“The church is on fire! The church is on fire!” shrieked the startled church-goers as they fled outside to safety. The padre of the church of Our Lady of Tonatico had invited all from the surrounding parishes to celebrate the blessing of the new church. Within minutes of the first flames, the roof crashed in, and the entire church became a mass of burning timbers.
There was one consolation, however; the beloved life-sized statue of Our Lady of Tonatico was undamaged by the fire. But, stranger than fiction, the tatue was found outside of the church! “How did it get there?” everyone wondered. All present swore that they had not touched it. Furthermore, this was one very large statue—there is no way that it could have been removed from the church clandestinely! And there was one other matter: although the statue was undamaged by the fire, it had changed in one remarkable way. Our Lady’s face was tilted upward (visible in the photo of the statue) as though she was “watching the destruction of the church.”
From then on, the devotion of the residents of Tonatico increased exponentially to their Virgin. Soon miracles were being reported and this phenomenon continues to the present day. So many favours were being recounted that an entire building had to be constructed to display such testimonials of thanksgiving. Many of them begin with the words “DOY GRACIAS” which means “I give thanks” in Spanish.
These testimonials are in the form of Ex-Votos which testify to the gratitude of those giving thanks for Our Lady’s goodness and mercy. They can be found in many churches in Mexico.
They are small paintings, usually painted on tin, which illustrate the predicament or danger that the person is facing. A statue of Our Lady of Tonatico is present in the painting and we see the petitioners praying for her intercession. These are painted by popular artists and are dated and signed with the person’s name. It is a way of giving public thanks to God through his mother.
The testimonials go back in time to the 1780s and continue to the present day. We read a testimony from Eva Diaz Gomez on Jan. 2, 1990 : she had a tumour on her toe and was not able to go to school because of her illness. She thanked Our Lady for her “recovery” that she could now continue with her studies. On March 23, 1987, “the child, Mario Gomez de Coatepec, from Harinas, Mexico, fell in a tank of water and was drowned. I implored Our Lady of Tonatico and in half an hour the child became alive. Thanks to the little Virgin for returning him to life.”
The story of Dan Manuel Zarinara is another favourite with the Tonaticenses: One day in 1783 he was out in the fields with his workers and a bolt of lighting struck one of the workmen, who fell to the earth, apparently dead. Imploring the intercession of Our Lady of Tonatico, the inanimate figure was seen to move and soon recovered consciousness.”
Built in 1660, the Shrine of Our Lady of Tonatico, a superb “architectural gem” in the neoclassical style, attracts more than a million visitors during its feastday (which begins the last Sunday of January and ends on Candlemas Day, February 2nd). Pilgrims come to pay homage to their much revered Our Lady of Tonatico. And they come by the thousands during the rest of the year as well—
“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue—”
A chant familiar to every school-aged child in America. That famous date. It marked the year that Christopher Columbus, the Italian-born navigator, departed from Spain and discovered the continent of America. Over the next few decades more Spaniards would follow in his wake. One of these was Hernan Cortez, the Spanish conquistador, whose miniscule army would defeat the massive military might of the Aztec empire in 1521.
Cortez and his soldiers left Spain prepared for battle. Not only did they carry military weapons they carried spiritual weapons as well. Part of this spiritual cache was a selection of several wooden statues of the Virgin Mary. One of these would become the most revered of them all: the statue of Los Remedios (Our Lady of the Remedies).
Sculptured in the city of Tolosa, Spain, in the 14th century, she has the distinction of being one of the oldest statues of Mary on the American continent. Los Remedio was to play an important role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico: She accompanied Cortes and his soldiers in 1519 on their grueling march from Vera Cruz (on the coast) to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan (site of present-day Mexico City), a journey of 400 miles (650 km) over two mountain ranges.
She also witnessed the triumphant entry of the Spanish soldiers into the capital and the dramatic initial encounter between Cortes and the Aztec leader, Montezuma ll. For a period of time she even replaced the “hideous” blood-thirsty idol of Huitzilopochtili, the god of war, which graced the emperor’s private apartment. She was also present when the first Mass was said on Mexican territory by Fr. Bartolome de Olmedo.
During the Noche Triste, the “Sorrowful Night” of July 8, 1520, she was “implored with tears” as the Spaniards fled from the Aztecs in terror, suffering terrible losses. During the flight, she was hidden underneath the leaves of a maguey plant, and remained lost for 20 years. She was eventually found, in 1540, by a newly converted Indian chief, Juan Cuautli and was venerated for several years in his private chapel.
In 1575 the shrine of Los Remedios was built in Nauacalpan, 8 miles (14 km) northwest of Mexico City. It was built on the site of a destroyed Aztec sacrificial temple, thus sanctifying a place which had been a scene of previous abominations (human sacrifice).
