On May 16, 1937, disaster struck Tlalpujahuac, a town in the northeast section of the state of Michoacán in central Mexico. In the early 20th century Tlalpujahuac was the leading producer of gold in the country; it was a bustling mining centre teeming with prosperous engineers, families and gold-miners. Today much of the gold is gone but a far greater treasure remains in the town: the 300-year-old painted image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the parish church.
On this fateful morning in the month of May a large dam had burst, pouring the cyanide-filled tailings (the byproducts of mining operations) over the church which housed the miraculous image. It was the pastor who bellowed Catastrofe! Catastrofe! “I must save Our Lady’s image!” The tailings were engulfing the church to a level of 27 ft. “It is about to be demolished!” he said of the painting.
But first he had to cut through the three-centuries-old adobe stone which portrayed the Virgin’s image. After managing that feat, he had to carry it over a “rocky ledge more than a half-mile in a fierce rainstorm.” He rescued the legendary image! It was unharmed and resides today over the main altar of the sanctuary.
The original shrine was erected during the 16th century. The image of Our Lady was painted on the adobe walls of a chapel belonging to a wealthy hacienda owner. Over time, however, the roof of the chapel caved in and the interior of the chapel was exposed to the elements. The shrine was in ruins. All that was left was the adobe wall which contained Our Lady’s portrait. It had been left abandoned for many years subjected to the virulent summer rains and dust storms of the region.
Three centuries later a group of townspeople decided to rebuild the chapel and contracted artisans to conduct the renovation. To the astonishment of the artists the colours on the figure’s face were as bright as new. Only the clothing on the painting needed retouching.
In later years a new shrine to house the image was built of solid masonry. The adobe wall containing Our lady’s image was placed in the sanctuary of the main altar. For the discerning Marian pilgrim this beautiful painting can be seen today. It is in its original form. If you look very closely you can still see traces of the adobe, from the chapel that existed centuries ago!
In 1903 disaster befell the image yet again. A fire destroyed the sanctuary but the image was preserved in an “extraordinary fashion.”
On May 16, 1930, a singular honour was bestowed on the shrine—the Vatican approved the pontifical crowning of Our Lady of Tlalpujuahuac. An honour bestowed on very few churches in the country.
At the time of this writing the world is being ravaged by the CORONA VIRUS. Schools and churches are closed, sports and entertainment venues are shut down, and border restrictions are in place everywhere. Travel is nonexistent. We are in “lockdown.” Most countries agree that it is the worst crisis they have faced since World War ll.
Five hundred years ago Mexico was also facing a devastating plague. It was an epidemic of smallpox and it “swept through the country like a tidal wave.” In many areas as many as nine out of ten indigenous people died from the disease.
In 1541, ten years after the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego, Our Lady appeared to another Juan Diego, this time in the town of Tlaxcala, 95 miles (152 km.) east of Mexico City. After the visitation of Our Lady, the town of Tlaxcala was cured of the plague!
She appeared to the startled Juan as he was fetching water for his sick family members. She said to him, “I will give you water to cure the disease. It will cure all who drink of it. MY HEART IS EVER READY TO HELP THOSE WHO ARE ILL, FOR I CANNOT BEAR TO SEE THEIR MISFORTUNE.”
She led Juan—who was one of the first Christians in the area— to an unknown spring. He filled his jug and gave this water to his ill relatives. All who drank the water were cured! The “Beautiful Lady” had another message and she asked him to relay it to the friars at the Franciscan convent where he worked.
It was a curious message! “Tell the friars that they shall find my image in this place. Through it I will generously BESTOW FAVORS AND KINDNESSES. When they find the image they are to place it in the church.” But Juan wondered to himself, “Where would they find the image in the middle of this huge pine forest?”
By a series of mysterious signs the friars were directed to one particular tree in the forest. When they took an axe to this tree (the ocote tree, a type of pine) they were stunned to discover a full-size image of Our Lady inside the intact tree trunk. Today the original statue resides above the main altar in the Basilica of Our Lady of Ocotlan in Tlaxcala.
