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.
August 13, 1807, was a night to remember in the Dominican convent of Jesus Maria in Guadalajara, the second largest city in Mexico. The church of Jesus Maria is a five minute walk from the mammoth Guadalajara Cathedral and the zocalo (the central plaza of the city). Guadalajara is in the western part of the country in the state of Jalisco. The elegant city boasts of an ideal climate and is popular with many Americans and Canadian tourists.
At 2:30 in the morning a violent thunderstorm erupted. This was a common occurrence in the “rainy season” in this area of Mexico, during the months from July to October. Since 1792 the nuns had lived in the convent peacefully and uneventfully. This was all to change.
While the nuns were asleep in their quarters on this fateful night, the storm raged in full force. Thunder rolled and crackled all around the sky; rain pounded at the windows. A tremendous crash shook the convent to its foundations, waking everyone.
In the dormitory lightning had hit the statue of Our Lady! Smoke filled the room and the smell of burning wood was everywhere—the convent was on fire! The terrified nuns fled for their lives.
Once the fire was safely extinguished the nuns returned to the convent to assess the damage. A sad sight met their eyes: the statue of Mary was damaged beyond repair. Its crystal eyes had been shattered and its face had been blackened. The pearl rosary which encircled the image was now black and twisted.
The Infant Jesus in His mother’s arms, however, was completely unscathed as were the two paintings hanging on the wall on either side of the statue, that of St. Dominic and the other of the Most Holy Trinity. One of the nuns who was sleeping inches away from the statue, escaped unharmed, as did all the rest of the nuns in the dormitory.
A Mass of Thanksgiving was offered the next day in immense gratitude to Our Lady for her protection. This was, after all, an order of nuns, devoted to Our Lady! The statue of Our Lady was relegated to a place of honour in the convent chapel.
This is not the end of the story, however.
Five days later, on August 18, 1807, two workmen and some of the nuns were in the chapel in the middle of the afternoon. Without warning, the chapel turned as black as night. Another storm was on its way.
Before the startled eyes of the onlookers, the statue of Mary began to shine with an intense, “unearthly” glow. The occupants of the chapel were stupefied. Petrified. They wanted to bolt from the room but found themselves unable to move. Mesmerized, they all stood as if “turned to stone,” their eyes riveted on the image. It was at this time that the prioress and the rest of the nuns entered the chapel for Vespers. One can only imagine their surprise!
In the next moments a loud clap of thunder roared through the chapel, followed by an “extraordinary” flash of lightning. The entire chapel became illuminated by an unusual, brilliant light. The drama was just beginning. The lighting struck the statue once again!
Several times the statue changed colour, from rosy pink to white, then back again. Eventually, after a few minutes it resumed its normal colour. As if this were not enough, the eyes which had been shattered, opened up and became as bright as diamonds.
The blackened features of Our Lady’s face transformed into a rosy-peach colour; in fact, the entire statue looked more beautiful than it had originally! The Rosary which had become blackened and distorted by the first lightning strike, became perfectly restored by the second.
These events were verified by an official investigation conducted by the chaplain of the Church of Jesus Maria, Don Manuel Cervino, and the future bishop of the state of Michoacan, Don Jose Maria Gomez y Villasenor. Devotion to Our Lady of the Thunderbolt grew exponentially as the events of August 18th became public.
She became known for her healing powers of intercession. One of the many miracles of healing attributed to her was the healing of a young nun from the convent. At the age of 22, Cecilia de San Cayetano had become ill with a fever which left her spine paralyzed. For eight years she received treatment from the finest doctors in the city.
In August of 1850 her personal physician said to her: “I am so sorry but I can do absolutely nothing more to help you.” She could no longer walk and was in constant pain. On December 17, 1850, she experienced an irresistible urge to visit Our Lady of the Thunderbolt in the chapel. With the aid of the subprioress, she navigated her agonizing way to the feet of Our Lady’s statue where she slumped down almost unconscious.