And even in the 1500’s the shrine was well-known and revered! Bernal Diaz, in his acclaimed first-hand account of the struggle for Mexico, The Conquest of New Spain, says about the shrine: “After the great city of Mexico was finally captured we built a church which is called Nuestra Senora de Los Remedios and is now much visited. Many citizens and ladies go there on pilgrimages to make novenas.” Diaz was a young soldier when he fought alongside Cortes in the battle for Mexico. He wrote his book while he was in his senior years.
In the dreadful years of plague which accosted Mexico in the years between 1567 and 1577 the statue of Los Remedios was taken by procession to the cathedral in Mexico City by the same route which the conquistadors had used when they fled from the Aztecs in June, 1520. Through the centuries she was carried in procession to the cathedral on 75 separate occasions in times of urgent need: droughts, epidemics, floods, wars, political crises of all kinds—none of these proved obstacles for Our Lady of the Remedies!
The diminutive statue—she is only 11” tall (28 cm)—arrived in Mexico ten years before the arrival of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She was the first. It was she who paved the way. Now she is the second most revered statue of Our Lady in the country, second only to the highly revered, and beloved Our Lady of Guadalupe.
P.S. Have you ever seen a more endearing image of Our Lady? So youthful and full of sweetness and goodness! The highlight of a visit to Los Remedios is a visit to the marble-walled dressing-room of the Virgin which is situated behind the main altar. After ascending a small staircase, one comes nearly face-to-face with the statue of Los Remedios. Here is an image of Our Lady which has lived through 500 years of Mexican history! And the expression on her lovely face is one which is hard to forget—a moving experience. Beyond words. The photo shown directly below is the actual statue of Our Lady which was brought from Spain over five centuries ago. It is the same statue which presides over the main altar of the church.
Today, Sept. 29, is the feast of the Guardian Angels, Michael, Raphael and Gabriel. And in a few days time, on October 2, we celebrate the feast of the Guardian Angels. Thus, it is the perfect time to talk about two miraculous paintings in Mexico which feature angels and—Our Lady!
The most recognized in the country is that of Our Lady of the Most Holy Light in Leon, Guanajuato, which dates back to 1722 in Palermo, Sicily. And associated with this history is the famous date: June 18, 1876. It is a date no one can forget in this bustling city in central Mexico.
On that day, the Cathedral in Leon was packed for the 11 AM Mass. Without warning a tremendous C-R-A-C-K reverberated through the entire church. An enormous block of concrete, “the keystone of the main arch,” fell into the centre aisle of the cathedral. All in the pews gasped in horror feeling that death was staring them in the face. All held their breath—
At this moment in time, the bishop, Bishop Diez de Sollano, strode over to the centre aisle with unfathomable courage and aplomb. He prayed to Our Lady of the Most Holy Light (whose image reposes over the main altar of the cathedral): “O Most Holy Mother of the Light, please spare your people!” And spare her people she did. Not a single person in the church was hurt or injured in any way. They are still talking about it in Leon to this day!
You might well ask: “Who, precisely, is this Most Holy Mother of Light?” She is pictured in the photo below. It is a renowned image of Our Lady and is known throughout the country of Mexico. And she has the most remarkable history—
It all began in Sicily, Italy with Jesuit missionary priest, Father Giovanni Antonio Genovesi, who was born in 1684. He longed to bring people to the faith but he was getting discouraged. So few people were converting! “I need a special image of Our Lady to carry with me!” he thought. “She will bring all to her Son!” “But where to find such an image?”
He then remembered that a holy nun nearby, in the city of Palermo, was having visitations from Our Lady. “I will ask her to ask Our Lady, herself!” he said. The nun agreed that this was an excellent idea and proceeded to ask Our Lady at the time of her next appearance.
Shortly after this request, Our Lady appeared to the nun in a “splendour of light” surrounded by a courtege of angels. In one hand Our Lady was snatching a sinner from the depths of hell and in the other she was holding the Divine Infant. The Infant was blessing human hearts which were in a basket held by an angel.
Our Lady then said: “This is the image that I want painted.” Father Genovesi immediately commissioned the finest artist in the area to carry out Our Lady’s requests. Try as he might, however, the artist was not able to convey the image desired by Our Lady. “No, it is not what I want!” she declared. Our Lady then said to the nun, “I, myself (although unseen) will come to his studio and I will guide his paintbrush. When it is completed all will know by its more than human beauty that a greater and higher art have arranged the composition and laid the colour.” The resultant painting astonished all onlookers by its beauty.
From then on Father Genovesi carried the small painting with him on his missionary journeys and was astonished at the conversions.
