Shoes. Shoes. Shoes. And more shoes! That’s what you’ll find in Leon in exuberant abundance. Leon, the fifth largest city in Mexico, in the central state of Guanajuato, is known as the shoe capital of the country. That is one of its two claims to fame. Leon has not just one mall devoted exclusively to shoes, nor even two or three. It has four malls which sell nothing but shoes. Hiking boots. Sandals. Golf shoes. Ballet shoes. Tennis shoes. Oxfords. And cowboy boots. Particularly cowboy boots. In every colour of the rainbow. From canary yellow to aquamarine. One display featured an assortment of different cowboy boots—all in Hunter green—of all colours. These malls are all grouped together in one location—conveniently (and cleverly!)—right beside the bus station. You can see them as soon as you get off the bus.
But as popular as they are, the shoe malls are not the main source of pride for the citizens of Leon. The real treasure of the city is a remarkable painting just a few blocks away: the miraculous painting of Our Lady 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 (La Luz) was named the chief Patrona of the city of Leon in 1849. When Leon was declared a diocese in 1872 Our Lady of Light was named its Patrona as well. Approval of the authenticity of the painting’s origins came from the highest levels of the church: The painting was crowned in 1902 with the authorization of Pope Leo XIII.
She is known for her miraculous powers of intercession. One of these occurred in a spectacularly public manner on June 18, 1876. The cathedral was packed that Sunday morning for the 11 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 as if the entire ceiling would crash down killing everyone below. The congregants froze in terror.
At this terrible moment, Bishop de Sollano, with supreme presence of mind and faith, walked down from the altar and stood under the arch. The congregation held its collective breath. He prayed urgently to Our Lady of Light to support the arch so that all would be protected. His prayers were heard. Miraculously, not a single person in the church was injured. They are still talking about it in Leon 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!” She will do it! He was sure of it! 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. The nun thought this 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 the Most Holy Mother of Light.” The nun immediately passed on the message to Father Genovesi who commissioned an artist to carry out Our Lady’s wishes.
No matter how many times the artist tried, however, he was not able to match the nun’s description of the sacred scene. Time and time again this happened. “No, it was nothing like that!” said the nun. Apparently, not even the Blessed Mother was happy with the painting!
Our Lady appeared yet again to the nun: “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?”
Our Lady told the nun to meet her 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 on his missionary journeys; wherever he went conversions multiplied exponentially. “Our Lady moved the hearts of all sinners!” he said. “The Virgin worked marvels through her image,” reported one historian. And devotion to Our Lady 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 Genovesi), had arrived in Mexico in 1707. News spread about the miraculous painting of Our Lady 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?
They agreed that the selection would be made by casting lots: The choice? The Jesuit church in Leon. A second, then a third drawing, confirmed the first. Leon it would be!
On July 2, 1732 the miraculous painting of Our Lady of Light arrived in the city of Leon amid crowds, “triumph,” and “indescribable enthusiasm.” Every year on the second of July, to the present day, the people of Leon commemorate the event with a joy-filled lively fiesta.
A statement written on the back of the painting testifies to its authenticity: “This image is the original which came from Sicily and which was blessed by the same Virgin, who with her blessing, entrusted it with the power to do miracles.” It is dated August 19, 1729 and is signed by a number of Sicilian Jesuit priests.
Since then Our Lady of Light has become known for her outstanding powers of protection for the people of Leon: She has saved them from epidemics, storms, lightning, and plagues. Even revolutions! Leon is known as the “City of Refuge” because it enjoyed serene peace during the many revolutions and invasions that have beset the rest of Mexico for almost two centuries.
Although she is celebrated throughout the republic of Mexico (you can see her image in many churches in the country) she is especially revered in Leon. You will see her image everywhere in the city: in cars, churches, coffee shops, billboards, and city buildings. Taxi drivers and bus drivers erect tiny shrines to her on their dashboards, complete with flashing, sparkling lights. Parents name their daughters after her. The two most common girls’ names in Leon are Guadalupe and Luz (after Our Lady of Light).
It is said that Leon is the city of Mary. The sumptuous cathedral is the centre of the religious life of the city. And at its heart is the miraculous image of Our Lady of Light.
And the shoe malls? They run a distant second. A very distant second.
The remains of San Rafael Guizar Valencia (1877-1937) lie in state in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, in Xalapa, Veracruz, the capital of the state. During his life he had been imprisoned, hunted down, and driven into exile. He was shot at five times. You might wonder with such a past:
Was he once a gangster? A ne-er do well? A criminal of the worst kind? Who perhaps experienced a dramatic conversion in his life?
He was none of these things. He was—of all things—a bishop! And not just any bishop. He was the first bishop to be canonized a saint who was born on American soil.
He lived during the brutal years of the anti-Catholic persecution in Mexico during the 1920’s. A time described by British author Graham Greene as “the fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth.” Thousands of Mexican Catholics died defending their faith during this era. Pope Pius X declared that this period “exceeded the most bloody persecutions of the Roman emperors.” The US ambassador, James Sheffield, spoke about Plutarco Calles, who was president of Mexico during the worst days of the persecution. “He is so violent on the religion question that he has lost dominion of himself—his face burns and he hits the table to express his deep hatred of religion.”
“His apostolate was carried out among constant danger and persecution” said Pope John Paul II during the homily for Bishop Valencia’s beatification in 1995. Bishop Valencia, disguised as a junk-dealer (priests could be arrested or killed on the spot) risked his life numerous times to administer the Sacraments to dying soldiers on the battlefield “as the bullets whistled by.” His courage was legendary. “I want to give my life for the salvation of souls,” he said repeatedly.
He was born into a wealthy ranching family in the central Mexican state of Michoacan, the fourth of eleven children. He lost his mother when he was nine years old. Her death left a huge vacuum in the young boy’s life. After her funeral he knelt before a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe and declared, “Now you will be my mother and companion on earth” much as did St. Therese of Lisieux, under the same circumstances, several years before. This devotion to the Blessed Mother, as well as to the Eucharist, stayed with him for the remainder of his life. He composed several Marian hymns which are still sung today throughout the state of Veracruz.
Two years after his ordination in 1901, he founded a congregation of missionaries named in honour of Our Lady of Esperanza (“Hope”) much venerated in that part of Mexico. This image has the distinction of being the first image of Mary to be crowned in the Americas. A photo of this image of Our Lady is found on this website page. For an article on OUR LADY OF ESPERANZA please see the website page for May 2020.
He had a “holy obsession” with giving missions. In the city of Zamora (population: 12,000) 7,000 people attended “The Great Mission of Zamora” in 1904. The whole city was touched by his preaching and he became known as the “mover of hearts.” And, for each mission, his accordion accompanied him: “music and evangelization are inseparable” he always said.
