The much-loved statue of Our Lady in the church of Santa Anita has a most unusual and extraordinary talent—but it’s one that is not appreciated by all!
Tradition tells us that the miraculous and legendary image of Our Lady of Purification was able to declare—precisely—whether a sick person would get better or whether they would die! Not by words, but by the colour of her skin; if her face turned rosy pink and bright it meant life, if it turned dark, it meant death.
The stuff of pious legends? Or of naïve schoolchildren? Well, the Franciscan friars at the convent had some experience of this themselves—
But first, some of the history of the shrine is in order: In 1530 two Franciscan friars, Fray Juan de Padilla And Fray Juan de Badillo arrived in the hamlet to preach the faith. Historians relate that a European hermit had brought the statue to the area about the year 1700. The elderly hermit had eventually become ill and a devout Christian Indian woman named Augustina took care of him. On his deathbed, in gratitude, he entrusted the statue to her. Soon, favours abounded to those who prayed through her intercession!
Augustina was known as a “native doctor” and would visit sick people in their homes. She began to notice a strange phenomenon: while praying for a patient she would observe the features of the image—sure enough, if the features darkened it meant sure death for the patient. If the features brightened, it was a sign of imminent health.
The friars soon learned of the mysterious happenings and decided to investigate. To test this hypothesis, they brought the image to an ill friar: the image’s face turned dark. “You are beautiful, O Lady, but very dark,” said the sick friar. Shortly after, he died a holy death.
Over time, however, devotion to Our Lady’s image diminished and it became neglected entirely . This was to change however; after the middle of the 17th century, Franciscan Fria, Ignatio Tellez, saw the sorry image: it was in a dilapidated state and its garments were tattered and covered with dust. The friar discovered that this was indeed the miraculous statue he had heard about. He resolved to revive the ancient devotion—and this devotion has continued to the present day.
The Franciscans are in charge of this thriving parish to this day. Each year on the second of February, the Feast of the Presentation, a fiesta is celebrated with great solemnity and rejoicing. The small wooden statue of Spanish origin is about 18″ (cm) in height. She holds a golden candlestick in her right hand and on her left arm, the Child Jesus. Both Mother and Child are vested in sumptuous garments.
She has another title as well: “Help of the Sick.” Many a pilgrim attests to the powers of her intercession!
The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is everywhere in Mexico. On billboards, bus stations, store-fronts, front lawns. Taxicabs. Cars. And of course, in churches. Particularly churches. There is scarcely a town in the country that does not have a church dedicated to her. And the Franciscan church in this story goes one better—it is not only named after her it is in a town which is named after her as well.
The miraculous painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe is in the Franciscan Church and Convento of Guadalupe, Zacatecas, a town 4 miles away from the beautiful city of Zacatecas.
This Convento played a key role in the evangelization of Mexico and beyond. It was founded by the saintly Fray Antonio Margil de Jesus in 1707. This superb Spanish missionary arrived in New Spain in 1683 and eventually became the Guardian of this Apostolic College of Zacatecas. Prior to this appointment he had been the Guardian of the College of Santa Cruz in Queretaro. Personnel statistics from 1796 indicate the immensity of this establishment in Zacatecas: there were 105 priests, 126 religious 56 novices and 45 religious students, a total of 383 persons.
For over a century it was a centre of “tremendous” missionary activity and founded 12 missions in Texas, 15 in Baja, California, and one in Zapopan, Mexico. Two other Apostolic Colleges existed at this time as well: the College of Santa Cruz in Queretaro, founded in 1683, which was the first training centre for missionaries in the New World and the third Apostolic College, San Fernando founded in Mexico City in 1734. This College is best-known for its association with St. Junipero Serra, the Apostle of California; prior to his arrival in California he spent many years at San Fernando. It had a total membership of 114 friars in 1772.
These colleges were schools to “form apostles.” The friars chosen to come here were an elite group, men of exalted spiritual goals and virtues.
In 1843 Venerable Fray Bernardino de Jesus was elected Guardian of the Apostolic College of Guadalupe; he was a man of extraordinary piety and virtue. Shortly after his election he received letters from two Franciscan nuns: They had been receiving messages from the Blessed Virgin Mary to pass on to him. The first was that the College would have to endure a great trial. Being a man of prudence and wisdom he was skeptical! To prove the authenticity of these messages the nuns prophesied three signs all of which were realized.