This apparition has been approved by five popes: from Pope Clemente Xll (in 1735) to Pope Pius Xll (in 1941). The miraculous spring in the Capilla de Pocito (Chapel of the Well), near the Basilica, is still healing people to the present day. The Basilica is considered one of the most beautiful churches in Mexico.
Our Lady of Ocotlan, please pray for us now!
I have waited to see this famous church for many years! It is very old and dates back from the beginning of the 17th century. Several years ago we took a taxi to the church which is in the middle of the historical area of Mexico City; however, because it was a Saturday, the crowd of people both inside and outside the church was so dense it was impossible to get even near it. What a disappointment! Fourteen years later I did get to see it: It was worth the long wait! The church is very small and probably holds only 40 people or so. It was absolutely lovely in its austere simplicity. A single mosaic of Our Lady holding the Infant Jesus adorns the whitewashed façade. The neoclassical interior has only one nave and a statue of Our Lady of the Candles, also dating from the 17th century, is situated above the main altar. But why is the church called La Candeleria?
Candlemas comes from the Latin festa andelarum which means “festival of candles.” The Feb. 2 feastday is very popular in Mexico. The feast commemorates a double celebration: the purification of Mary (not that Mary had to be purified!) and the presentation of the Infant Jesus in the temple. By participating in such an event Joseph and Mary are fulfilling the demands of the Mosaic Law.
It was the custom for Jewish women to remain in semi-isolation for 40 days after childbirth, after which they would present their first-born son to the Lord. (Exodus 2:12) It was at this time that the Holy Family would have had their momentous encounter with the prophets Simeon and Anna (Luke 2: 22-39). The feast day of Our Lady of the Candles is the feast of the Purification on February 2nd, 40 days after Our Lord’s birth.
The church is known in Mexico City as La Candelaria de los Patos (Purificacion de Ntra. Senora).
“What are those strange lights?” Don Antonio wondered. He and a friend, a Franciscan religious, had noticed lights blazing
from a nearby hospice. “It almost looks like the place is on fire!” said the Franciscan. Tamayo sent some servants to investigate. They came back with their findings: “There is no fire there whatsoever!” they exclaimed. “Nor any lights of any kind!”
Don Antonio Tamayo, the proprietor of the Hacienda San Buenaventura, decided to pay a personal visit to the site of the “lights.” His Franciscan friend went along with him. They noticed that the place was littered with worn and discarded objects among which they discovered a statue of Our Lady, considerably damaged. Don Antonio sent the statue to be repaired to Patzcuaro, a centre known for its excellent sculptors. He was so struck by the beauty of the renovated image that he built a chapel in his hacienda to honour the statue of Our Lady. She became popularly known as “Our Lady of Light.”
The phenomena of the lights continued: Many people saw lights emanating from the statue not only in the chapel but also when Our Lady was on pilgrimage to other churches in the region. Very soon “repeated favours and marvels attributed to Our Lady of Light were known far and wide.”
The Bishop of Valladolid, Don Juan de Ortega Montanes, while on a journey to Mexico City, encountered one of these miracles himself. When he arrived at Salvatierra he was seriously ill. He offered a Mass at Our Lady’s altar and experienced an immediate and rapid return to health. The grateful prelate officially bestowed upon her the title “Our Lady of Light”.
“Many are the wonders which this sacred image has worked” according to one historian. A document from 1667 reveals just such a one: it relates that a thief stole into the church and tried to steal Our Lady’s crown during the middle of the night. He was not only unable to lift the crown from the statue’s head, he was unable to leave the church! The sacristan discovered the mortified robber the next morning, rooted to the spot!