During his years of exile in Cuba, Guatemala and Texas, he preached countless missions. In Guatemala, “greatly indifferent to religion” it was reported that “the people converted in an explosion!” In Cuba he gave a mission to 1,200 prisoners, most of whom had lived a “violent and turbulent life.” At the end of the week all but twelve went to confession, many reduced to tears. Called a “magnet for souls” the kindly and humble bishop was able to penetrate the “hardest of hearts.”
Catechesis (the catechism he wrote is still in use in the state of Veracruz today) and the formation of priests remained his priorities during his lifetime. He considered his seminaries “the apple of his eye.” He opened a seminary in Xalapa, Veracruz in 1920 but this was closed down by the anti-Catholic government. He moved his seminary to Mexico City in 1922 and during the height of the persecution his underground seminary had 300 seminarians! It continued to operate for 15 more years.
Bishop Valencia has often been compared to St. John Bosco (1815-1888) of whom Pope XI said, “the supernatural almost became natural and the extraordinary, ordinary.” Among many mystical phenomena associated with St. John Bosco was the miraculous multiplication of food for his impoverished school-boys. Like this saint, Bishop Valencia also experienced the multiplication of food and bienes (goods) for all of the poor he assisted in his lifetime.
Most astonishing, though, was his experience of levitation, a state in which “one’s body is lifted in the air with no apparent physical assistance.” Several anciones (elderly people) interviewed for his cause of canonization, testified that they were eyewitnesses to this phenomena while he was saying Mass. St. Teresa of Avila described the experience: “It seemed that I was lifted up by a force beneath my feet that was so powerful that I knew nothing to which I can compare it for it came with a much greater vehemence than any other spiritual experience.” Doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus Ligouri, and Pope Celestine V, as well as 200 other saints and holy people, also experienced levitation.
In 1950 his body was found incorrupt, twelve years after his death (he died of natural causes). He was known as “the bishop of the poor.” He gave away all of his inherited wealth to build schools, orphanages, and seminaries. He lived frugally and gave away everything he had to the poor.
At his death “a river of light which never ended”—thousands of mourners with lit candles—filed by his casket all night long. “A halo surrounded him all his life” said one mourner.
There is one business that is thriving in this pandemic: The dog-breeding business. Of all things!
This I did not know. I discovered this one day as I was walking along the pier at our lake-side city. A popular spot with dog-walkers. Of which we have a great many in our town. As I struck up a conversation with one dog owner, another couple came along admiring this fellow’s pooch. They wanted one just like it but couldn’t afford it. “The prices have doubled, maybe even tripled since the pandemic began. The prices have gone through the roof!” they lamented. This was news to me.
When I got home I decided to look the subject up on the Internet. And sure enough, this was the case: Barry Harrison, of London, Ontario, a dog-breeder for over thirty years, said “People are scrambling to buy any type of puppy.” He has never fielded so many calls. “Breeders are incredibly overwhelmed with all the inquiries they’re getting,” he said. He cited the main reason as loneliness. “With the pandemic people are incredibly lonely and cut off from social contact. They buy a dog to have company.”
On the subject of loneliness, the people of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, know a thing or tow about dealing with such trials, albeit on an exalted plane, a heavenly one to be exact. They have their special protector, Our Lady of the Lonely, LA SOLEDADE who is the Patrona and protector of their state. She has been looking after her citizens of Oaxaca for over four hundred years. And consoling them when they are feeling lonely and bereft. Many believe that she has supernatural healing powers as well.
Travel writers rave over the city of Oaxaca and rightly so. They call it “a rare beauty, a wonder to behold.” It is no surprise that this elegant city has become a major tourist destination. It is nestled in a valley in the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains and boasts an “ideal climate.” Its zocalo—with its sprawling jacaranda trees and outdoor cafes—is the centre of the city’s social life where visitors can enjoy live music almost every night of the week.
Because her original shrine (the chapel of San Sebastian) was too small to hold her ever-increasing devotees, the bishop authorized the construction of a much larger church to house the magnificent image of La Soledad. The Basilica of La Soledad was completed in 1689. One travel guidebook calls it “the most important religious centre in Oaxaca,” quite an accolade in a city with twenty-seven churches!
The “outstanding façade” of the church is singularly unique in the country: It is formed almost like a folding screen that “moves” on different planes, a Baroque technique which enlarges the surface available for decoration. Twenty-one sculptures adorn the façade. The beautiful interior of the church is in the neo-classical style and above the main altar resides the magnificent statue of Our Lady of the Lonely. Almost life-size, she is sumptuously adorned in a black velvet robe encrusted with thousands of pearls donated by grateful sailors. She is their special patron, after all! She is reputed to be the richest Madonna in Latin America. And this is in the literal sense: Her crown has two kilos of solid gold and six hundred diamonds! All donated by her devoted Oaxacans.
Many are the honours bestowed on Our Lady of the Lonely from the highest levels of the church:
- In 1909 she was solemnly crowned by the authorization of Pope Pius X.
- The sanctuary was elevated to the category of a Basilica by Pope St. John 23rd in 1959.
- Pope St. John Paul ll visited the shrine in 1979.
And one wonders: What was her history? Where did she come from?
She has a most fascinating background! And one of the most unusual in all of Marian scholarship:
The date was December 17, 1620. The muleteers were rejoicing because they had only one day left before they reached the city of Oaxaca. They had left Veracruz several weeks earlier enroute to their final destination, Guatemala. This last night they were camping in the country under the “open skies and the stars.” They woke up before dawn and loaded the mules in preparation for the last leg of their long journey. It was still dark as they continued on their way.
Suddenly, one of the muleteers shouted out in a panic, “Patron! Patron! One of these mules doesn’t belong to us! It is a strange mule!” The leader went to investigate and sure enough, it was not one of theirs! But whose was it? And where did it come from? No one in the area had ever seen it before. Not only that—its cargo was different too—the mule had a large box on its back. The patron ordered everyone to search the surrounding countryside to find the owner of the lost mule. Search as they might, they could not find its owner! Nor did anyone they encounter know anything about this particular mule. There seemed to be not a trace of him anywhere! By now the muleteers were worried about reaching their destination of Oaxaca in good time. They could look no longer. They would take up the matter with the mayor of Oaxaca once they reached there.
Famished and exhausted they finally arrived at Oaxaca at 9 am and rested in front of the chapel of San Sebastian. After a quick meal they planned to depart and resume their march forward.
But that mule, “the strange one,” threw himself in front of the chapel and would not budge. And that was that! They tried to rouse him, prod him, beat him, shove him and shake him. He still would not move.
And yet they couldn’t leave him there! What to do? They were completely frustrated with this stubborn creature! As if things were not bad enough, the mule then shook himself violently, “as if struck by lightning” and fell down dead!