In 1732 it was sent to Mexico to the cathedral in Leon, Guanajuato, amid “great rejoicing.” The painting was crowned with the authorization of Pope Leo XIII in 1902. She became the Patrona of the city and of the diocese of Leon when it was established in 1872.
A SECOND famous painting (the main photo of this article) of Our Lady and the angels can be found in the historical centre of Mexico City in the church of Our Lady of the Angels. She too has a remarkable history—
In the year 1580 unprecedented rains flooded the valley of Mexico. Streets became rivers and homes were swept away.” Flotsam, treasures, tree branches and all manner of belongings were swept away in the flood.
One of these treasures was a magnificent painting of Our Lady in which she is surrounded by baby angels. This painting was left exposed to the elements for over 200 years in an adobe chapel whose walls had been washed away by the floods. In 1747 Don Pedro Navaro made an astonishing discovery: He removed the grass mats and boards which had been covering the painting and noticed that the painting was undamaged! “It was radiant with beauty!” In 1776 the miraculous painting was moved to its own Jesuit-run church, Our Lady of the Angels, where she resides above the main altar of the church to this day.
The large canvas painting is over 500 years old and is in pristine condition. “The face and hands have not been re-touched in the slightest.” As one author says, “The visitor to the shrine of Our Lady of the Angels must be convinced that a special Providence watches over the image.”
She is known for her miraculous favours. It has been said of her by a church historian: “To recount the miracles worked through her intercession would require a volume in itself.”
On Oct. 28, 1923, Our Lady of the Angels was pontifically crowned with the authorization of Pope Pius XI.
“Thus crowned, she triumphs forever,” he said.
Guanajuato is one of those places that travel writers rave about. They use words like “gorgeous” and “enchanting” and “colonial gem” to describe it. And—they are right! It is no wonder that it is one of the most visited sites in the country and that it has been declared a historical heritage site by UNESCO. As one writer says, “It is one of Mexico’s most handsome cities.” It is also home to the prestigious University of Guanajuato whose 20,000 students give the city a vibrant and cheery atmosphere. Pope Benedict visited the city in 2012.
In the 1500’s “massive veins of silver” were discovered in the area, and, for 200 years, the city became one of the wealthiest in the country, supplying up to 40% of the world’s silver from its mines. Its greatest treasure, however is not its wealth or its scenic beauty or its colonial architecture. It is something far different: It is the statue of Our Lady of Guanajuato, the city’s patroness, which resides above the main altar in the magnificent Basilica named in her honour. This image is reputed to be the most ancient religious image in the Western hemisphere! It is over 800 years old and has the most fascinating history—.
This statue of Our Lady of Guanajuato has a special significance for the times we are living in now. It all happened like this—
Since 1557 it has been the centre of devotion for the citizens of Guanajuato. Tradition relates that it was known in the city of Santa Fe, in Granada, Spain as early as 650. During the catastrophic invasion of Spain by the Moors in 714, devout Christians hid the image in a cave, fearing that it would be desecrated by the invaders. It would remain hidden for eight and a half centuries.
But one must ask: how did it end up in Guanajuato, Mexico, a continent away? After the providential re-discovery of the lost image, it came under the sponsorship of King Philip ll of Spain. He, in turn, gave it to the city of Guanajuato as a gift, most likely in gratitude for the flow of wealth that poured into his royal coffers from the silver mines.
The statue remains miraculously preserved to the present day; it is in pristine condition. According to historians, “It is amazing that the image was not completely destroyed by the dampness and lack of ventilation.” The stately image is 46” in height (1.15 m.) and is carved out of a single piece of wood. Our Lady is depicted holding the Child Jesus in her left arm.
Upon its arrival in the city it was first placed in the chapel connected with the hospital of the Aztec Indians where it remained for eight years. In 1565 the statue was then moved to the chapel in the Tarascan Indians’ hospital where it remained for the next 131 years. In 1696 the Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato was completed and the statue was placed over the main altar where it can be seen to the present day.
In 1908 a sublime honour was granted to Our Lady of Guanajuato: In May of that year the solemn Pontifical Coronation of Our Lady of Guanajuato took place with the official authorization of Pope Pius X. Such an honour was granted by the pope because of three elements: 1. The great antiquity of the image. 2. The numerous miracles attributed to her intercession and 3. The deep and widespread devotion of the citizens to Our Lady of Guanajuato.
In this year of 2022, at a time of unprecedented and widespread drought in the world, one notes with awe and wonder—Our Lady of Guanajuato’s special predeliction: she is particularly invoked in times of DROUGHT!