On one occasion the statue of Our Lady of Light was severely damaged on one of her pilgrimage trips. Her face was badly disfigured. The disconsolate parishioners feared that their beloved statue was beyond repair. Seemingly, out of the blue, an unknown artisan appeared on the scene. He offered to repair the statue and began work the next day. He was offered chocolate but declined! He was offered tasty bakery treats but declined these as well. Nor would he accept offers of meals from many of the women in the parish. The repairs were completed and the townspeople were astonished by the artisan’s skill. The statue looked like new! And the artisan then left without a trace—and without presenting a bill for his labours! He was never seen again.
In 1743 plans for the present church of Our Lady of Light were drawn up. From 1808 to the present time Our Lady has been venerated in this beautiful sanctuary in Salvatierra. In September 1938 His Holiness Pope Pius Xl authorized the coronation of Our Lady of Light, an honour of profound significance, one of only a few in the country. This was carried out by his papal representative for the occasion, the Archbishop of Morelia, Dr. Don Leopoldo Ruiz y Flores, who crowned the statue with a golden diadem on May 24, 1939.
The headlines today are replete with stories of persecuted Christians: “Fresh Risk of Genocide to Middle East Christians” and “Breaking the Silence on Nigeria’s Christian Genocide” are commonplace in today’s news (Crisis magazine).
This, of course, is nothing new: For almost 800 years (711-1492) Spain was under Muslim occupation. Christians, then as now, were often brutally persecuted. As Christian resistance increased, the jails filled up! Muslim law dictated that only children could bring food and drink to the near-starved prisoners. But woe to those prisoners without children! They faced starvation on a regular basis.
According to a 15th century Dominican tradition, help did indeed come to these unfortunate souls. The story is told that one day in Atocha, Spain, a child dressed as a pilgrim in cape and plumed hat, carried a basket of food into the prison. No matter how much food he distributed, his basket remained full to the brim. All present were astonished by the miracle. The prisoners related that they were filled with peace and consolation when the tiny child lifted his hand to bless them. This was the Christ Child who became known as SANTO NINO DE ATOCHA.
The sacristan related that the Infant Child left his mother’s arms (from the statue) for several nights and journeyed through the dusty streets of the town. When he returned to His mother’s arms, the sacristan reported that His sandals were splattered with mud!
In 1566 Spanish Dominican friars brought a statue of Santo Nino to the Northwestern state of Zacatecas in Mexico. They preached about Santo Nino and his miracles and, eventually, in 1789 a church was built in His honour in Plateros, Zacatecas, a mining centre. The mountainous state of Zacatecas was at one time the largest producer of silver in the world. Consequently, most of its inhabitants were miners. The Dominicans compared the fate of the prisoners in Spain to that of the miners in Zacatecas, many of whom perished in perilous conditions underground. The friars encouraged the miners to pray to Santo Nino for protection.
His reputation as a miracle worker grew. And the grateful Zacatecans left testimonials at the shrine to give thanks. These testimonials are in the form of small paintings, known as EX-VOTOS, which describe the miracle in a pictorial form. They all begin with the words, “Doy Gracias” (“I give thanks.”) The donors’ purpose is to portray publicly the wonders God has worked in their lives.
We read about Feliciano Pitello who was hit by a car while riding his bicycle in Mexico City on June 9, 1959, and was saved from serious injury. He stated in his ex-voto: “I am making this public for the benefit of those who do not believe.”
Alberto Acosta gives thanks in 1973 for “saving me from fractures.” He is pictured, grimacing in pain, with his leg caught under a refrigerator which had fallen from a dolly. In each ex-voto Santo Nino is prominently shown as the One implored for the favour.
Miracles seemed to abound in Plateros through Santo Nino’s intercession! So impressed was the bishop of Zacatecas in 1882 with the “great quantity of acknowledged favours” that he ordered a special “salon” to be built for their display. This can be seen at the shrine today. With walls overflowing with ex-votos! Those from the families of soldiers in World War ll and the Gulf and Iraq wars, are numerous, as well as those with health, migration and family concerns.