The first sign: they revealed to him his innermost thoughts about a certain subject of which he had told no one. The second: they would be protected from an impending catastrophe in the convent: sure enough, shortly thereafter, the roof collapsed, and, despite the presence of many people, no one was hurt. The third: a statue would fall from a height in the chapel but would not sustain any damage. This too came to pass!
But back to the subject of the story, the Virgin of the Ring: a strange name indeed for a statue of Our Lady! And its origins are even more unusual: The Virgin requested that Fray Bernardino convoke all the friars on the feast of the Assumption to renew their vows and their “spiritual betrothal” to her by means of a ring. After the confirmation of the messages he wasted no time in calling his friars together. On August 15, 1844, he, together with his congregation, presented Our Lady with the gold ring he had had expressly made for the occasion.
One wonders how a ring could be placed on a painting! Solution: the ring was open on the back so that it could be inserted through holes in the painting. A legend states that the fingers of the Virgin separated when the Father guardian inserted the ring. Franciscan historians point out the peculiar angle of the little finger on the hand, which they believe adds some credence to the story.
Visitors to the church today can see the ring plainly visible on the painting above the main altar.
Our Lady’s initial prophecy was effected in a most dramatic manner: In 1859 the fiercely anti-Catholic government passed the Laws of Exclaustration and the friars were forced to flee the convent. Only a fraction of the College remains; the rest was appropriated by the government and is now art museum. This museum houses an exemplary collection of colonial art and is considered the second finest art museum in the country.
Also to be noted: this church was the childhood parish of the renowned Mexican martyr Blessed Miguel Pro, the church where he was baptized. His home (which can be visited) is only a few steps away.
The clowns. The acrobats. The trapeze artists! Who doesn’t love a circus? And the citizens of San Juan de los Lagos, a town 76 miles northeast of Guadalajara, were no exception. The circus was coming to town!
The year was 1623. A family of aerial acrobats was in the middle of their performance when the six-year-old daughter slipped, lost her footing and plunged to the ground far below. Impaled by a dagger through the chest, she died instantly. Safety nets were not in use at that time: instead—to increase the thrill factor—daggers had been placed in the earth with their points placed upward.
Hours later, as the young trapeze artist was being prepared for burial, Ana Lucia, the 86-year-old sacristan’s wife, elbowed her way through the crowd and placed a statue of Mary (known as Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos) on the little corpse. “La Virgencita will return the child to life!” she proclaimed. “Let us all pray to Holy Mary!” Within minutes, the child blinked open her eyes, looked all around, and sat straight up. She was alive!
Since 1623 the shrine of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos has become one of the most celebrated shrines in Latin America, second only to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. It attracts more than six million pilgrims a year.
In 1634 Guadalajaran Bishop Cervantes Carvajal, travelled to the town to investigate the extraordinary happenings. He interviewed many of the witnesses including 97-year-old Ana Lucia. His findings verified the authenticity of the miracle of 1623 as well as an “uninterrupted series of additional favours and miracles.” Further church investigations in 1639 and 1668 collaborated Bishop Carrvajal’s research.
The miracles continue to the present day: a special room has been set aside beside the sacristy for the displaying of ex-votos, pictorial testimonials, objects and letters of thanksgiving for miracles granted. The room is overflowing with them!
The shrine of Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, once a humble chapel with “mud walls and straw roof” is now a “magnificent” twin-towered basilica. On the feast of the Assumption in 1904 the statue was crowned with the authorization of Pope Pius X. In 1944 the seminary of San Juan de los Lagos was founded. Three years later Pope Pius Xll elevated the sanctuary to the status of a basilica. In 1972 the shrine became the Cathedral-Basilica for the newly established diocese of San Juan de Los Lagos.
Although the exact age of the statue is unknown it was most likely brought to the town by the saintly Franciscan missionary, Fray Miguel de Bolonia, in the sixteenth century. The ongoing existence of the statue is a miracle in itself: Over 500 years old, the statue should have disintegrated within a few years; instead it is intact, robust, unblemished—and in mint condition.
An exemplary honour was bestowed on the shrine on May 8, 1990: that was the day that Pope St. John Paul ll visited. He spent an “unprecedented” three minutes kneeling in front of the statue praying before the small image, “with eyes closed—in a spirit of intense recollection.” It seemed like he could barely tear himself away—Our Lady has that effect on people!
As I was leaving the shrine I spoke to one of the nuns in attendance: I brought up the subject of the vocations crisis we are having in the Church today. She looked at me quizzically: “Vocations crisis?” she asked. “What vocations crisis? Here we have three hundred seminarians! We are bursting at the seams!”