Extraordinary are the cases on record in Guanajuato of “plentiful rain” following processions with “the sacred image.” Historians have recorded the phenomenon on three noteworthy occasions: “Each time, while the procession was going through the streets, rain began to fall in such abundance that the image had to be taken hastily into the nearest church.” It seems that Our Lady of Guanajuato is meant to play a special role in our time!
In these perilous times let us remember the words of Pope Benedict as he was leaving the Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato and heading for the airport:
“Adios, mis amigos! Remain with God and may Mary Most Holy protect you all!”
The year was 1632. Padre Nicolas de Zamora was heartsick. Disconsolate. He was the pastor of the parish of El Pueblito, a small hamlet 6 miles north of the city of Querataro in central Mexico.
The city of Queretaro was founded by the Otomi Indians in 1446 but became absorbed by the Aztec Empire a few years later, in the 15th century. It was conquered by the Spanish in 1531 and became the headquarters for the Franciscan friars who would eventually establish missions, not only in central Mexico but in northern Mexico and in the southwestern United States as well. The Franciscans were the first evangelizers in the New World following the conquest by Hernan Cortez in 1521.
But one must ask: why was Padre Nicolas so unhappy? Why was he so downhearted? The reason is this: Padre Zamora was on fire for God! He was full of zeal for the faith and longed to bring all to know the love of the Lord but he met only with resistance from the inhabitants of El Pueblito. So few asked for Baptism! And of those who did, a sizeable majority reverted to their pagan practices as soon as he left the premises, even though he had taught them the truths of the faith.
They had built shrines to their pagan idols on a hilltop near the pueblo known as San Francisco Galileo. At night they would proceed up the hill to adorn their idols and practice their rituals. The fervent priest prayed fervently for their conversion but found it seemingly impossible to uproot their pagan worship.
The pastor’s friend, gifted sculptor and Franciscan friar, Fray Sebastian Gallegos, was aware of the situation. The friar lived at the great Franciscan convent in Queretaro and had his workshop in the cloister. Sculpting religious images was his passion! Particularly, images of Our Lady, for whom he had a deep and child-like devotion. He knew what he must do: He would make a statue of Our Lady for Padre de Zamora. She would bring everyone to her Son! He set to work in his studio—
Fray de Zamora was enchanted with the image. “It robs the heart!” he said. The two Franciscans decided to place the image in the open air, facing the hill of the prehispanic pyramid, the site of all the idol worship.
And what was the result of this endeavour? As historians related: According to tradition, “The effect was remarkable! The Indians came in groups to see the small altar erected by Padre de Zamora. They gazed upon the delicate features of the sacred image, and, burst spontaneously into songs of praise.” They came in ever-increasing numbers and conversions were numerous. “She won their hearts!” said Padre de Zamora. The image from this time forward became known as Our Lady of Pueblito.
What was it that so attracted the new converts to this image of Our Lady? Perhaps like the love of the Aztecs for the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, it may have been the maternal expression on Our Lady of Pueblito’s face, “so tender, and yet so regal” reported one historian. She “has the softness of the Maiden and the majesty of the Queen,” described another.
She is accompanied by her Divine Infant Son; contrary to expectation, however, He is not cradled in her arms. No! Instead, He stands at her side, on a column, “like the Lord of creation that He is.” He is holding a small globe in His left hand and is blessing the people with his right. A statue of St. Francis of Assisi serves as the pedestal for the Mother and Child. He is shown holding three globes which represent the three Franciscan Orders. These two statues were added at a later date.
According to Father Joseph Cassidy, author of Mexico: The Land of Mary’s Wonders, “the devotion of the people of Queretaro to Our Lady of Pueblito almost surpasses belief.” Three times a year she is carried in procession to the capital and in times of calamity as well, especially in times of drought, plagues and famines. At these times, thousands of people line the roads along the route to honour Our Lady.
She is very generous in bestowing her favours. “Many are the well-authenticated cures and favors attributed to her sovereign intercession” says Padre Francisco de Florencia in his “monumental” work, Zodiaco Mariano.
In 1875 Our Lady of Pueblito was declared Patroness of the diocese of Queretaro and in 1946 she had the distinctive honour of being pontifically crowned with the solemn authorization of Pope Pius Xll. 50,000 people witnessed the event with “great joy.” In the same year she was proclaimed Reina y Madre of the state of Queretaro.
How Queretaro loves its Virgin! She has had countless books, novenas and booklets written in her honour and 20 musical works composed, including an opera in four acts. It was written to commemorate the coronation and is named “The Offering.”
The statue remained in its original primitive abode for 82 years. In 1714 the Franciscans constructed a small adobe chapel where it resided for the next 22 years. The present Franciscan church was built in 1766 in the same location as the original chapel. The Franciscan convent, next door to the church, was built in 1775. A hydraulic lift was installed in 1997 so that the statue could be raised and lowered electronically.