A sense of despondency overwhelmed her. Only later did she confess that she had suffered the most sorrowful depression during the years of her illness. She said her only consolation was “to place her afflicted heart in the hands of the most Holy Virgin at the foot of the cross.”
On this December day she prayed: “Oh, restore my health, Good Mother, for if I continue like this I fear for my salvation.”
Within minutes, she was walking! She walked unaided back to her room for the first time in eight years. Two astonished nuns followed behind her. Not only was she walking, she was soon taking two steps at a time to the convent refectory. “Watch me, sisters! Who would ever believe it is I?” She lived another 20 years in perfect health.
Another notable cure was that of Dona Micaela Contreras who was healed instantly on September 17, 1856, after suffering from paralysis for 32 years.
Our Lady of the Thunderbolt has received approval from the Church at the highest levels. She was pontifically crowned (a singular distinction granted to few statues) with the authorization of Pope Pius XII in 1940, in the Cathedral of Guadalajara. The sixth Archbishop of the city, Don Jose Garibi Rivera, acted as the Papal delegate.
The majestic statue is 41” high and the eyes have a slight downward cast. She is carrying the Infant Jesus in her left arm. Both Mother and Child are dressed in elaborately adorned vestments and gold crowns studded with precious gems and pearls. The exquisite miraculous statue can be viewed in the Church of Jesus Maria today. She is greatly loved in Guadalajara and countless testimonials in the sanctuary give witness to her powerful intercession. She has two additional titles: Advocate for those without work, and those with urgent needs. It seems that her intercession is needed for these times more than ever!
The shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is one of the great Marian shrines in the world and is visited by as many as 20 million pilgrims a year. The enormous basilica has the capacity to hold 10,000 pilgrims at one time. What attracts all these worshippers to the shrine? The come to view the tilma (cloak) of St. Juan Diego which bears the miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin, the only truly authentic portrait of Our Lady in existence.
The story began on Dec. 9, 1531, as Juan Diego, a newly baptized Aztec Indian was on his way to morning Mass. When he arrived at Tepeyac Hill, Our Lady appeared to him—much to his astonishment—with a message of joy and hope, offering all her love, compassion and mercy! She also asked that a church be built on the site, formerly the location of a temple honouring the Aztec goddess of earth and corn.
Not surprisingly, the Bishop of the area, Bishop Zumarraga, was skeptical when told of this revelation. Secretly, and unbeknown to Juan Diego, the bishop had been praying fervently to the Blessed Virgin Mary for an urgent intention. He had asked for an impossible sign— that Castilian roses be sent to him as a sign of her intercession. The fact of the matter, however, is that Castilian roses were unknown in Mexico at that time. To make the matter even more difficult, roses of any kind could not grow in Mexico City at this time of year!
Juan Diego was also begging Our Lady for a sign: to prove the authenticity of the apparitions! In his next apparition, Our Lady told him to pick some Castilian roses from the hillside and present them to the bishop. Imagine, then, the stupendous surprise of the bishop when Juan Diego uncovered his cloak which was holding the miraculous Castilian roses! And there was another incredible miracle: there on the cloak was emblazoned an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary exactly as she appeared to Juan Diego. She appeared as an Aztec maiden.
It was this image which not only attracted millions of devoted pilgrims over the centuries, but was also the catalyst for the conversion of nine million Aztec Indians within a decade. This was at the same time that the Catholic Church in Europe was losing five million Catholics to the Protestant Reformation.
The fact that the image is still intact and visible to us after four centuries is an outstanding marvel in itself. The tilma, an outer garment worn by the Aztecs of Juan Diego’s time, is made of the delicate Ayate fibres which originate from the Maguay cactus plant, whose normal lifespan is 20 years. Furthermore, it shows not the slightest indication of decay or colour fading.
Scientific investigations have continued to amaze many, believers and unbelievers alike. Richard Kuhn, German Nobel prize winner in chemistry in 1936 discovered that there was no colouring of any kind in the image’s fibres. The materials used to produce the existing “colours” were unknown to science, being of neither animal, vegetable or mineral origin.