Now, not only would they be accused of stealing the mule, they would be accused of killing him as well! By this point in time, quite a large crowd of curiosity-seekers had gathered round. “They’ll think you killed him!” they said. “You had too heavy a load on him! That’s why he died!” said another. The muleteers were frantic. They were terrified that they would not only be arrested but that they would be put in jail!
At 11 am the mayor and his four employees arrived. They were startled to find a dead mule! No one had yet dared to open up the box on the mule’s back. “Open the box!” declared the mayor in an authoritarian manner.
Inside the box they saw an image of Our Lord Jesus Christ and a sign. At the other end of the box, “as though sustained by a mysterious force” they found an image of Our Lady—a beautiful head and delicate hands, exquisitely sculptured as by a “master sculptor from Spain.” The words on the sign, in upper case letters, declared “HOLY MOTHER OF THE LONELY, AT THE FOOT OF THE CROSS.”
The mayor was overcome by emotion and in a shaken voice said: “This is not within my competence, call the priest!” Several of the group immediately ran to get the bishop, Bishop Bartolome de Bohorquez e Hinajosa. When he saw the image of Our Lady he proclaimed, “Milagro! Milagro!” (Miracle! Miracle!). He placed the image of Our Lord in a nearby chapel. Once the statue of Our Lady was fully completed and garbed the bishop ordered that it be situated in a place of honour in the chapel of San Sebastian.
And that is the story of how Our Lady of the Lonely became the Patrona of the state of Oaxaca.
One of Our Lady’s titles is “Our Lady, Comforter of the Afflicted.” She is known for this. It is her specialty. St. Louis de Montfort (1673-1716) speaks prophetically about this very thing in his True Devotion to Mary. He says we are consoled by her in “the crosses, toils and disappointments of life—in the ever-perilous times which are to come.”
And are we not living in such perilous times now?
The Yucatan. To winter-wearied North Americans the name revives images of turquoise seas, powder-white beaches, and ancient Mayan ruins. The Yucatan Peninsula is alleged to have one of the richest stores of archaeological ruins in the world and is home to the Maya Indians, the largest indigenous group in North America. The peninsula is comprised of the three states of Campeche, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo.
If tourists can pry themselves away from the beaches, a prime location for the exploration of such ruins would be the town of Izamal, “a jewel of a colonial city” in the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula, 70 miles from Cancun and 45 miles from the state capital, Merida. As fascinating as the ruins, are, however, the “top attraction” of Izamal, according to travel guidebooks, is the “magnificent” Franciscan convent of St. Anthony of Padua which was initiated almost five centuries ago. It was one of the first monasteries in the western hemisphere and became the centre of evangelization for the entire peninsula.
The enormous complex, consisting of church, atrium, and convent, is one of the largest of its kind in America and its atrium (with its seventy-five distinctive arches), is reputed to be the second largest in the world, after St. Peter’s in Rome. The entire edifice is painted a vibrant shade of yellow. The entire town, in fact, is painted in this same colour which is why it is called “The Yellow City” in travel books. “Jewel” indeed! Instead of taxis, the main mode of travel in the town for both locals and tourists are the calesas, the horse-drawn buggies and one notes—the horses, also, are decked out in yellow! And the pleasant metronome-like sound, clippity-clop, clippety-clop, clippity-clop resounds through the tropical town. Cobblestone streets and colonial lampposts complete the idyllic setting.
The convent was built upon the platform of the immense temple, Pap-Hol-Chac, a ceremonial temple dedicated to the Maya pagan god of rain. The town of Izamal had been the headquarters for the worship of the supreme god, Itzamna, and the sun god, Kinich-Kakmo; it had been the centre for the Mayan priesthood as well.
Franciscan friar, Fray Diego de Landa, who founded the convent complex in 1549, was named its guardian in 1553. He became the second bishop of Yucatan in 1572. He chose the site, himself, “in order that a place that had been one of abomination and idolatry could become one of sanctity,” thus making holy a place where human sacrifice and idolatry had once been practiced. The pagan pyramid was demolished and its stones were used for the building of the new monastery, thus signifying the sublime triumph of Christianity over paganism. With his own hands he chopped down the trees and hauled stone for the buildings, working alongside the Maya at every turn.
At the heart of the monastery is the church dedicated to Our Lady of Izamal, the principal Marian shrine in the Yucatan. Because Izamal had been the headquarters for the Maya priesthood, the Franciscan friars dedicated the area to the Virgin Mary. According to the secular periodical, Yucatan Today, “Izamal’s people are very devoted to the Immaculate Virgin to this day.” As early as 1519, two years before the Spanish Conquest, Cortez landed on the island of Cozumel in Quintana Roo and erected an image of the “Most Pure Virgin” on the site. Fray Diego de Landa recorded that the first Spanish words the Maya of Cozumel learned were “Maria! Maria! Cortez, Cortez!” Even today you can see signs of this devotion: As soon as you get off the bus at Izamal, the first thing you see is a statue of Our Lady of Izamal—right in front of the bus station!
And one has to wonder: What is the origin of this revered statue? In 1588 Fray Landa travelled to Guatemala, the famed New World centre of religious art, to procure an image of the Blessed Virgin for the monastery at Izamal. He had heard legendary reports of an exquisite statue of Our Lady in the Franciscan church in Guatemala, which had been created by the renowned Franciscan sculptor, Fray Juan de Aguirre. He wanted one just like it for his monastery! To Fray Landa’s great delight, Fray Juan was still alive and flourishing, although advanced in years. The sculptor took on the charge with gusto and within a short time, the 46” tall statue, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, was completed.
The return journey from Guatemala began to manifest Our Lady’s special predeliction for her children of the Yucatan: as the caravan processed through the town of Vallodid a group of Spaniards—struck by the beauty of the statue—demanded that the statue be retained in their town. “It’s too lovely to be relegated to an Indian pueblo!” they decided. “Hand it over!” they bellowed. The Maya refused. At this juncture in the debate a group of the sturdiest of the Spanish men amassed together and said, “Move over! It’s ours now!” And then a miracle happened: The box containing the statue refused to budge! It became so impossibly heavy that twelve men could not lift it an inch off the ground. After much exertion and humiliation, the Spaniards realized that Our Lady’s intention was to remain with her beloved Maya people. Historians recounted another miracle on this journey: Although it rained frequently on the trip “the area about the bearers and their cargo always remained dry.” And in this way the group continued blissfully on its way to Izamal—
Perhaps the greatest miracles associated with Our Lady of Izamal occurred in the ensuing years, miracles which are most pertinent to us now as we face the Covid-19 plague. The Yucatan had its share of lethal plagues: In August 1648 a great epidemic, “a horrible peste” roared across the Yucatan peninsula. In this crisis the Maya turned to Our Lady of Izamal, consecrating the province to her as their special patroness “against epidemics, illnesses and public calamities.” That the plague abated quickly was attributed to the direct intercession of Our Lady.