In 2007 I visited the shrine of El Pueblito, unaware that it was the year of the 375th anniversary, giving the word “serendipity” a whole new depth of meaning!
The whole town was decked out for the occasion: marigolds, morning glories, giant dahlias and bougainvillea flowers, all in spectacular hues, abounded. Everywhere. Marching bands, white-veiled schoolgirls and Mexican ladies dressed in traditional huipil dresses accompanied Our Lady of Pueblito in her procession through the hamlet.
While at the shrine I had occasion to glimpse the small statue (it’s only 16” in height) first hand. It is really something this statue. I can understand why those early Otomi Indians were so moved. J. Guadalupe Ramirez in his Echoes of the Coronation of Santa Maria del Pueblito speaks of the image: “It is a true transcript of the Mother in Heaven,” he says, showing “a heart full of mercy and goodness.”
I can attest to this. It is not a beautiful image of Our Lady, nor is it pretty in any conventional sense. Whereas Our Lady of Guadalupe SAYS the actual words, the most consoling words of all time: “I am your Mother. What do you need?” Our Lady of Pueblito says not a word. But she doesn’t have to. Thanks to the genius of sculptor Fray Gallegos her facial expression conveys this same message. I know. I experienced it. Just as did those Otomi Indians over 300 years ago. The message is unmistakeable: “I am your Mother. What do you need?”
As Fray de Zamora says of the statue: “It robs the heart!”
This article was reprinted with permission from ONE PETER FIVE
The Franciscan presence in Mexico is enormous. Visit any city or town in the country and you are sure to see a Franciscan monastery; in many cases these are massive edifices which are pretty hard to miss. The one in Izamal, Yucatan, for example, is so imposing that it dominates the entire town. Its atrium is reported to be the second largest in the world, second only to St. Peter’s in Rome.
These monasteries represent the first wave of the evangelization of Mexico which took place after the conquest of the Aztecs by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez in 1521. The first missionaries to arrive in the country were the Franciscans. In 1524 the legendary twelve friars arrived; they were popularly known as “The Twelve Apostles.” Their arrival marked the beginning of the Christianization of the once-pagan country.
The second wave began in the 18th century. The central figure in this wave is the Spanish friar, Junipero Serra. This will come as a surprise to many. You might well ask, “Isn’t Fr. Serra the Apostle of California?” That he is. But one little-known fact about Fr. Serra’s life is that he spent twenty years in Mexico before he arrived in Mexico.
In any biography of Fr. Serra, the reader will come across references to the College of San Fernando in Mexico City. San Fernando was one of three Apostolic Colleges founded by the Franciscans in Mexico for the propogation of the faith in mission lands. They were essentially training centres for the formation of an elite corps of missionaries and were meant to restore the spiritual fervour of former times. They were built on the grand scale—the College of San Fernando, for example, housed 114 friars in 1772. It was the last of the three to be founded and was built in 1734. This college would become Fr. Serra’s main base while he was in Mexico.
Junipero was born in Majorca, Spain on Nov. 24, 1713. He entered the Franciscan Order at Palma, the island’s capital, in 1730, and took the name of Junipero (after one of St. Francis’ first companions). Seven years later he was ordained. During his novitiate he devoured books on the lives of the saints; this reading “inflamed his heart with love and zeal for souls.” “Like another Ignatius of Loyola,” said his biographer, Fr. Francisco Palou.
Serra was a brilliant student and became a professor of philosophy after completing his doctorate in Theology. According to his biographer he also excelled as “a sacred orator.” Numerous were the conversions of those who attended his Lenten sermons! Despite his exemplary success both as a professor and an orator he had only one ambition: to preach the gospel to the pagan nations and to bring them to the knowledge of Christ. Thus, when the missionary call came, he leaped at the opportunity. He was more than ready! His Father Guardian in Majorca, however, was not. When it came time for Fray Junipero’s departure, the Guardian “was weeping so that he could not speak a word.” Such was Junipero’s effect on those around him!
In 1749, Fr. Junipero, Fr. Juan Crespi and Fr. Francisco Palou (his former student and future biographer) set sail for Mexico. What a voyage it was! During the early stage of this 99-day Atlantic crossing, the captain of the ship, “a fanatical and narrow-minded heretic” was so filled with rage toward Junipero that he tried to kill him, holding a knife to his throat! He managed to escape but the trio kept careful watch for the duration of the trip. Privations of every kind abounded: Starvation, hunger and horrible discomforts. His friend Palou said that “Fr. Junipero seemed unmoved and bore all these trials with great calmness.” On top of everything else a fierce storm engulfed the ship two days before their arrival in Mexico. Shipwreck was imminent. The storm raged so fiercely that all prepared for death. “To increase the danger, during that same stormy night, the sailors became mutinous,” said Palou. “Junipero, though surrounded by perils stood intrepid.”