Advanced computerized technology in ophthalmology has revealed more marvellous findings: photographic studies of Our Lady’s eyes, under intense magnification, demonstrated the reflection of the 12 people who were present in the bishop’s room at the time of the miracle.
In 1979 modern scientific research conducted at the University of Florida, utilizing infra-red photography, revealed some startling results, findings which defied science: the scientists were simply mystified by the brightness of the colours (seemingly impervious to fading) and the complete absence of any surface cracking after 400 years. Professor Callahan from the University of Florida summarized his results: “It may seem strange for a scientist to admit this but as far as I’m concerned, the original picture is a miracle.”
It seems that not only is Mary’s image being miraculously preserved, but through modern science and computer technology, our appreciation of the miraculous event that happened over 4 centuries ago is being ever more enhanced!
This article is the first article I wrote on Our Lady of Guadalulpe and is re-printed with permission from THE CATHOLIC REGISTER.
Father Miguel Pro could have said “No.” His Jesuit superior ordered him back to Mexico for his health. After three unsuccessful stomach operations the superior thought that a return to his homeland would aid in his recovery. It is likely that the Superior was not aware of the perilous state of the country at that time, particularly for a Catholic priest. Father Pro, however, had no such illusions. He knew exactly what he would be facing. He had been in Europe for eleven years as it was considered too dangerous for him to continue his seminary training in his beleaguered homeland. He completed his theological education in Spain and Belgium and was ordained in 1925. He returned to Mexico in 1926.
Miguel was born on Jan. 13, 1891 in the mining town of Guadalupe, Zacatecas where his father was a mining engineer. He was the third of seven children. The high-spirited, musical and ever-witty Miguel (“He could have made a fortune on the stage” said one acquaintance) joined the Jesuits as a novice at the age of 20. “Take all from me, Lord! Only give me souls!” he vowed at this time.
“He sailed back West like the great missionaries of old—to the blood-stained shores of his homeland—in which the Church of Mexico struggled with the powers of hell made manifest,” stated Mrs. George Norman in The Jester of God. Like St. Edmund Campion returning to Elizabethan England from Belgium, like St. Isaac Jogues returning to North America from France, so Father Pro returned to Mexico. To his martyrdom.
To what was Father Miguel returning? It was a time in the country known as La Persecution Brutale under the leadership of the viciously anti-Catholic dictator Plutarco Calles who became President of the country in 1924. He was quite something this Calles. According to Saints and Sinners in the Cristero War, Calles “had a reputation for executing priests without trial—ninety of them during his four years as president. He was an atheist and he wore that as a badge of honor all his life.” Author Msgr. James T. Murphy says that “he attacked the Church with a fanaticism that often shocked foreign diplomats.”
U.S. Ambassador James Sheffield provides just such an example: he wrote a memo to the U.S. State department about Calles: “This president has become so violent on the religious question that he has lost control of himself. When this topic has been dealt with in his presence, his face turns red, and he has hit the table to express his hate and profound hostility toward the practice of religion.” This was the Mexico that Father Pro was returning to in 1926.
Before he left Europe he asked permission to visit Lourdes. This was granted. He, “who had the devotion of the saints to Our Lady” declared, “It was the happiest day of my life.” He said that it was “all I expected and more.” He composed this prayer while at Lourdes: “May I spend my days near thee—what I ask, O sorrowful Virgin is to be close to thee, to stand near thee, to strengthen my soul by thy tears.” He offered the immolation of himself for the Church in Mexico. “My journey to Lourdes has given me courage,” he said. Which he would need in extraordinary abundance.
And so he departed Europe in July of 1926 “for the Virgin and the sunburnt wilds of my country.” He was entering the country at a time when the radical Constitution of 1917 (now being enforced with a terrible vengeance) struck blow after blow against the Catholic Church. According to Robert Royal in his Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, Mexico became the first “explicitly socialist, anti-religious revolutionary republic in the world.” Along with Soviet Russia, Republican Spain and Castro’s Cuba, “it became one of the Communist countries in the last century whose express purpose was the eradication of the Christian religion.”