Toward the end of the 17th century “another plague raged so fiercely that it was feared that the town of Campeche would have to be abandoned.” Those who were able, fled to Merida, which “within a month was one vast hospital of dead and dying.” In this “extremity” the Meridians begged the Franciscan Provincial to bring the statue of Our Lady of Izamal to the capital for a solemn novena of prayer. In a short time the plague disappeared from the city. A similar plague struck the city again in 1730 and once again Our Lady of Izamal came to their aid.
Many honours have been bestowed on Our Lady of Izamal: in 1949 she was not only crowned by the authorization of Pope Pius Xll but she was also declared the Reina, the Queen of the Yucatan. In 1970 she was named the Patrona of the Archdiocese. Her greatest honour came when St. Pope John Paul ll visited her shrine in 1993 and crowned her a second time. She may be the only statue in the western world to be crowned twice. By the authorization of two pontiffs!
As the Covid-19 plague envelops the world, let us turn to Our Lady of Izamal. She is experienced in these matters. And will know exactly what to do.
This article has been reprinted with permission from ONE PETER FIVE.
Who doesn’t love a circus? The acrobats. The clowns. The trapeze artists. And the inhabitants of San Juan de los Lagos in the state of Jalisco were no exception. They were abuzz with excitement. The circus was coming to town!
The year was 1623. A family of trapeze artists had just arrived enroute to Gaudalajara. The star of the entourage was a six-year-old girl. The audience marvelled at her performance on the high-wire. She seemed to glide through the air like a bird! Like a tiny ballerina with wings. The spectators were dazzled by it all and couldn’t stop applauding.
To increase the thrill factor, daggers, instead of a safety net, had been placed in the ground with their points positioned upward. All was going perfectly until the child attempted a risky maneuver. And then the unthinkable happened. The little girl lost her footing and plunged to the ground, impaled by a dagger which pierced her heart. The crowd gasped in horror. And sorrow swept through the audience like a tsunami. The little trapeze artist died instantly.
But then, a while later, something happened: A commotion was heard. What was going on? A woman was barreling her way through the crowd. “Wait! Don’t bury the child! I have the remedy,” said 78-year-old Ana Lucia in a firm voice. She was carrying a small, somewhat shabby statue of the Madonna in her arms. “Don’t be ridiculous, Ana Lucia!” bellowed a skeptic. “The child has been dead for hours!” Ignoring him, Ana Luisa placed the statue on the little corpse. Within minutes the faintest of stirrings rippled across the burial cloths. The crowd stared spellbound. Rapt. The girl’s hands began trembling. To the astonishment of all the young performer sat upright and opened her eyes. She was alive! The crowd went wild with cheering and yelling and rejoicing.
Word of the great miracle spread and pilgrims came running from everywhere to see the miraculous statue. And they have never stopped coming.
But to step back a bit: one must wonder why the statue of Our Lady had become so unsightly: The reason, first of all, is its antiquity. Franciscan Friar Venerable Miguel Bolonia had brought the exquisite statue to the town in 1542. He had ordered it from the Tarascan Indians of Patzcuaro, Michoacan, who were renowned throughout the country for the sculpting of religious images. They had developed a compound known as pasta de Michoacan, a mixture of cornstalk glue and orchid bulbs, which formed a lightweight and malleable substance, ideal for their purposes.
The diminutive statue (it is slightly over a foot in height) was housed in a humble adobe, grass-roofed, chapel. Pedro Antes and his wife, Ana Luisa, were the chapel’s caretakers. Ana was particularly devoted to the statue of Our Lady and called it Cihuapilli (“Lady”). Over time, however, the statue’s face became blackened and disfigured by insects and the elements. By 1623, the statue was no longer the exquisite image it had been—it had become tattered and dishevelled. But this was soon to change!
After the miracle of 1623 the acrobat’s father was so immensely grateful to the Virgin, that he asked permission to take the statue to Guadalajara to be restored. The pastor, Don Diego Camerena, gave his permission for the undertaking. When the father arrived in the city he was met by two handsome strangers who approached him: “Are you looking for an artist to repair a sacred image?” they asked. “If so, we are at your service.” In a short time the statue was “beautifully restored” and the artists vanished, without asking for any payment. No one has ever discovered the identity of the two “mystery” artists. Who were they? “Well, of course they were angels,” explained Ana Maria, who lived to be 110 years old.
Today, defying all scientific explanation, the statue is in pristine condition. Like the tilma of Juan Diego, the statue should have disintegrated into a powder-like substance in a few short years. Instead, after four centuries, it is intact and robust.
An investigation by ecclesiastical authorities in 1634, 1639, and 1668, verified the authenticity of the 1623 miracle as well as a “multitude of miracles performed by Our Lady by means of her image of San Juan de los Lagos.”
These miracles are continuing to the present day. Beside the sanctuary is a sala (a room) which gives evidence of “an uninterrupted series of favours and miracles.” Its walls are covered with testimonials of thanksgiving from grateful recipients. We read about Adriana Bastida who is thanking our Lady on May 21, 2006; she fell and fractured her cranium and is “all cured” and about Margarita Perez from San Felipe who is thanking Our Lady in December 2005 for curing her sick husband.
Today the shrine is the second most visited church in Mexico, after Our Lady of Guadalupe. The original little adobe chapel is no more. In its place is a magnificent Baroque cathedral-basilica which is home to four large paintings by the 17th century Flemish master, Peter Paul Rubens.
The basilica has received the approval of the church at its highest levels: In 1904 the statue was solemnly crowned with the authorization of Pope Pius X. In 1923 the church was raised to the level of a Collegiate church by a Papal Bull of Pope Pius XI and in 1947 Pope Pius XII elevated the sanctuary to the category of a minor basilica.
Probably the greatest honour of all accorded to the statue occurred on May 8, 1990: St. Pope John Paul ll visited the shrine on that day. He was so moved by the image that he spent three minutes before the statue in a spirit of “intense recollection.” As he was exiting from her presence, he turned back (as if he couldn’t tear himself away) and spent an additional “120 seconds” in prayer before the revered image.
No stranger to religious persecution under the Nazis and the Communists, St. Pope John Paul ll would have been acutely aware of the persecution in Mexico. San Juan de los Lagos, as did all of Mexico, suffered during the fierce, anti-Catholic revolution of the 1920’s. According to Graham Greene, in his book, The Lawless Roads, “It was a time when every priest was hunted down or shot.”