Within two days, however, the storm abated and the ship landed on North American shores at the harbour of Vera Cruz, Mexico. It was December 7, the vigil of the Immaculate Conception. Junipero decided to walk to Mexico City in imitation of his founder, St. Francis. A distance of 275 miles over four mountain ranges. Walking would become his preferred mode of transportation in the new country. During this trek he sustained a wound in his leg from which he would never entirely recover.
On the last day of 1749, Fr. Junipero—who had a great devotion to Our Lady—arrived, exhausted, at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. There he would spend the night in prayer “giving thanks to God and His Blessed Mother for having brought them to safety to their journey’s end.” On this night he would dedicate all of his future missionary endeavours to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
On New Year’s Day, 1750, the 36-year-old Junipero and his companion arrived at the College of San Fernando, the place which would be his home in Mexico for the next few months and for nine years (from 1758 to 1767). There he was greeted with open arms by one of the College’s founders: “Would to God they would send us a forest of such Junipers!” he exclaimed.
Fray Junipero would spend only five months training at the College instead of the requisite 12 months. He was needed immediately in the missions of the Sierra Gorda, a rugged, mountainous region north of Mexico City. He would spend the next eight years with the Pame Indians of the Sierra Gorda, a nomadic people who had resisted the evangelizing efforts of the Spanish missionaries for 200 years. All this would change with the arrival of Fray Junipero.
Soon after his arrival he learned the Otomi language and began translating the catechism into the native language. With his flair for the dramatic the creative friar arranged colourful pageants and plays. Pame children acted as angels in the Christmas liturgies. The tiniest Pame became the Christ child. And processions abounded! Every Saturday night there were candelight processions through the villages to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary. “He won the hearts of them all!” reported Palou.
He subsequently founded five “magnificent” mission churches which have been recently declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003. The facades of these churches, known as “sermons in stucco and stone” are celebrated for their extraordinary carved facades which combine Christian symbolism with superb indigenous motifs and craftsmanship. Considered unique in the world, they are considered by many to be artistic masterpieces.
The friars worked alongside the Pames in the construction of these churches. One day Junipero’s spiritual Father from the College came to pay a visit. He was astonished to see the slight Junipero lifting heavy beams with the construction crew. “Your former professor—doing construction work?” he asked Fray Palou. “Oh, yes! It happens all the time!” quipped Palou.
The five churches, all “baroque gems,” display standard Franciscan images such as the crossed arms of the crucified Christ and St. Francis bearing the stigmata. Each church has its own theme which is displayed on its façade: The sumptuous church at Tilaco, for example, is dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. A statue of the hooded saint, surrounded by angels, is situated above the main entrance.
At Conca, the church built in honour of the Archangel St. Michael, we see the saint chastising a chained demon. The church of Our Lady of Light, built at Tancoyol, displays a charming statue of St. Anne and her small daughter, Mary, on its façade.
The mission church at Landa, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, is the most ornate of the five churches. Here we see carvings of John Duns Scotus and the mystic nun, Blessed Mary Agreda, both at their writing desks. Both were staunch advocates of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The church at Jalpan, dedicated to St. James, is the largest of the five. It would be Junipero’s headquarters while he was in the Sierra Gorda.
A plaque in the museum at Jalpan reveals his final words to the Pames at Sierra Gorda: “I leave you with nothing, but I leave you with a great treasure, the faith.” As biographer Abigail Fitch said, “His religion was the one great passion of his life! His religion was alive! It was a glowing spark burning in the depths of his soul.”
According to Fitch “he was indefatigable in temporal affairs as well as spiritual matters. Under his administration the mission became not only self-supporting but extremely prosperous.” Fr. Palou concurs: By the end of Fr. Serra’s tenure, “the granaries were filled and the missions were in a most flourishing condition.”
In 1758 he was recalled to the College of San Fernando where he spent the next nine years in administrative works and giving missions throughout the country.
In 1769, the 56-year-old Junipero received his next assignment: He would be heading north. And the history of California would be changed forever.
Fr. Serra was canonized in 2015.
This article is re-printed with permission from One Peter Five.
Do you love history?
If so, the city of Cuernavaca, about 100 km (64 miles) south of Mexico City, is a must-see. It is filled with history!