The Constitution had stripped the Catholic Church of all its property. Article 24 of the Constitution decreed that all religious worship be regulated by the state. Churches were closed, and no priest was allowed to minister to the faithful. Article 3 secularized all education. Religious education was forbidden in all schools. Francis F. Kelley, Bishop of Oklahoma and Tulsa discussed the subject in his aptly-titled book, Blood Drenched Altars. He revealed the oath that the teachers in the state of Yucatan were forced to sign: “I solemnly declare myself an atheist, an irreconcilable enemy of the Roman Catholic religion and I will exert my efforts to destroy it.” Not all teachers complied. In the city of Aguascalientes all the teachers resigned. In the state of Michoacan “60 teachers resigned rather than teach as prescribed.”
Kelley refers to the case of the Minister of Education, a close friend of President Calles, whose “particular educational fad was sexual instruction. He sent out indecent pamphlets to the teachers.” (Does this sound familiar?)
Within a few days of his arrival in Mexico, the bishops of the country were forced to take unprecedented measures: On July 31, 1926, they ordered the removal of the Blessed Sacrament from all the churches rather than submit the Church to government control. With approval from the Holy See all Sacraments would be suspended in all the churches of the Republic. The bishops spoke out with anguished eloquence: “The life of the Church is that of its Founder. The Church of Mexico is abandoned today to its worst enemies; she is mocked, she is scourged, she is reduced to a state like death.” In the words of one author, “The great Good Friday for Mexico had begun.”
Thousands upon thousands flocked to Confession before the churches were closed. Newly-arrived Father Pro heard confessions by the hour in his Jesuit parish church, Holy Family, in Mexico City, to such an extent that he fainted twice. He said his last public Mass at Holy Family on July 31, 1926. From that day on the Church in Mexico went “underground.”
He organized “Communion stations” in which he distributed 300 Communions on a daily basis. His mode of transportation? His brother’s bicycle. “The last First Friday I distributed 1,200 Communions” he said. All at the risk of his life. He was forced to dress in disguise: sometimes as a student (his youthful looks were an asset in this regard); “My student’s swagger gets me off any amount of suspicion,” he said. At other times he dressed as a garage mechanic, a miner and a “dandy” sporting a long cigarette-holder and a flashy dapper suit. Always conscious of the 10,000 “spy”agents in the city who were employed by the Calles government. Discovery could mean torture, imprisonment or immediate death. Always attentive to the poor, he was was the main support for almost 100 poverty-stricken residents of the city.
Father Pro never stopped hearing confessions: “I have heard confessions even in the jails and here I spend most of my time for they are filled with Catholics” he said as quoted by Fr. Wilfred Parsons, S.J., in Mexican Martyrdom. He also gave retreats, baptized countless infants, and blessed marriages. His calls to the sick were legendary. He knew the risks: He said “The Catholics have taken the defensive against Calles and the reprisals are going to be terrible above all in the city of Mexico. The first to suffer will be those who have put their fingers into the religion question. And I have put mine there up to the elbow!”
He spoke about the perils: “From all sides we receive news of attacks and reprisals; the victims are many; the number of martyrs grows every day. Oh, if only I could draw a winning number! “ He knew well of what he was speaking: In the first week of May of 1926, alone, “there was the mass execution of 17 priests in Mexico City.”
Mrs. George Norman, in The Jester of God writes about Fr. Pro’s statements on the celebration of the Feast of Christ the King on Oct. 31, 1926; it took the form of a pilgrimage to The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Basilica remained open during the entire “reign of terror” in Mexico. Even the Calles government dared not close it! “The pilgrimage to the Basilica began at four in the morning and ended at 7:30 at night. An uninterrupted stream of people—eighty or eighty four percent of the inhabitants of the city—passed before the blessed image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I was there—it was impossible to tear myself away.” And all shouting along the way, “Viva Cristo Rey! Viva Cristo Rey! Viva La Virgen de Guadalupe! Viva La Virgen de Guadalupe!”