One of those who suffered grievously was the martyr, San Pedro Esqueda Ramirez (1887-1927), who was born in the town. As the pastor of the nearby St. John the Baptist church (just steps away from the Cathedral-Basilica) he had a fervent passion for Eucharistic Adoration, Our Lady (particularly in her title as Nuestra Senora de San Juan de los Lagos) and the catechesis of children. As a young priest, he had founded a school for the training of catechists.
He was taken prisoner by the revolutionary soldiers and beaten, scourged and bludgeoned. For four days. “Deny Christ! Deny your priesthood! Then we will let you go!” “Never! Never!” answered the saint. He was shot to death by a soldier on Nov. 22, 1927. He was canonized by St. Pope John Paul ll in 2000.
And in Mexico we saw the chronology:
First they came after the statues: “The statues were carried out of the church while the inhabitants watched, sheepishly, and saw their children encouraged to chop up the images in return for little presents of candy.” (The Lawless Roads)
Then they came after the churches: “They went to the cathedral—and sprayed it with gasoline and bombs were set—and the imposingly massive structure—was badly damaged.” (Mexican Martyrdom by Fr. Wilfrid Parsons, S.J.)
And then they came after the priests—
Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, St. Pedro Esquada,
Pray for our beloved priests.
This strange, new vocabulary! Which dominates the evening news, night after night: “Variants, ‘compulsory jabs,’ Moderna, Pfizer, mRNA vaccinatios, Astra Zeneca, digital passports, ‘needles-in-arms’.” And as if that were not enough there is the ubiquitous Doctor Fauci. At some point you must have to wonder if the fellow is bi-locating. He seems to be everywhere. At all times. In all places. Such is our world of 2021. Everyone seems to be worried to some extent or another about Covid-19. Where do we turn? And in whom do we trust? Do we put our faith in vaccines? In the WHO? Or, heaven forbid—in Dr. Fauci?
The Tlaxcalans of Mexico, almost five centuries ago, were worried too. And they had a lot more to be worried about than we do! A plague of smallpox swept over their countryside like a tidal wave, leaving hardly a family untouched. Ninety percent of their population died from the disease.
The Tlaxcalans, of all people! Because of their loyalty they held a special place of privilege in the newly conquered Mexican nation: They were the first friends of the Spanish, they were the first Christians in the new land and they were home to the first archbishopric in the country; it was established in 1525.
So outnumbered were the Spanish by the mighty Aztecs, that historians believe that the Spanish conquest of 1521, “an utterly unbelievable victory,” would have been impossible without the alliance with their new friends, the Tlaxcalans. The Aztecs had never been able to subdue this tiny, but fierce, warrior state.
The first convent in the country was built in Tlaxcala in 1526. This Franciscan convent plays a role in the story of Our Lady of Ocotlan. It was headed by the legendary Fray Torobio Motolinia (“the poor one”). He was one of the 12 Franciscan friars who landed in the country in 1524 to begin the evangelization of Mexico. They were known as “the twelve apostles,” friars of exemplary character and holiness. Fray Motolinia would go on to become “the greatest evangelizer in Mexican history.”
After the Guadalupe apparition of 1531 many Indians had become fervent Christians. One of these was Juan Diego Bernardino (no relation to the Guadalupe visionary) who worked for the friars at the monastery. Because of his innate holiness and his ardent devotion to the Blessed Virgin, he also served as sacristan at the convent.
One radiant, sunny day, on February 27, 1541, Juan was out fetching water for his sick relatives, many of whom were close to death. As he entered the forest, he was startled to see a beautiful lady standing in front of him. She greeted him with a joyful smile and said, “God be with you, my son. Where are you going?” He replied, “I’m fetching water to bring to the sick people of my village who are dying with no hope of a cure.” The lady then said to him:
“Come with me! I will give you a different water that will cure the sickness of your people. Not only your relatives and friends will be healed, but also all those who drink it.”
Juan followed the lady to the peak of a hill where a fountain of water was gushing forth. He was shocked because he had never seen such a fountain before and he had walked along this path many times. She continued:
“My heart always desire to help those who are suffering. My heart cannot bear to see so much pain and anguish among people without healing them. Drink as much water as you desire. Upon drinking just one drop, the sick will not only be cured, but they will receive perfect health!”
Juan realized—incredibly— that he was speaking with Our Lady, the Mother of God! He quickly filled his jug with the miraculous water and raced to his village with the amazing news. He soon became aware of a new sensation: it seemed that a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders. And that he ran with a light step and an even lighter heart! Even the heavy jug of water seemed weightless. Juan was ecstatic: All who drank of the water were healed!
Our Lady had also given Juan a message to deliver to the Franciscan friars at the monastery:
“Tell the monks that in this place, they shall find an image of me, which not only will represent my perfection, but also through it, I will bring forth my mercy and blessings. I want the image to be placed in the chapel of St. Lawrence.”
The Franciscans decided to investigate the astonishing events for themselves. They accompanied Juan to the forest to locate the miraculous fountain. What a sight they encountered: the forest was on fire! They also noticed a strange phenomenon: only one tree, the tallest tree—defying all scientific explanation— was aflame! Because it was so late at night they decided to return the next morning to resume their investigation
The friars, accompanied by half the town, returned in the morning when the fire had dissipated. But how would they ever find Our Lady’s image in such a vast forest? Impossible task! But by a mysterious series of signs they were directed to one particular tree, the tallest tree which had been ablaze. The friars took an axe to the tree to split it open.
An early chronicler documents what happened next:
“A new marvel met their eyes: within the trunk of the fallen tree was visible the image of the Holy Mother of God.”
All fell to their knees in wonder and awe. The magnificent 5’ (1.5 m.) statue was carried in solemn procession to the church where it resides today above the main altar in the Basilica of Our Lady of Ocotlan in the city of Tlaxcala. It is considered by many church historians to be one of the most beautiful churches in the country. Architects cite it as a “masterpiece of the late Mexican-Baroque style known as Churrigueresque.” The name of Our Lady of Ocotlan comes from ocote del ande—the oak tree that burned.
Five popes have granted approval of this apparition: Clemente XII (1735), Benedicto XIV (1746), Pius VI (1799), Pius X (1906), and Pius XII (1941). The statue of Our Lady of Ocotlan was pontifically crowned in 1906.
Although Our Lady of Ocotlan is such an important Marian apparition and is well-known and revered in Mexico, it is virtually unknown in the rest of the world. It seems to be completely eclipsed by the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe! Yet the parallels between the two are striking:
– It occurred 10 years after Guadalupe. 10-year anniversaries are always significant! Guadalupe occurred in 1531. The Ocotlan apparition occurred in 1541.
-Both visionaries were named Juan Diego. The last name of the uncle of the Gaudalupe visionary was Bernardino. The second Juan Diego’s last name was Bernardino as well.
-Both were converted Indians who were devoted to Our Lord, Our Lady and their Catholic faith.