It looks like Our Lady of St. John is continuing her wonders to the present day!
The drive from Queretaro to Soriano is a little tedious; it is nothing but flat plains, humdrum scenery and sparse populations.
But then, as you approach the small town you are stunned to see the church—so enormous, so majestic! “Such magnificence in this sleepy place!” said one author. And at the centre of this glorious church, above the main altar, is the miraculous statue of Our Lady of Sorrows. You are touched by the expression on her face, such sorrow, such anguish of heart, “deep beyond telling” recalls one chronicler. It is a small statue, only 26” in height.
The statue spans two distinct time periods of Mexican evangelization: one in the mid 1500’s and the second in the mid-to-late 1700’s. But how can this be?
The deep devotion of the early Franciscans to Our Lady is legendary: Often it was their custom to leave innumerable statues of Our Lady along their trails. It is surmised that this statue is one of these. Historians believe that the first priest to preach here was Franciscan Fray Alonso Rangel who came to New Spain in 1529. He learned the Otomi language and converted many to the faith. And one cannot help but ask: “But what happened in the intervening years?”
The writer Pena said: “No Christian Indian or Spaniard was safe in this Sierra Gorda in the 1700’s,” and he spoke of the massacres by the Chichemeca Indians. “Nothing remained,” he said, “the missions were burnt and the missionaries were sacrificed.”
The little chapel in Soriano was not spared. It was in ruins. The year 1723, though, brought new life to the area. New mines had been discovered and new settlers arrived. And, upon this lively scene, arrived a zealous Franciscan missionary from Queretaro, Fray Guadalupe Soriano.
Being a curious sort, he decided to poke around the ruins of the ancient chapel. There, something caught his eye! Something metallic! He hastily cleared away the heap of stones and rubble. And there it was—-underneath a slab of rock—the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows. It had survived the massacre, the fires, the elements…intact.
Today “Hundreds of paintings, photos, cards and letters of thanksgiving adorn the walls of the adjoining chapel.” The citizens have a fervent love for Our Lady of Soriano. And she has rewarded them with a multitude of favours throughout the centuries.
In 1964 the statue was pontifically crowned and in 2009 Pope Benedict XVl elevated the church to the level of a Basilica. Fray Rengel would be proud!
Zacatecas. It’s one of those places you just can’t forget. A mountainous city in north central Mexico, it’s a place of superlatives. UNESCO bestowed the title, Patrimony of Humanity, on the city in 1993.
It’s considered one of the finest of Mexico’s colonial cities. It was once the biggest silver-producing city in the world and for three centuries was one of the country’s most prosperous areas.
And that’s not all. It is renowned for having the only cable-car system in the world to traverse an entire city. And that cable-car leads directly to the shrine of EL PATROCINIO, which is majestically situated atop the Cerro de la Bufa, (Hill of the Bufa). The Bufa is a dramatic outcropping of rock which overlooks the city.
The statue of El Patrocinio was brought from Spain by the Spanish Conquistadores and was present at the founding of the city in 1546.
In 1588 Spanish King Felipe ll ordered a coat of arms for the city of Zacatecas: Prominent on the shield was an image of the Virgin Mary standing on the clouds atop the hill of the Bufa. The four founding Conquistadores are depicted at the foot of the hill. Symbolism on the shield can be traced back to a 500-year-old tradition: Initially the Chichema Indians were terrified of the Spaniards. They took refuge in the Cerro de la Bufa, hiding in the woods, fortifying themselves with supplies and weapons. Then came the events of Sept.8, 1530:
All were astounded by a vision in the sky: “A Lady of great beauty appeared on the Bufa with a child in her arms.” She advised the Indians to make peace with the Spaniards. All were startled and shouted “Milagro! Milagro!” (miracle) From that time on peace ensued between the two groups and the conversion of the indigenous population to the Christian faith proceeded tranquilly.
The Franciscans were the first evangelizers to the area: Francisco Jeronimo de Mendoza built the first church on the site in 1603. Until this time the church had been a small hermitage.
In 1707 the Franciscan Apostolic College for the Propogation of the faith was founded in nearby Guadalupe, Zacatecas, for the express purpose of evangelization. For the next century and a half the College provided priests for the shrine of EL PATROCINIO.