It is not only church officials which attest to Santo Nino’s miraculous intercession. Municipal officials do as well! It even calls itself the city of miracles: As one enters the town of Plateros the pilgrim sees an enormous arch which spans the highway, emblazoned with the words, PLATEROS: TIERRA DE LA FE Y LOS MILAGROS (“Plateros, Land of Faith and Miracles.”)
The shrine of Santo Nino de Atocha in Plateros, Zacatecas, is considered the third most venerated shrine in Mexico, after the Basilica of Guadalupe and the shrine of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos in the state of Jalisco. It attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. Santo Nino is the patron of those unjustly imprisoned, travelers and miners. His feastday is January 1.
Let us remember in this coming new year to pray to Santo Nino for justice for Cardinal Pell imprisoned in Australia!
Portions of this article have been reprinted with permission from the CANADIAN MESSENGER OF THE SACRED HEART.
On May 13, 1524, twelve Spanish Franciscan friars set foot on Mexican soil for the first time. After walking barefoot from the coast of Veracruz, they finally arrived at Mexico City, a distance of 250 miles over two mountain ranges. These men “of exceptional worth” became known as “The Twelve Apostles” because of their apostolic zeal. The evangelization of Mexico had begun.
It was three years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, “an unbelievable victory,” in which the vastly outnumbered Spaniards conquered the mighty Aztec empire. The Spanish victory was made possible by the Spanish alliance with the small, independent state of Tlaxcala. A nation of warriors, the Tlaxcalans were only too happy to join forces with the new conquistadores for one principal reason: they detested the Aztecs! And no wonder: The Aztecs were devoted to their pagan god, Huitzilopochtli, a god who had an insatiable appetite for human blood. The Aztecs constantly instigated wars with the tiny state, not to gain land or resources, but to gain captives to offer to Huitzilopochtli. He must be placated at all costs. Human sacrifice was rampant in the culture and children were sacrificed as well.
We have been hearing a lot lately about pagan gods and idols, namely, the Pachamama idol which has been featured in the Vatican Gardens and other churches in Rome. Pagan idols! To the consternation of Catholics everywhere. And spoken of in benign, almost benevolent terms. But what is the reality behind such Idols, these statues of pagan gods?
Bernal Diáz, in his first-person, highly acclaimed account, The Conquest of New Spain, speaks directly about this subject. He accompanied Cortéz as a 26-year-old soldier in the conquest of New Spain and tells of their first foray into Tlaxcala. “I must tell you how in this town of Tlaxcala we found wooden cages—in which men and women were imprisoned and fed until they were fat enough to be sacrificed and eaten. We broke them open and destroyed these prisons and set free the Indians—and these prison cages existed throughout the country.” He said that every province had its own idols: “they had infinite numbers of idols and sacrificed to them all.”
In Mexico City, at Tlaltelolco, he saw scenes of unimaginable horror: “All the walls of that shrine were so caked with blood,” he said. “It was a slaughterhouse.” He described another image, Tezcatlipoca, the god of hell: “It was surrounded by figures of little devils with snakes’ tails—they had offered that idol five hearts from the day’s sacrifices.” He also wrote of doorways with “hellish figures” and a place full of skulls “so numerous you could not count them however long you looked.”
They wasted no time in demolishing those pagan idols. “Some fifty of us soldiers clambered up and overturned the idols which rolled down the steps and were smashed to pieces. Some of them were in the form of fearsome dragons as big as calves and others, half-men, half-dog, and hideously ugly.” Cortéz ordered the shattered idols to be burnt. Historians believed that the Aztecs sacrificed from 15,000 to 20, 000 people annually to their pagan gods.
The Tlaxcalans were the first friends of the Spaniards and the first Christians in the New World. Because of their loyalty they retained a privileged position among the conquered peoples. In 1525 Juan Garcés became the first archbishop of Tlaxcala. He was a protector of the Indians’ rights and looked after their temporal as well as their spiritual well-being. He built a hospital and provided a multitude of welfare services. The Franciscans soon established a school in Tlaxcala under the able leadership of the legendary Fray Toribio de Motolinía (“the poor one”), one of the original “Twelve Apostles”.