On the night of Nov. 15, 1927, Fr. Miguel and his two brothers, Humberto and Roberto were arrested. On the last night of his life he slept on the bare floor because he had given his “thin mattress” to a fellow prisoner. On the morning of Nov. 23, the sweater-clad priest was led out of his cell, holding his crucifix in one hand and his Rosary in the other. Facing the firing squad, with his arms extended in the form of a cross (he refused a blindfold), he kissed his crucifix and said: “May God have mercy on you. May God bless you.” His final words were “Viva Cristo Rey!” His brother Umberto was martyred the same day and his other brother Roberto was released and exiled to the United States.
A nun reported that a month before his death, Fr. Pro had confided to her that he had offered his life for souls and for the Church in Mexico.
Fr. Miguel Pro was beatified by St. Pope John Paul II in 1988.
This article has been reprinted with permission from ONE PETER FIVE.
A MEXICAN MARTYR: ST. MATEO CORREA
Recently, the head of France’s Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort, said that the Seal of Confession should not take precedence over French law (dealing with sex crimes against children). This scandalous statement was the exact opposite of what he had said earlier. What made him change his mind? Well, could it be because he had been summoned for a meeting by the Interior Minister, Gerald Darminin? Could that have something to do with it? It was after this meeting that he reversed his initial position of non-compliance with the government mandate. Even more scandalous, he asked the public to forgive him for his prior statement! This, from the top bishop in France, the “eldest daughter of the Church.”
According to Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church the Seal of Confession is inviolable. “A confessor who directly violates the Seal of Confession incurs an automatic excommunication.”
This is light years away from another priest, from another time, from another country, who was faced with a similar challenge: Father Mateo Correa. A Mexican priest who literally gave up his life to protect the Seal of Confession. On Feb. 5, 1927, the country’s revolutionary forces ordered the imprisoned priest to divulge the contents of several soldiers’ confessions. “Never! I will never do it!” he said. “I would rather die than violate the Seal of Confession.” “Then you will die!” shrieked his adversary, with a gun pointed at the priest’s head. The next day, at dawn on Feb. 6, 1927, he was taken to the outskirts of Durango and executed. He was canonized by St. John Paul II in 2000.
The years 1926 to 1929 are known as the “Years of the Martyrs” in the history of the Mexican Republic. In the words of English writer Graham Greene (he was an atheist until he converted to the Catholic faith at age 22) the church in Mexico under its socialist dictators suffered “the fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth.” Pope Pius XI, who presided over the Church from 1922 to 1939, declared that the persecutions in Mexico “exceeded the most bloody persecutions of the Roman emperors.” His 1926 encyclical, Iniquis Afflictisque, refers to the barbarities as “without equal, cruelties and atrocities scarcely credible in the 20th century.”
A priest was not allowed to say Mass, give absolution or even say a prayer over a dying Mexican soldier. Such acts were punishable by law. Father Mateo was arrested because he was bringing Viaticum to a dying invalid; Masses, however, were being said. In secret. In private homes. In forests. In garages. The Church in Mexico was forced to go “underground.” Such a scene is vividly portrayed in Graham Greene’s masterpiece novel, The Power and the Glory:
“It had been five years since the people had seen a priest.
A voice whispered urgently to him, ‘Father.’
‘The police are on the way. They are only a mile off, coming through the forest.’
This was what he was used to: were they on horseback or on foot? If they were on foot he had 20 minutes left to finish Mass and hide—the Consecration was in silence: no bell rang.
Somebody opened the door: a voice whispered urgently, ‘They’re here—They are all around the village.’ “
The priest was arrested and shot by a firing squad.