-In both apparitions Our Lady gave motherly messages of concern: “AM I NOT HERE WHO AM YOUR MOTHER? WHAT DO YOU NEED?” she said at Guadalupe.
-At Ocotlan, Our Lady fulfilled and extended the promises she made at Guadalupe: “MY HEART CANNOT BEAR TO SEE SO MUCH PAIN AND ANGUISH AMONG PEOPLE WITHOUT HEALING THEM,” she said at Tlaxcala. And heal them she did!
-Both apparitions exhibited wondrous and miraculous images of Our Lady—not made by human At Guadalupe, the image was a painting, at Tlaxcala, the image was a statue!
The sisters at the Basilica assured me that healings and all kinds of blessings are ongoing at the shrine. They have witnessed countless numbers of them. Now that the plague is wreaking havoc in the world perhaps it is high time that Our Lady of Ocotlan be made known to the world outside of Mexico!
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D.H. Lawrence wrote a novel about Mexico in 1926, a time of severe persecution of the Church in that country. In his book, The Plumed Serpent, he recounts the words of Dona Carlota to her friend, Kate. Dona Carlota’s husband, Ramon, is the leader of a group dedicated to Quetzelcoatl, the Aztec serpent god. “Could you follow Ramon? Could you give up the Blessed Virgin? I would sooner die!” she said. “Ah Senora,” said Kate, “as if a woman who had ever known the Blessed Virgin could ever part from her again!”
Although these words were written almost a century ago they could well apply to Mexico’s love for the Virgin Mary at the present time, particularly in their passion for Our Lady of Guadalupe. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is everywhere in Mexico. In taxicabs. Buses. Restaurants. Store fronts. And roadside shrines. Renowned Mexican novelist, Carlos Fuentes, speaks of this phenomenon: He states that “Our Lady of Guadalupe is the central unifying force of the Mexican people.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared in Mexico in 1531 to a ravaged and distraught nation. The once proud, mighty Aztecs suffered an ignonimous defeat at the hands of a miniscule Spanish army in 1521. Soon their ubiquitous practice of human sacrifice was abolished and they were fearful that their pagan gods would exact revenge, causing immeasurable chaos in the cosmos. Carl Anderson and Eduardo Chavez, authors of Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love said that “the collective depression from this crisis of faith was so great that some of the natives committed suicide.”
And the small group of Spaniards in the country were in a desperate position as well. Because of the cruel and tyrannical behaviour of The First Audencia (the secular, governing group sent over from Spain) bitter animosity eruptedbetween the two cultures. Outnumbered six hundred to one, the Spaniards were terrified for their very lives. Bishop Zumarraga, the first bishop of Mexico City, feared that a massacre was imminent. He prayed urgently to Our Lady and asked for a very specific sign that a miracle would be forthcoming. Soon, the kindly Bishop (whose title would become “Defender of the Indians”) began hearing stories from a newly converted Chichimeca Indian about appearances of the Virgin Mary—
On Dec. 9, 1531, Juan Diego was walking to Tlalteloloco (a distance of nine miles) to attend the Saturday morning Mass in honour of the Blessed Virgin. On his way he encountered a most “beautiful Lady” at the top of Tepeyac Hill. She appeared as a mestiza woman (a woman of mixed race) and spoke to him in his native Nahuatl language. “She is one of us!” he said. And she called him “son.” What is striking is that Our Lady appeared as a mestiza woman. At this time in the New World the only mestizo people were children, most of whom would be under ten years old. And these poor children! They were “despised” and often left to “search the animal stalls for food left for pigs and dogs.” And Our Lady came as one of them, the most lowly and ostracized group in society. And she came as their Mother. She came as family.
And what words of love she spoke to Juan! “Listen, my son, to what I tell you now. Do not let anything worry or afflict you; do not fear illness nor any trouble-some happening nor pain. Am I not here? I who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your life and health? Are you not in my embrace and in my prayers? What else do you need?”
She appeared a total of four times to Juan Diego and once to his ill uncle, Juan Bernardino, curing him. She asked Juan to bring a message to Bishop Zumarraga that a church be built at Tepeyac Hill. The humble Juan Diego demurred: “Send someone more important!” he begged. “No, Juan!” she said. “It is you I want to carry out my requests!” Juan Diego then went to the Bishop with Our Lady’s message. He was understandably skeptical and asked for a sign to prove the authenticity of the apparition. On Dec. 12th Our Lady once again appeared to Juan and directed him to pick some Castilian roses to bring to the bishop. But the fact of the matter is this: Castilian roses were unknown in Mexico at that time and would never be able to grow in the rocky soil of Tepeyac Hill! Nonetheless, here they were! With the roses snuggly enveloped in his tilma, Juan hastened to the bishop’s residence. The bishop was astonished when he realized that Juan was carrying a large assortment of CASTILIAN roses! This was the sign he had been secretly praying for. “But at this time of year!” he mused. “Impossible!”
But this was just the beginning: When Juan removed his cloak an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was miraculously imprinted on its surface. The astounded Bishop Zumarraga fell to his knees in wonder before the holy image, as would multitudes of believers throughout the generations, to the present day.
Father Harold Rahm, author of “Am I Not Here?” spoke about the effects of this apparition: “A supernatural explosion occurred on this continent,” he said. “Within a few years an explosion of Catholic churches, monasteries, convents and schools sprang up all over the once-pagan country.” “Conversions of the Aztecs were so numerous as to be unprecedented in the history of the church” he said . Estimates are that nine million Aztecs converted to the Catholic faith within a decade and a half, thus making Mexico the first Christian nation on the American continent. Our Lady of Guadalupe also brought peace to the two warring cultures. Today the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is the most visited Marian shrine in the world. Twenty million pilgrims visit annually. They come to see the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Basilica, the only heavenly portrait of Our Lady in existence.
The ongoing existence of the tilma is a miracle in itself. The image is still intact after almost five centuries. The tilma, an outer garment worn by the Aztecs of Juan Diego’s time is made from the delicate ayate fibres of the Maguey cactus plant. Its normal lifespan is about 20 years! And, after all this time, the sacred painting shows not the slightest indication of decay. Defying all scientific explanation it is in immaculate condition. Even its colours remain bright and vibrant, seemingly impervious to fading. Richard Kuhn, German Nobel prize winner in chemistry in 1936, found that no colouring of any kind was used in the fibres, stating that the existing “colours” were unknown to science, being of neither animal, vegetable or mineral origin. Recent investigation in the field of computerized technology in ophthalmology revealed another phenomenon: that twelve people, believed to be witnesses to the miracle, were found imprinted in the Virgin’s eyes.