Archbishop Garcés spoke of the students at this school: “They are very intelligent—and show great clarity, quickness, and facility of mind.” The Spanish Monarchy decided that the children of the noble classes should be taught first. It so happened that some of the nobles decided against having their children educated at the Franciscan school but would send their servants’ children instead. This had a happy outcome: in this way the lower classes became educated in the faith as well. These newly bilingual children often acted as interpreters for the friars and the rest of the community. In many cases the youngsters were the first Christians in their families and set about evangelizing their parents, some of whom were reluctant to relinquish their pagan gods.
Cristóbal, who was born into a noble family, was one of the first students at the new school. His father, Acxoptécatl, a tribal chief, and ruler of Atlihuetzia, (a village near the town of Tlaxcala) reluctantly allowed his son to attend the school. Cristobal was an eager student and absorbed all the teachings of the Catholic faith with much joy. At first the father was irritated by his son’s evangelizing spirit. He resented being reproached by his son for his polygamy and his excessive drinking. Over time, however, his father became sorely annoyed by Cristobal’s teachings and ordered him to stop. When the boy started smashing the father’s beloved pagan idols the father became enraged. One terrible day in 1527 he picked up his son and began viciously beating him without mercy. He demanded that the boy deny his Catholic faith. Cristobal refused. He then threw the boy into a blazing fire. He died the next day. He was 12 years old.
The two other boys, Antonio and Juan, were martyred in 1519. Antonio, two years younger than Cristóbal was the son of a prominent Tlaxcalan nobleman, by the name of Xiochténacti. Antonio also attended the Franciscan school in Tlaxcala, as did his young servant, Juan. Both boys were the same age and both became fervent Catholics, full of zeal for their new-found Christian faith. One day as they were destroying some pagan idols, an infuriated crowd surrounded them and clubbed them to death; the onlookers cheered as the two children died. All three boys literally took to heart St. John’s words: “Little children, keep yourself from idols.” (I Jn. 5:21)
Two years later Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to St. Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill, in Mexico City (two hours west of Tlaxcala). Within a decade nine million indigenous people had converted to the Catholic faith. In 1990, at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Pope John Paul ll beatified the three boys declaring them to be martyrs for the faith “in odium fidei” (in hatred of the faith). They were canonized by Pope Francis in 2017. They were the first martyrs in the Americas.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Cristóbal, St. Antonio, and St. Juan: pray for our church in its time of great need.
North Bay, Ontario
This article is reprinted with permission from ONE PETER FIVE.COM
The church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Puebla, a city about 60 miles (100 km.) southeast of Mexico City, is considered one of the most beautiful churches in the country; some say it is the second most beautiful, after San Francisco Atepec in nearby Cholula. This, of course, is not THE basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The original one is in Mexico City. There are many churches dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe throughout the country.
Puebla is one of the oldest colonial cities in the American continent; it was founded in 1531. One of its founders was a Franciscan friar, Fray Toribio de Benavente. He was one of the original “Twelve Apostles” (known by this name to signify their apostolic mission) to arrive in Mexico in 1524 to evangelize the newly conquered peoples after the Spanish conquest in 1521. The Franciscans were the first to arrive, later to be followed by the Dominicans and the Augustinians. In their wake, missions and churches sprang up everywhere. Construction on this church began in 1694.
Puebla is known world-wide for its signature “Talavera-tiled” architecture, a style which typifies many of the buildings in the historical centre of the city. The church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is an example of this: Talavera tiles decorate the façade of the church depicting the events in the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico city to Juan Diego in 1531. Between 1550 and 1570 potters came from Talavera de la Reina in Spain to teach the indigenous craftsmen of Mexico their techniques. These Mexican potters were already experts in the art, greatly aided by the rich volcanic clay surrounding the area. Puebla is a city surrounded by three volcanoes! A photograph of one of these active volcanoes is shown at the bottom of this webpage.