Father Mateo Correa was born in Tepechitlan, Zacatecas, on July 23, 1866. Although he was from a poor family, he completed his education with the aid of benefactors and attended the seminary in Zacatecas on a scholarship. After his ordination in 1893 the gentle priest served as pastor in several locations in the state of Zacatecas. One of these was in the mining town of Concepcion del Oro where he became friends with the family of Miguel Pro whose father was a mining engineer. Miguel would eventually become the best-known of all the Mexican martyrs. Father Mateo administered First Communion to the young Miguel and baptized Miguel’s brother Umberto. Both brothers would be martyred on the same day in 1927. As Robert Royal said in his book, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, such ironies are “indicative of the all-embracing nature of anti-Catholic persecution in Mexico.”
The remains of Father Mateo can be found in the Cathedral of Durango, a city 600 miles northwest of Mexico City. The church is also known as the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. This “landmark of enduring beauty” is located in the historic centre of the city opposite the Plaza de Armas. Construction on the impressive church with its twin-towered Baroque façade was begun in 1695.
Durango is not only a destination for devout Catholics but for fans of John Wayne as well. Many of Hollywood’s greatest western movies were filmed there. As one writer said, “This is John Wayne country, where the Duke slugged it out, shot it out, and sometimes yelled it out, as he tamed the American West.” One of his most famous movies, True Grit, for which he won an Oscar in 1970, was filmed in Durango. Wayne spent a great deal of time in this city and eventually bought property in the area.
“The Duke” converted to the Catholic faith two days before he died of cancer in 1979. According to his grandson, Father Matthew Munoz, a priest in California, he regretted that he had taken so long to take this step. He blamed it on a “busy life.” All of his seven children were brought up in the Catholic faith and attended Catholic schools. Apparently, he had a life-long reverence for Catholicism. His director John Ford (who didn’t hide his love for his Catholic faith) influenced him, as did his good friend in Los Angeles, Archbishop Tomas Clavel, who had been exiled from his Archdiocese of Panama in 1968.
And one can just wonder at the possible influence of Father Mateo Correa on this movie legend. Surely, Wayne, given his interest in Catholicism, would have visited this beautiful Cathedral many times. And how moved he must have been by reading the description in the church of Father Mateo’s martyrdom.
Some of Wayne’s most memorable quotes dealt with the subject of courage. One of his best-known was: “Courage is being scared to death—and saddling up anyway.” How in awe he must have been by Father Mateo’s bravery!
One can only barely surmise the terror in Father Mateo’s heart on that night of Feb. 5, 1927. Alone in his prison cell he had no illusions about any such fictions as a last-minute reprieve. How easily he could have “given in”! Knowing what possible tortures and brutalities awaited him.
Yet he stayed the course. To the point of martyrdom.
Unlike another priest, an Archbishop at that, decades later, who did “give in.” To the Interior Minister’s admonitions. Or threats. Or whatever it was. To which one can only say, “God help the Church in France.”
Saint Mateo Correa, pray for the Church!
Step into the church of La Ensenanza in the historical district of Mexico City and you will be entering what many writers refer to as one of the most beautiful churches in the country. Its façade is outstanding as well.
The architecture of La Ensenanza is known as Churrigueresque, a type of ultra-Baroque construction that is named after the Spanish architect, Jose Churriguera, who dominated Spanish architecture for the first half of the 18th century. As is evident by the photos on this website, this style of architecture is characterized by an extravagance of sculptural details, or, to quote one author, “a plethora of elaborate decoration.” Gilded carvings, rosettes, sculpted clouds and angels, paintings and statues, adorn all surfaces in splendid array. All with one mystical purpose: to give glory and praise to God with all one’s heart and soul. It is a style of architecture unique to Spain and Latin America, particularly Mexico. The church is quite small (I doubt if it could hold even 100 people) and is a five-minute walk to the zocalo (central square of the city).
The church of La Ensenanza was named for the convent of the same name which was founded by one of the most distinguished women in 18th century Mexico: Mother Maria Ignacia de Azlor y Echevers. Her primary goal was to provide quality education for the girls and women of the city, a project to which she dedicated her life. She died in 1767 and the construction of the church was begun a few years later. By 1778 the church was completed and was consecrated by Archbishop don Alonso Nunez de Haro y Peralta. The expulsion of the religious in 1861 by the edicts of the revolutionary government resulted in the abandonment of the convent. The church, however, was conserved.