For centuries the affluent have built luxurious villas here, attracted by the benign climate and the ever-present flowers which seem to be always in bloom! It continues to the present day to be a popular weekend get-away for residents of Mexico City. Adding to its appeal: On a clear day the magnificent volcano Popocatepetl dominates the landscape!
The conquistador, Hernan Cortez, arrived in Cuernavaca in 1521 and made it his home until 1540 when he returned to Spain.
It was in this city that Cortez built the first sugar mill in the Americas, in 1535. Not only did he build a church, and a sugar mill, he also built a palace! Tourists in the city can still visit the Palacio Cortez which he constructed in 1531. It is absolutely monumental in size and is situated close to the zocalo (the central plaza of the town).
Cortez built a church dedicated to St. Joseph in 1523 in the outskirts of the city, in an area called Tlaltenango. It is reputed to be the oldest church in the country. Within a few years the church had become too small to accommodate the growing population of sugar workers and their families. Cortes then built a second larger church, beside the original one. It is this second church which houses the miraculous image of Our Lady of the Miracles. She has a fascinating history. Here is her story—
In 1720 two young men were travelling to Cuernavaca from Acapulco. They stayed for the night at the posada (small inn) of Dona Agustina in Tlatltenango. Being most handsome and genteel they “created something of a sensation in the pueblo”! The next day before departing they asked Dona Agustina if they could leave a large wooden box in the room, promising to pick it up on their return. She happily obliged.
Two months later the pair had still not returned to claim their property! A while later Dona Agustina noticed something peculiar. Very peculiar indeed. One night she heard music, “heavenly” music, streaming from the room. Becoming alarmed, she roused her family. She didn’t want to investigate the odd happenings by herself! The entire family accompanied her to the room. More surprises were in store! Not only did they hear the music, they also saw lights radiating from the box. And they were mystified by an “exotic perfume” which surrounded the box.
On August 30, Dona Augustina travelled to Cuernavaca to inform the civic and the ecclesiastical authorities of the mysterious occurrences. She first went to see Fray Pedro Arana, who was the pastor of the Church of the Assumption (now the Cathedral of the city) and the Guardian of the Franciscan Convent. Next she went to see the mayor of the city at the Palacio.
Both agreed to come to the posada that very evening to investigate the extraordinary incidents. Upon entering the room they ordered that all lights be extinguished. Soft rays of light began pouring forth from the box! When the perplexed friar pried open the box all were astonished to discover in its depths an elegant statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She was sumptuously attired in a red and blue tunic. The amazed onlookers promptly bore the statue in procession to the ancient church of St. Joseph, where she resides to the present day.
Over the years the statue has acquired a new title: She is now known as OUR LADY OF THE MIRACLES (Nuestra Senora de Los Milagros) because of the many prodigies and healings she has worked for her devotees. One of her particular graces is the granting of a safe delivery to expectant mothers. Multitudes of ex-votos (testimonials of gratitude) in the sanctuary give witness to the providential care of Our Lady of the Miracles.
On Dec. 8, 1954, the most Reverend Sergio Mendez Arceo, the seventh Bishop of Cuernavaca, adorned the metre-high statue of Our Lady of the Miracles with a magnificent gold crown. And declared her as the Queen and official Patroness of the city and diocese of Cuernavaca.
Every September 8, her feastday, crowds come from all parts of Morelos to pay her homage.
“Many are the graces which the Virgin works!” they say—to the present day. Beautiful murals which adorn the facade of the church display its history of devotion to the Christian faith and its love for Our Lady of the Miracles.
Any aficionado of Mexican travel books, guides or magazines would recognize this church. It is iconic! And is probably the most photographed church in the country with its glorious and dramatic backdrop of the snow-capped volcano, Popocatepetl, in the distance.
The church of Los Remedios (Our Lady of the Remedies), home to the diminutive (27 cm) statue of Our Lady of the Remedies, was built by the Spanish in 1594 and was finished in 1666.
The 1521 Conquest of Mexico by Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortez, opened the way for the introduction of Christianity into the Aztec nation. Within a few years of the Guadalupe apparition to Juan Diego in 1531, “an explosion” of Catholic churches, monasteries, convents and schools “sprang up all over” the once-pagan country. Los Remedios was part of this “explosion.”
It is believed that the statue of Los Remedios in this church was one of an original group of statues of Our Lady which had been brought over from Spain by Hernan Cortez and accompanied him and his soldiers in the battle at Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City). They attributed their victory to the intercession and protection of Our Lady.
At the dawn of the 16th century Cholula “was one of ancient Mexico’s major religious centers” and was a powerful and commercial centre under the domination of the Aztecs. Hundreds of pagan temples once dominated the landscape of the city. Today the tourist can visit the Great Pyramid, Tepanapa, atop of which is found the Church of Los Remedios! This mammoth pyramid is considered the second largest pyramid in the world and was built over a 1,000 year period (roughly between 300 BC to AD 700). After the Spanish Conquest all of these temples were replaced by Christian churches.