They adapted the Talavera techniques to produce their own unique and striking form of ceramics known as Poblano Talavera. It is these artistic masterpieces which adorn not only the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe but many churches and buildings in the historic centre of Puebla, making the city home to some of the most stunning churches on the continent.
It is no wonder that Puebla was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987.
Meet the oldest statue of Our Lady on the American continent!
“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”—a chant familiar to every school-aged child in America. That famous date, marked, of course, the year that the Italian-born navigator, Christopher Columbus, departed from Spain and discovered the continent of America.
Over the next two and a half decades more Spaniards would follow in his wake. One of these would be the conquistador, Hernan Cortes, whose miniscule army would defeat the massive military might of the Aztec empire.
He left Spain prepared for battle, both military and spiritual. As well as soldiers, cannon and horses, he brought with him priests, crucifixes, and several wooden statues of the Virgin Mary. One would become the most revered of them all: the statue of Our Lady of the Remedies.
Sculpted in the city of Tolosa, Spain, in the 14th century, she has the distinction of being the oldest statue of Mary on the American continent.
Our Lady of the Remedies was to play a role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico. She accompanied Cortes and his soldiers in 1519 on their grueling march from Veracruz on the Mexican coast to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, (site of present-day Mexico City), a journey of 400 miles over two mountain ranges. She also witnessed the triumphant entry of the Spaniards into the capital and the dramatic encounter between Cortes and the Aztec leader Moctezuma. For a period of time she even replaced the “hideous” blood-thirsty idol of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, that graced Moctezuma’s private apartment.
During the Noche Triste (the Night of Sorrows) on July 8, 1520, she was “implored with tears” as the Spaniards fled from the Aztecs in terror, suffering terrible losses. The diminutive 11”(28cm) statue was hastily hidden under the leaves of a cactus plant and she remained lost for twenty years!
She was found in 1540 by a newly converted Indian chief, Juan Cuautli, and was venerated for several years in his private chapel. In 1575 a shrine was built in her honour in Naucalpan, eight miles northwest of Mexico City.
Even in the 1500’s this shrine was well-known. Bernal Diaz refers to this shrine in his famous 16th century first-hand account of the struggle for Mexico, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain: “After the great city of Mexico was finally captured we built a church which is called Our Lady of the Remedies and it is now much visited.” Diaz was a young 26-year-old soldier when he fought alongside Cortes in the battle for Mexico. He wrote this book while he was in his 70s.
Like most churches of the earliest Colonial period, it was built at the site of a destroyed Aztec sacrificial temple, thus sanctifying a place which had been a scene of previous abominations. It reflects the influence of the Spanish architect, Juan Herrera, who had been commissioned by King Philip ll of Spain in 1563 to build the monumental monastery and royal tomb, El Escorial, near Madrid. The Herrerian style is characterized by a stark and somber austerity-“a sad somemnity”- and is evident in the facade of the single-tower church of Our Lady of the Remedies.
But the altarpiece and cupola which showcases the statue of Our Lady of the Remedies—Herrerian it is not! It was built at a later period and is a riot of sumptuous splendor, reflecting the Churrigueresque style of Baroque architecture, unique to Spain and Latin America, particularly Mexico. It is named after Spanish architect Jose Churriguera who dominated Spanish architecture for the first half of the 17th century.
She became known for her powers of intercession in great public calamities: From 1567 to the early years of the 20th century, she was carried in procession on 75 separate occasions, in times of urgent needs: epidemics, droughts, wars, and political crises of all kinds—none of these proved obstacles for Our Lady of the Remedies.
Cortes’ “utterly unbelievable victory” in 1521 inititated the demise of paganism in Mexico. Christianity would become the religion of the land. It has been said that the secret weapon of the Spanish missionaries in Mexico was their devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Ten years before the arrival of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Tepeyac Hill, Our Lady of the Remedies arrived on Mexican soil. She was the first. It was she who paved the way.