The designs on Our Lady’s garment were profoundly meaningful to the Aztecs: The fact that Our Lady is standing in front of the sun, for example, signified to them that she is more exalted than their sun-war god, Huitzopochtili; the fact that she is standing on the moon indicates that she is superior to the moon god; because the black band around her waist signifies her pregnancy, it is a sign of renewal and things to come; because of this manifestation, she is the patroness of the Pro-Life movement in the Americas. One notices also the black cross on her brooch signifying that her god was that of the Spanish missionary friars, Jesus Christ, who died on the Cross for all of humanity.
The apparition abounded in music and flowers, both signs of truth and divinity in the Aztec culture. Our Lady’s mantle is an aqua-blue colour and in 16th century Aztec Mexico only the emperor could wear this colour! Her tunic and mantle are held up by an angel, indicating that she “reigns over the whole cosmos.” They had no doubt whatsoever that their new mother was from Heaven!
In 1939 a monument to Our Lady of Guadalupe was erected in the Vatican Gardens. His holiness Pope Pius Xll spoke about Our Lady’s messages to Juan Diego: “It is an instruction without limits in maternal love,” he said.
Etched above the main altar of the basilica are the unforgettable words:
NO ESTOY YO AQUI QUE SOY TU MADRE? “Am I not here, I who am your Mother?”
Who can resist such a message?
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On May 30, 1990, a grievously depressed teenager hurled himself from the balcony of his apartment in Mexico City, plunging 30’ to the pavement below. He suffered life-threatening head injuries and the doctors gave him a zero chance of survival. Hoping against hope, his family prayed urgently to Juan Diego for a miracle. Ten days later 19-year-old Juan Jose Barragan walked out of the hospital. The family was granted their miracle: Juan Jose was completely healed. The doctors were dumbfounded. And claimed that it was medically inexplicable.
Ironically, that same day in Rome, Pope John Paul ll was celebrating Mass for the beatification of Juan Diego! Twelve years later, on July 31, 2002, Pope John Paul ll travelled to Mexico City for his canonization Mass. According to the Financial Post (Aug. 2, 2002) twelve million people graced the streets of the city to welcome their beloved “Papa” who had come to Mexico for the canonization of Mexico’s first indigenous saint. Juan Jose’s cure was the requisite miracle for Juan Diego’s canonization.
During this process intensive research uncovered new information about Juan Diego: Contrary to common belief, he was not an illiterate, indigent peasant. He was of the macehual class (middle-class), he owned property, and ran a thriving mat-making business on the shores of Lake Texcoco. He was educated as education was compulsory in the Aztec empire. Although he was associated with the mighty Aztec empire, he was not an Aztec, he was a Chichimeca Indian, a people who had arrived in the Valley of Mexico three centuries earlier.
He was born in 1474 in Cuatitlan, a city 14 miles northeast of the capital. Cuatitlan was a member of the “Triple Alliance”with the Aztec empire. He would have been an eye-witness to the volcanic changes which enveloped Mexico after the arrival of the Spanish and their conquest of the immense Aztec empire in 1521. An event of dramatic significance which enabled Christianity to be introduced into the country. In 1524 the first missionary group of Franciscans arrived from Spain. They were twelve Franciscans, famously known as “the twelve apostles.” By all accounts they were an exemplary group of priests. Robert Ricard, in his Spiritual Conquest of Mexico, speaks about the “exceptional worth of these friars.” They established the first mission headquarters at the church of St. James (the patron saint of Spain), at Tlaltelolco, the site of a former pagan temple which had been dedicated to Huitzilopochtili, the god of war.
Juan Diego and his wife, Maria Lucia (who died in 1529), were one of the first Christians in the land. They were baptized in 1525 at Tlaltelolco after being catechized for several months by these same Franciscan friars. Juan and his wife sat spellbound as they listened to the friars teaching about “Our Lady and her precious Son” who loved them without measure. Juan Diego’s uncle, Juan Bernardino, was converted shortly thereafter. What a contrast to the frightful religion Juan had known all his life! The prophet Jeremiah could have been speaking of Mexico when he said “It is a land of idols.” (Jer.50:38)
Bernal Diaz in his acclaimed first-person account, The Conquest of New Spain, records what the Spaniards witnessed as they penetrated into the country: He speaks of one city called Tenayuca which was called “the city of snakes” because they kept three serpents in their temple and worshipped them as gods. Human sacrifice and cannibalism were rife. Both were practiced on an enormous scale. “At Veracruz” he said “they had just sacrificed two boys. Their cruelty upset us greatly!” He spoke frequently of temples filled with “idols of most hideous shapes” whose walls were “caked with blood.” They arrived at Tlaxcala “in such a state of terror” at what they had seen and heard. “Every province had its own idols—infinite numbers of them and they sacrificed to them all.” They believed that human sacrifice was necessary to appease their insatiable, vengeful gods. This: as opposed to the incredible, glorious, Christian teaching, “He gave His only Son out of His love for us” (John 3:16).
Juan was so devoted to Our Lady that he walked nine miles every Saturday before dawn to attend the Mass in her honour at Tlalteloco (and walked the same distance every Sunday as well). It was there that he was heading on that Saturday morning on December 9, 1531. On this journey he encountered the remarkable “Beautiful Lady.” According to The Nican Mapohua, Juan heard a voice from the top of Tepeyac Hill calling him: “Dear Juan, dearest Juan Diego.” The Nican Mapohua is the earliest account of the apparitions, written in 1540. The author was Antonio Valeriano who was a mestizo (a man of mixed race) who may have spoken to Juan Diego personally. The description of the encounter continues: “Her clothing was shining like the sun” Juan reported and she called him “My son, my youngest son, Juanito” (a term of affection). One can only Imagine the effect these words must have had on him! This recent widower who was fearful that his beloved uncle (his only family) was about to die. By these words he was being welcomed into a new family!
She revealed herself as the “Holy Virgin Mary, the Mother of the one true God.” She appeared to him three more times and reassured him that his uncle would be cured. At the exact moment that these words were being spoken his uncle reported that Our Lady also appeared to him and healed him! She also told him her name: “Our Lady of Guadalupe”. She continued to speak consoling words to Juan. Words that would comfort generations of believers throughout the centuries: “Am I not here, I who am your mother?” “Why do you worry? You are in the hollow of my mantle! You are under my protection!’
On December 12, 1531, a momentous event occurred: Our Lady’s image appeared miraculously on Juan Diego’s tilma (cape) in the presence of Bishop Zumarraga and several others. She appeared as a mestiza (a woman of mixed race). “And absolutely everyone, the entire city, without exception, trembled when they went to behold her precious image.” “They marvelled at something divine” reported The Nican Mapohua. Franciscan historian Fray Toribio de Benavente, one of the original twelve, declared that within a decade of the Guadalupe miracle nine million Indians had converted to the Catholic religion.
