LA CONQUISTADORA, church of San Francisco, Puebla, Puebla
Puebla is one of the most picturesque cities in Mexico. It is one of the country’s oldest and is known for its distinct signature Talavera tile, its magnificent colonial architecture and its—Volkswagen Beetles! (Thanks to a large Volkswagen plant in the city). And if that were not enough it is surrounded by four spectacular volcanoes! It was founded in 1531 by a charter from Queen Isabella of Spain. It is the country’s fourth largest city with a population of 1.5 million people and was declared a UNESCO national heritage monument in 1987. It is a city teeming with churches and has the largest concentration in the country.
The oldest church in the city and one of the most stunning is the Church of San Francisco which is dedicated to the five wounds (or stigmata) of St. Francis of Assisi. Construction began on the church in 1535, four years after the city’s founding.
FRAY TORIBIO DE BENAVENTE (1491-1568), who became the Father Guardian in 1525, laid the first stone. He was born in Zamora, Spain and was one of the founders of the city. He was renowned for being one of the “Twelve Apostles” the first group who arrived in New Spain in 1524 to begin the evangelization of Mexico. They came shortly after the conquest of the Aztecs by Cortes in 1521, an event which made possible the entrance of Christianity into these new lands. He was known as Motolinia which means “very poor and very humble”. The church was finished in 1767. It is a typical Franciscan church of the era. It is built on a grand scale, almost fortress-like and has a single nave. The façade is glorious—it is in the Churrigueresque (rich Baroque) style featuring elaborately carved stone combined with brilliantly coloured Talavera tile.
The church is home to the much revered statue of LA CONQUISTADORA, OUR LADY OF THE CONQUEST. It is reputed to be the oldest Marian statue in the country. The 15th Flemish statue has the most fascinating history! It all goes back to the time of Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer who founded America under the auspices of the Spanish empire. What American school child does not remember the familiar child’s verse—“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue”—-?
Well: Columbus and his compatriots did not want to sail across the ocean without the protection of Our Lady! So he spoke to a Franciscan friar, Fray Juan Perez, about his concern; this friar just happened to be, providentially, the confessor to the Queen of Spain, Queen Isabella! The friar generously presented to Christopher Columbus this precious statue of La Conquistadora. This explains how the statue was thus brought to the Americas. It was brought by Columbus himself. One of the Spanish conquistadors who accompanied Cortez in Cozumel, Mexico, Pedro de Alvarado, was very devoted to the Virgin Mary. He spoke to Cortez about the statue and Cortes said to him: “The Virgin will be called La Conquistadora (she who conquers) because she will give us victory when we do battle with the Aztecs!” And this is how the statue received her name! The statue accompanied Cortez in 1521 during the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City).
The Tlaxcalans (from the nearby state of Tlaxcala) became Cortez’ staunch allies in the battle; so grateful were the Spaniards for their immense help (they were fierce warriors and were sworn enemies of the Aztecs) that Cortez gave the statue to his distinguished loyal friend, the chief Tlaxcalan Senor, GONZALO AXOTECATL COCOMITZI. He loved her dearly and venerated her in his home, adorning her with flowers and painted cloths. He even took her to dances and celebrations, carrying her in his arms with the utmost respect and devotion.
The Franciscans, understanding the immense historical value of the image, asked the Senor if they could place the image in the Franciscan Church in Puebla. The senor readily agreed to this new arrangement. In 1582 the first hermitage dedicated to LA CONQUISTADORA was established. A chapel was built and she was placed in the interior of a silver eagle which represents the royal arms of the House of Austria. The chapel was finally completed in 1631. The statue is 42 cm (16.5”) in height and features Our Lady holding the Infant Jesus in her right hand and a sceptre in her extended left hand. In 1635 she was declared the Patrona of the city.
The incorrupt body of BLESSED SEBASTIAN APARICIO (1502-1600) is also in the chapel of LA CONQUISTADORA in the Franciscan church. He was born in Spain and came to Mexico in 1525. He built the first highways and roads in the country and became a very wealthy man. Living a radically Christian life, he gave away all of his money to the poor, especially to the Chichimeca Indians with whom he had very amicable relations. He became a Franciscan later in life and lived at this convent for many years. He was beatified by Pope Pius Vl in 1787.
La Conquistadora is one of the earliest Christian images to be venerated in Mexico. She is known for her many miracles—even bringing dead children back to life!