Reprinted with permission from the NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER.
October 12 is the feastday of Our Lady of Zapopan in Guadalajara, Mexico. According to one travel guidebook “she is one of the most revered religious relics in Mexico.”
What is unusual about this celebration is the homage that the secular media pays to it! One travel guide stated: “the legendary image of Our Lady of Zapopan has enjoyed generations of popularity so enormous that it must be seen to be believed.” Another comments on her “continuous stream of penitents.”
The media are stunned by the multitudes who participate in Our Lady of Zapopan’s pilgrimage every October 12th: she processes from the Cathedral of Guadalajara to her home sanctuary at the Franciscan Basilica of Zapopan; a journey of six miles, in “numbers that are beyond belief.” The Oct. 13, 2005, issue of the Miami Herald reported that one million people participated in the event in 2005. Security personnel estimated the numbers to be two million in 2008, the year I attended the event. EWTN reported that four million people walked in the procession to Zapopan from the Eucharistic Congress in Guadalajara in 2004.
Amid great pomp and pageantry she is escorted back to Zapopan, after traveling through the diocese of Guadalajara for the previous four months. She is accompanied by throngs of rejoicing pilgrims, honour guards, priests and nuns, charros (cowboys or horsemen dressed in traditional clothes), marching bands, Mariachi musicians, jugglers, children’s choirs, and Indian dancers in traditional costumes. Airplanes may strew flowers along the route. Fireworks punctuate the night sky. And Rosaries and stirring hymns are heard all along the route. All to celebrate the diminutive 13” figure of La Zapopanita, who is not only the oldest statue of Mary but the first one to be venerated in the state.
Most striking are the numbers of indigenous dancers. The Mural, Guadalajara’s Spanish language newspaper, reported that “16,000 Indian dancers” participated in the annual procession in 2008. Dicken’s words from Hard Times came to mind as I was watching the procession: “a blaze of splendor.” He could have been describing the befeathered Indian dancers at Zapopan! Splashes of colour going marching by—firecracker reds, brilliant blues, emerald greens, all in exquisitely embroidered and beaded and bejeweled costumes. A dazzling sight! And dazzling too was the sound of their “ankle “rattlers.” A sound I will never forget. These are made from shells of nuts which have been partially filled with small stones and sewn on to leather ankle bands. It is a spellbinding, melodious sound, k-poosh, k-poosh, k-poosh, multiplied a few million times over, like an army on its way to heaven. The dancers spend a year in intense training for the event, training weekly, sometimes daily, until all is just right, each step perfect, to offer to Our Lady of Zapopan.
It all began with the Franciscans: In 1524 the first group of twelve Franciscan missionaries arrived on Mexican soil. In 1525 the second group arrived, among them Fray Antonio de Segovia and his traveling companion, Fray Miguel de Bolonia, who became the first evangelizers in Jalisco. The ascetic and kindly Fray Antonio had a deep devotion to Our Lady and always carried her image with him on his missionary travels. He would wear it around his neck, claiming that it was she who was the evangelizer, not himself! The statue was one he brought from Spain and is the same statue that resides in the Basilica of Zapopan today.
She became known as “La Pacificadora,” the one who makes peace: One day while Fray Antonio was preaching “luminous rays issued from the statue.” So impressed (and startled!) were the Indians with this divine manifestation that they laid down their arms (the Spaniards and the Indians had been at war with each other) and begged to be baptized. Since the earliest days the indigenous peoples of Guadalajara have been devoted to Our Lord and His Mother.
Many are the honours accorded to Our Lady of Zapopan. After reports of numerous miracles an ecclesiastsical investigation in 1641 declared the image to be taumaturga which means “wonder-working.” Among the verified miracles were the curing of a blind man and the restoration of a dead child to life. In 1919 the Vatican authorized the Pontifical coronation of the image and she was crowned in 1921. In 1940 Pope Pius Xll elevated the shrine to the status of a basilica. Another great honour accorded to Our Lady of Zapopan was the visit by Pope St. John Paul ll on January 30, 1979. While there, he said to vast crowds: “This sanctuary of Zapopan is proof, most consoling, of the intense devotion, that the Mexican people profess to the Virgin Immaculate.”
