among the verified miracles were the curing of a blind man and the restoration of a dead child to life. In 1919 the Vatican authorized the Pontifical coronation of the image and she was crowned in 1921. In 1940 Pope Pius Xll elevated the shrine to the status of a basilica. Another great honour accorded to Our Lady of Zapopan was the visit by Pope St. John Paul ll on January 30, 1979. While there, he said to vast crowds: “This sanctuary of Zapopan is proof, most consoling, of the intense devotion, that the Mexican people profess to the Virgin Immaculate.”
Our Lady of Zapopan wears different costumes: for the October 12th procession she is dressed in “a medieval pilgrim’s cloak and a broad-brimmed hat” complete with a large satchel. Because what lady can travel without her travel bag? At other times she is seen wearing a gold-tasseled blue sash, indicating military rank and carrying a “gold baston of command.”Military rank? A baston of command? For Our Lady? Well, in 1821, the “Year of Independence” for Mexico, the government of Jalisco commissioned Our Lady as “General of the Army and of the State.” At which time she was vested with the sash and the baton! Our Lady of Zapopan is also known as the Patroness of Guadalajara because of her protection of its citizens in storms and plagues.
A visit to Zapopan on October 12th will provide memories for a lifetime of the deep veneration of the people of Mexico toward Our Lady.
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.
The clowns. The acrobats. The trapeze artists! Who doesn’t love a circus? And the citizens of San Juan de los Lagos, a town 76 miles northeast of Guadalajara, were no exception. The circus was coming to town!
The year was 1623. A family of aerial acrobats was in the middle of their performance when the six-year-old daughter slipped, lost her footing and plunged to the ground far below. Impaled by a dagger through the chest, she died instantly. Safety nets were not in use at that time: instead—to increase the thrill factor—daggers had been placed in the earth with their points placed upward.
Hours later, as the young trapeze artist was being prepared for burial, Ana Lucia, the 86-year-old sacristan’s wife, elbowed her way through the crowd and placed a statue of Mary (known as Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos) on the little corpse. “La Virgencita will return the child to life!” she proclaimed. “Let us all pray to Holy Mary!” Within minutes, the child blinked open her eyes, looked all around, and sat straight up. She was alive!
Since 1623 the shrine of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos has become one of the most celebrated shrines in Latin America, second only to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. It attracts more than six million pilgrims a year.
In 1634 Guadalajaran Bishop Cervantes Carvajal, travelled to the town to investigate the extraordinary happenings. He interviewed many of the witnesses including 97-year-old Ana Lucia. His findings verified the authenticity of the miracle of 1623 as well as an “uninterrupted series of additional favours and miracles.” Further church investigations in 1639 and 1668 collaborated Bishop Carrvajal’s research.
The miracles continue to the present day: a special room has been set aside beside the sacristy for the displaying of ex-votos, pictorial testimonials, objects and letters of thanksgiving for miracles granted. The room is overflowing with them!
The shrine of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, once a humble chapel with “mud walls and straw roof” is now a “magnificent” twin-towered basilica. On the feast of the Assumption in 1904 the statue was crowned with the authorization of Pope Pius X. In 1944 the seminary of San Juan de los Lagos was founded. Three years later Pope Pius Xll elevated the sanctuary to the status of a basilica. In 1972 the shrine became the Cathedral-Basilica for the newly established diocese of San Juan de Los Lagos.
Although the exact age of the statue is unknown it was most likely brought to the town by the saintly Franciscan missionary, Fray Miguel de Bolonia, in the sixteenth century. The ongoing existence of the statue is a miracle in itself: Over 500 years old, the statue should have disintegrated within a few years; instead it is intact, robust, unblemished—and in mint condition.
An exemplary honour was bestowed on the shrine on May 8, 1990: that was the day that Pope St. John Paul ll visited. He spent an “unprecedented” three minutes kneeling in front of the statue praying before the small image, “with eyes closed—in a spirit of intense recollection.” It seemed like he could barely tear himself away—Our Lady has that effect on people!
As I was leaving the shrine I spoke to one of the nuns in attendance: I brought up the subject of the vocations crisis we are having in the Church today. She looked at me quizzically: “Vocations crisis?” she asked. “What vocations crisis? Here we have three hundred seminarians! We are bursting at the seams!”
It looks like Our Lady of St. John is continuing her wonders to the present day!
The drive from Queretaro to Soriano is a little tedious; it is nothing but flat plains, humdrum scenery and sparse populations.
But then, as you approach the small town you are stunned to see the church—so enormous, so majestic! “Such magnificence in this sleepy place!” said one author. And at the centre of this glorious church, above the main altar, is the miraculous statue of Our Lady of Sorrows. You are touched by the expression on her face, such sorrow, such anguish of heart, “deep beyond telling” recalls one chronicler. It is a small statue, only 26” in height.
The statue spans two distinct time periods of Mexican evangelization: one in the mid 1500’s and the second in the mid-to-late 1700’s. But how can this be?
The deep devotion of the early Franciscans to Our Lady is legendary: Often it was their custom to leave innumerable statues of Our Lady along their trails. It is surmised that this statue is one of these. Historians believe that the first priest to preach here was Franciscan Fray Alonso Rangel who came to New Spain in 1529. He learned the Otomi language and converted many to the faith. And one cannot help but ask: “But what happened in the intervening years?”
The writer Pena said: “No Christian Indian or Spaniard was safe in this Sierra Gorda in the 1700’s,” and he spoke of the massacres by the Chichemeca Indians. “Nothing remained,” he said, “the missions were burnt and the missionaries were sacrificed.”
The little chapel in Soriano was not spared. It was in ruins. The year 1723, though, brought new life to the area. New mines had been discovered and new settlers arrived. And, upon this lively scene, arrived a zealous Franciscan missionary from Queretaro, Fray Guadalupe Soriano.
Being a curious sort, he decided to poke around the ruins of the ancient chapel. There, something caught his eye! Something metallic! He hastily cleared away the heap of stones and rubble. And there it was—-underneath a slab of rock—the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows. It had survived the massacre, the fires, the elements…intact.
Today “Hundreds of paintings, photos, cards and letters of thanksgiving adorn the walls of the adjoining chapel.” The citizens have a fervent love for Our Lady of Soriano. And she has rewarded them with a multitude of favours throughout the centuries.
In 1964 the statue was pontifically crowned and in 2009 Pope Benedict XVl elevated the church to the level of a Basilica. Fray Rengel would be proud!