A small chapel—known as the chapel of Los Indios— was built at the base of Tepeyac Hill to house the image. Bishop Zumarraga appointed Juan Diego to be the perpetual guardian of the sacred tilma. A one-room addition was built on to the chapel and this would be Juan’s home for the rest of his life. He would spend the next 17 years joyously teaching the truths of the Catholic faith to the millions who came to venerate the image. He died in 1548 and is buried in this chapel; the ruins of his dwelling can be seen at the present day.
Juan’s indigenous name was Cuauhtlatoazin which means “the eagle that speaks.” A fitting name for one who could be called the Saint Paul of Mexico! Today the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the most visited Marian shrine in the world. And the humble Juan Diego was the human instrument of it all.
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On that day in 1609 Senora Antonia Negreros was mightily puzzled. She was the owner of the inn on the main street of Acatzingo, a town not far from Puebla, the capital of the state of the same name. Senora Negreros was not a timid innkeeper! She was an energetic, imperious business-woman (what one would call a “dominant” personality) with a “beautiful fighting spirit” and a voice that could be heard from one end of the inn to the other. Normally she would be full of questions for her guests! She could be more than a little suspicious. But this time—with this guest—she had none. He had a “trustworthy” look and that was enough for her. Even though he was a complete stranger and she had never met him before. It was his huge package that puzzled her! “What could it contain?” she wondered.
Strangely enough, when he left the inn, he asked Senora Antonia to keep the parcel for him. He would pick it up on his return trip. The problem was, he never did return! And Senora Antonia’s curiosity grew day by day. Finally, she could no longer resist! She unwrapped the bundle and to her astonishment discovered a beautiful treasure: a large painting of Our Lady of Sorrows , 1 m (36”) wide x 2 m (72”) long. Being a very devout woman she fell in love with the painting and hung it in a prominent place at the inn.
The next day she noticed something striking: the painting of Our Lady was sweating! Crowds began to pour into her inn as though it were a temple. All came to witness the miracle. Prayers were being answered. Over time the townspeople began relating miracles that Our Lady of Sorrows had worked in their lives.
Soon the village pastor insisted that the holy image be taken to the church for safekeeping. But Senora Antonia missed her beloved painting. And on January 23rd in the dead of night she crept into the church (it was pitch black!) and stole back her precious image. And ran away as fast as she could! Unfortunately, the sacristan noticed that the painting was missing and began chasing the unhappy “thief” down the street yelling “Stop! Stop!” as loud as he could. In her panic, Senora Antonia tossed the painting in the village well at the centre of town. The next morning the sacristan retrieved it and to his astonishment it was bone dry! Even though it had been in the water the entire night long. This was the second miracle to be attributed to the divine image.
Once the painting was reposed in the church, Our Lady of Sorrows began dispensing favours in a most generous manner! She inspired great devotion among the inhabitants of the region. In the 18th century a confraternity was established in her honour and a most SUMPTUOUS sanctuary was built from the alms collected for this purpose. Thousands of pilgrims from Puebla, Veracruz, Oaxaca and Guerrero descend on the church on her two feastdays, Sept. 6 (to commemorate the first day the “perspiration” appeared on the painting) and Good Friday. On Sept. 15, 1924, she was granted a singular honour: she was pontifically crowned with the official approval of Pope Pius Xl. The painting resides over the main altar. The façade, adorned with the signature Talavera tile of Puebla, is one of the most beautiful churches in Mexico. And to this day Our Lady of Acatzingo is attentive to all of her devotees!
Our Lady of Health is not only one of the most revered images of Mary in Mexico, she is one of the first to be created in the country. And her origins are linked to one person—
The first-time visitor to Patzcuaro, Michoacan, notices one thing immediately: the name “Vasco Quiroga.” You see his name everywhere: on streets, stores, plazas and parks. You even see his name on restaurant menus, such as Pescado de Tata Vasco (fish) or Helado de Tata Vasco (ice cream). “Tata” is a term of endearment meaning “Father” or “Daddy.”
And you can’t help wondering as you stroll through the town, “Who was this person? Was he a famous politician or a military figure or even an entertainment icon?” But no! He was none of these things. VASCO DE QUIROGA was the first bishop of the newly erected diocese of Michoacan; he was appointed in 1536.
He was born in Spain and was a lawyer in Salamanca. His was a late vocation. In 1531 he was sent by the Spanish Crown to be a member of the Second Audencia to govern the newly conquered lands of New Spain. This group comprised “an outstanding group of men” of whom Quiroga was the “most distinguished.” He was considered one of New Spain’s “greatest statesmen and churchmen.” These administrators set out to reverse the disastrous abuses of the First Audencia whose president was the notorious Nino de Guzman; his tyranny and cruelty were legendary. Such actions led the indigenous Tarascan peoples of Patzcuaro to flee to the mountains in terror. Through the efforts of this second group the deserted cities once again became populated, the friars returned to preach the gospel and a number of the indigenous people converted to Christianity. The bishop’s title was “Defender and Protector of the Indians.” During his long life in Mexico (he died at the age of 96) he was much beloved by the Tarascan peoples of the area. A sentiment which continues to the present day!
In the beginning, the new bishop was faced with a severe challenge even though the first missionaries had arrived as early as 1526: the Tarascan “priests” were reluctant to relinquish their pagan rituals and idols. And, not surprisingly, for obvious reasons, they hated the Spanish and their religion!
The bishop, who had a deep devotion to Our Lady, commissioned one of the Tarascan priests, an expert sculptor of pagan idols, to create an image of the Virgin Mary. He used a mixture of corn stalks and orchid bulbs known as Pasta de Michoacan to sculpt the image, which would become one of the first Marian statues to be made in the country. Eventually, Patzcuaro became renowned as the centre of religious sculpture in all of New Spain.
The bishop placed the exquisite statue in the chapel of his newly constructed hospital and consecrated all of the Tarascan peoples to her protection and care. Soon, stories of remarkable favours and cures began to spread through Michoacan. So numerous were the healings which occurred that the Tarascans began calling her La Salud, Our Lady of Health.
In time the small chapel became too miniscule for all her devotees! In 1690 construction began on a much larger church to be named after La Salud. In 1899 amid “sumptuous celebrations” the statue was granted a singular honour: she was crowned pontifically by the decree of Pope Leo Xlll. In 1924 Pope Pius Xl elevated the church to the dignity of a basilica and in this same year Our Lady of Health was named the principal Patrona of the archdiocese of Morelia, the capital city of the state of Michoacan. In 1962 an unbalanced atheist entered the basilica and fired 10 shots at close-range toward Our Lady’s face. Miraculously, the image remained unscathed!
So numerous are the favours and graces granted by Our Lady of Health that she is known as a “wonder-working” image.