The Virgin of the Pillar is the central figure above the main altar. She is holding the Child Jesus and is standing on a column which is typically obscured by a mantle (in this case a brightly coloured green fabric). Can you see the column below the mantle in the photograph?
But what was the origin of the name, “The Lady of the Pillar?” Tradition relates that Our Lady appeared to the apostle St. James in 40 AD in Zaragoza, Spain. Apparently he was having many trials in his preaching and was getting discouraged with his lack of progress. She came to encourage him and offer him strength! She was accompanied by a myriad of angels who carried a column of marble and a small statue of Our Lady on top of the column.
She asked that St. James have a temple built in the area of the apparition. It is considered the first apparition of Our Lady in history. In 1730 Pope Innocent XIII authorized veneration of Our Lady of the Pillar throughout the Spanish Empire (including Mexico and Latin America). The Spanish mystic, Venerable Mary of Agreda, described the happenings in her book, THE MYSTICAL CITY OF GOD. The feast day of Our Lady of the Pillar is October 12.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is the iconic image of Mexico. You see her image everywhere. On billboards, on store-fronts, on buses, in taxis. There is a statue or painting of her in every church in the country and a multitude of churches dedicated to her throughout Mexico.
But did you know that there is another miraculous image of Our Lady in Mexico that closely resembles her? It is the image known as Our Lady of the Angels, found in Texacic, a small town 2 km. distance from the city of Toluca, the capital city of the state of Mexico (64 km west of Mexico City).
Like the painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, this ancient image of Our Lady of the Angels is painted on a tilma, a cloak made of a fabric similar to cotton. Like Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of the Angels assumes the same posture with her hands joined in prayer. And can you see the golden rays which burst forth behind her? For a moment you almost think you are looking at a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe! Two angels hold up Our Lady of the Angel’s mantle as she is lifted up to heaven ( this is an image of Our Lady of the Assumption).
In the early history of the painting we discover that Tecaxic was once a thriving pueblo with a vibrant Catholic faith, thanks to the preaching of the Franciscans who journeyed from their monastery in Toluca. The plague of 1640, however, devastated Tecaxic and the town was ultimately abandoned.
Also abandoned was the painting of Our Lady of the Angels, which had been displayed on the walls of a tiny hermitage in the town. Over time the hermitage became a total ruin. The roof broke down and enormous holes appeared in the walls. The painting was left exposed to the mercy of the elements “pummeled by rains, dust and scorched by a glaring sun.”
Despite the attacks of the weather throughout the years, the painting remained intact and the colours remained fresh and vivid. Its preservation is remarkable considering that it was painted on a fabric that should have disintegrated within a few years. After its removal to a new shrine, the miraculous nature of the painting was officially established in 1684 by Fray Baltazara de Medina, Censor for the Holy Office of the Inquisition.
Many are the miracles associated with the 300-year-old painting of Our Lady of the Angels: the cure of a cancerous arm that was to be amputated, sight restored to a blind man and the healing of a crippled woman are just some of the cures attributed to Our Lady of the Angels. The reports of all these miracles prompted Fray Jose Gutierrez, the Guardian of the Convent of San Francisco in Toluca, to begin the building of a new sanctuary in her honour in 1650.
Miracles of another kind were also witnessed in the new sanctuary: mysterious singing and the emanation of lights! Reports were told of hearing music of “remarkable beauty” from the shrine. When investigators entered the church, however, they witnessed only silence and solitude. Similar reports were told of seeing flickering lights emanating from the shrine. When passersby investigated they found only darkness. No one was present in the shrine!
Today Our Lady of the Angels in Tecaxic is a thriving parish church. And fervent devotion to her has been ongoing for almost four centuries!
One detail from the painting should not be missed: noticeable is that Our Lady’s left ear is exposed, (it is not covered by her dark hair) indicating that Our Lady is most willing to listen attentively to the sorrows and joys of all of her children who implore her intercession.