Although the pyramid now resembles an overgrown leafy hill, one can imagine its origins as one ascends the steep staircase to the church. Those very steps which once led to the sacrificial summit of the pyramid.
The church of Los Remedios has been severely damaged by earthquakes: one on Oct. 3, 1864, almost totally destroyed the church’s structure. Over a ten year period, it was totally renovated. Yet another earthquake struck Cholula on June 15, 1999 and destroyed about 80% of its infra-structure.
Today the vividly-painted church has been beautifully renovated in the neo-classical style and is in pristine condition. Tourists marvel at the church’s dome which is adorned with Talavera tile, the signature Puebla tile which is famous throughout the world.
September 8th is the feastday of Our Lady of the Remedies. Crowds flock to the church to venerate Cholula’s most beloved image.
Pilgrims to the church are thrilled not only by the 500-year-old statue of Our Lady, but by the panoramic view of Puebla from the church’s platform. And on a clear day you can see—the glorious volcano, Popocatepetl.
“Popo” as it is known affectionately by the locals is an active volcano unlike its “slumbering companion” Iztaccihuatl, which has long been dormant and is lacking a crater. At its height of 17,802 ft. (5,426 m.) Popo is one of the highest mountains in Mexico. It has erupted at least 36 times. In 1993 it began to “rumble and quake” and spewed out “explosions of gas, ash and rocks.” It was so dangerous that 25,000 people in the vicinity had to be evacuated.
One of the great thrills of my life was to see Popo, spewing ash from it clearly visible crater! What a beautiful sight! And one I will not soon forget. My photo of this once-in-a-lifetime experience is shown below. A fitting background for the wondrous image of Our Lady of the Remedies, one of the most photographed churches in the country.
On September 19, 1985, a catastrophic earthquake struck Mexico City. It caused severe loss of life and injury and extensive damage to buildings and infrastructure. The historical centre of the city was hardest hit. At least 10,000 people died and 412 buildings collapsed; another 3,124 were seriously damaged.
One of these buildings was the Basilica of St. Jose and Nuestra Senora del Sagrado Corazon, one of the first parishes in New Spain. It was founded by the legendary and beloved Fray Pedro de Gante in the 16th century, immediately after the Conquest of Mexico by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez in 1521. It was named in honour of St. Joseph. It has been claimed that the first Confirmations in the country were celebrated in this church.
The Basilica is home to the exquisite painting of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart which originated from Issoudun, France. Her title is Abogada de las Causas Dificiles y Desesperadas, Protector of Difficult and Desperate Cases. You might have heard that the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is revered everywhere in Mexico. That is true! But the image of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart seems to be running a close second. You can find this painting in countless churches throughout the country. It actually is the third most revered devotion in Mexico, after Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The “sweet and miraculous” image of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart was first placed in the church in 1854. Four years later an earthquake struck, in 1858, which did extensive damage to the church. Within three years, however, it was restored.
The image of Our Lady was placed in a discrete place in the church entrance. Soon, however, in a “surprising way” a great fervour awoke among the faithful toward the image. “It grew day by day.” This devotion increased in such a notable manner that, with the passing of time, it became the principal devotion of the parishioners, even eclipsing that of St. Joseph. Soon, this devotion extended to the whole country. Because of all the miracles attributed to her intercession she became known as “The Helper of the Most Desperate Cases.” Thousands of testimonials in the sanctuary attest to her powerful powers of protection.
The miraculous nature of the painting has been affirmed at the highest levels of the church: The painting was solemnly blessed by the Archbishop of Mexico, Ruiz de Flores in 1940. A few years later, in September 1948, the image received a most singular and rare distinction: it was crowned by Pope Pius XII in a “most emotional” and stirring ceremony in the Metropolitan Cathedral by the notable Archbishop of Mexico, Luis Martinez.
After the devastating earthquake of 1985, the church was left in such deplorable shape that all thought that the church would have to be closed. But, no! Thanks to the generosity of the parishioners—and their devotion to Our Lady of The Sacred Heart—the reconstruction was finished in record time. The work on the new, classically-styled church was concluded in May of 1992.
Months later, on Jan. 15, 1993, Pope St. John Paul II raised the parish of St. Joseph and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart to the status of a Minor Basilica. At this time he said these words about Our Lady of the Sacred Heart:
“In the city of Mexico, in the parish of St. Joseph and the Sacred Heart of Mary, is venerated piously, a gracious image of the Mother of God.” An image which now can be found in more than half of the churches in the country.