Our Lady of Zapopan wears different costumes: for the October 12th procession she is dressed in “a medieval pilgrim’s cloak and a broad-brimmed hat” complete with a large satchel. Because what lady can travel without her travel bag? At other times she is seen wearing a gold-tasseled blue sash, indicating military rank and carrying a “gold baston of command.”Military rank? A baston of command? For Our Lady? Well, in 1821, the “Year of Independence” for Mexico, the government of Jalisco commissioned Our Lady as “General of the Army and of the State.” At which time she was vested with the sash and the baton! Our Lady of Zapopan is also known as the Patroness of Guadalajara because of her protection of its citizens in storms and plagues.
A visit to Zapopan on October 12th will provide memories for a lifetime of the deep veneration of the people of Mexico toward Our Lady.
I was visiting the renowned shrine of Our Lady of Tonatico in the town of the same name in the state of Mexico. It is a ten-minute bus ride from the internationally recognized spa town of Ixtapan de Sal. Whereas Ixtapan is a bustling place, Tonatico is its opposite, a smaller serene spot encircled by mountains. The church of Our Lady of Tonatico is an exquisite place. Enormous in size. All in tones of burgundy and cream and brimming over with flowers to honour Our Lady.
But where was the famous statue? I glanced all around and it was nowhere to be seen. Then I looked up. Way up. And there she was! An unusually tall, elongated figure, situated high above the main altar. A kindly sacristan motioned for me to climb the staircase for a closer look. Before I realized it I was face-to-face with the famous Our Lady of Tonatico!
She looked decidedly different from any statue of Our Lady that I had ever seen before. That tilt of the head. The look of perplexity. Or, maybe of dismay. She looked so down-to-earth, just like everybody’s next-door neighbor. There was nothing ethereal in her expression at all.
And how to account for that unusual tilt of the head? That all began with a catastrophe that happened over two hundred years ago—
All the clergy and guests were gathering on the grounds for the blessing of the new church of Our Lady of Tonatico. A banquet was being held to celebrate the event.
During the festivities two of the townspeople were telling the pastor about a recent dream they had had concerning the new shrine. Oddly, both of the guests had related the identical dream. Its message? That the pastor would have much anxiety concerning this new sanctuary. No sooner had these words been spoken than one of the guests raced over with alarming news. The church was on fire! All stormed over to the calamitous scene. Before their very eyes the roof crashed in! The flames leaped higher and higher. Within minutes all had become a conflagration of burning timbers. Everything was ruined!
Everything, that is, except the statue of Our Lady of Tonatico. It, inexplicably, escaped all damage and beyond all logic, was found outside the church. “How did it get there?” everyone wondered. It was far too large to have been surreptitiously smuggled out of the church. The mystery remains to the present day.
Stranger still, the position of the statue’s head had become altered after the fire; it was now tilted upward toward the church. It was as though Our Lady were standing there—-with anguished eyes—watching the inferno unfold. The unusual angle of the head is visible to the present day.
The story of the miracle spread and the devotion of the townspeople to their favourite patron increased dramatically. She has become known for her extraordinary powers of intercession. Behind the church stands an entire building devoted to testimonials documenting Our Lady of Tonatico’s special favours. All four walls are literally covered with thousands of ex-votos (also called retablos). These are small hand-drawn pictures which depict miracles which have occurred. All are signed and dated by the grateful donors. Usually, the individuals do not paint the pictures themselves. They hire artists to do the work. Since the early 1600’s the statue has been known as “taumataurga” (wonder-working). She has been known to heal paralysis, cure blindness and save people horribly wounded in accidents.
And, according to the dates of some of the ex-votos, Our Lady of Tonatico is continuing her powerful intersessions to this day.