The charming wood statue (with such a youthful face!) measures 125 cm in height. It is enshrined above the main altar in the small, light-filled church. Neoclassical architecture dominates the interior.
The statue was crowned canonically by the authority of Pope Paul Vl in 1967. Cardinal Jose Rivera did the honours in the presence of 15,000 of the faithful.
“Zacatecas has always been the city of Mary,” he said, “right from the beginning.”
And it is probably the only city in the world where you can go directly to Mass—by cable-car!
“Reverse the ravages of time!” Cosmeticians have made fortunes on just such claims.
“Impossible!” say the realists. “Only in your dreams!” say the skeptics. But once, a very long time ago, just such a miracle did indeed occur…
The date was Sept. 19, 1644: The miracle occurred in Talpa, Jalisco, a small town in the Sierra Madre mountains of western Mexico.
Many years earlier, Franciscan missionaries had brought a 19”(48 cm) statue of Our Lady of the Rosary to the town. The fragile cornpaste statue had been crafted by Tarascan Indians in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, a state in central Mexico. The resourceful Tarascans combined dried cornstalk with the bulb of an orchid to devise a uniquely durable but lightweight substance, ideal for the moulding of statues. Patzcuaro had become renowned as the Christian sculptural centre of the country. Thus it was that the Franciscan missionaries would travel to Patzcuaro to purchase their statue.
It was placed in the local chapel and was the object of fervent veneration for many years. Over time, however, insects of all kinds began devouring the statue’s face. Eventually the statue became so disfigured—it was full of cracks and insect bites—- that the pastor, Father Pedro Rubio Felix became worried that the unsightly-looking image would be a deterrent to his parishioners’ faith. He announced: “The statue should be discarded! With all due reverence, of course.” He asked the cantor’s daughter, Maria Tenachi, to perform the task. She agreed to do so but only with the utmost reluctance. She loved the statue—and furthermore—she had received many favours from her patron!
She embarked upon her sad task. She began—ever so slowly—to carefully wrap the statue in altar cloths. Then—without warning, she was knocked to the floor by a dazzling light which beamed from the statue’s forehead. Maria fell “as if dead.” The people in the church rushed over, fearing the worst. “What has happened to Maria?” they screamed, racing to her side.” “She’s dead!” shrieked those closest to her; to everyone’s relief, however, Maria soon regained consciousness and rapidly recovered. Her eyes reverted at once to the statue: “Look, look at the statue!” Maria cried. Before their eyes the statue had transformed itself. “It looks perfect!” said one. “It looks brand-new!” said another. The news spread. People came running from all quarters to see the “renovated’ Virgin”. All were singing, praying, marvelling. “Milagro! Milagro!” (miracle) they shouted. The pastor, himself, witnessed the astounding events and testified to them in writing as did the onlookers in the church. And the Bishop of Guadalajara, Don Juan Ruiz Comenero said, “It is a great miracle!”
But that is not all. There had been, in reality, a double miracle: When Maria lifted the statue she was astonished by its weight: the featherweight, fragile statue had now become robust and heavy. It had changed into a new unknown substance.
Official church investigation in 1670 resulted in the document, La Autentica, which established the authenticity of the 1644 miracle. The fame of the image grew day by day and many were the miracles associated with her intercession. The small rustic chapel had to be expanded to accommodate the overflow crowds. In 1782 construction was completed on the “towering” church which stands today. It was declared a basilica by Pope Benedict XV in 1915 and the statue was crowned with papal approval in 1923.
As popular as she was three centuries ago, she is attracting even more crowds today: The travel guide Pacific Mexico refers to Our Lady of Talpa as one of the “three Sister Virgins of Jalisco who draw millions of pilgrims each year.” The other two are Our Lady of Zapopan in Guadalajara and Our Lady of San Juan de Los Lagos, in the town of the same name.
And Our Lady of Talpa is indeed proof—with God anything is possible. The ravages of time can be reversed—particularly in the spiritual realm!
The painting of Our Lady in the Church of Our Lady of the Angels in Mexico City is considered so celebrated and miraculous that it has been honoured by four popes, from Pope Pius Vl in 1793 to Pope Pius Xl in 1923.
One pope, Pope Pius Xl, was so enamoured of the painting that he kept a framed copy of the image by his bedside for years. It was one of the few items he grabbed as he fled Italy in great haste in 1848 during the political tumult in Italy.
In 1923 Pope Pius Xl authorized the pontifical coronation of the painting with Archbishop Don Mora y del Rio performoing the ceremony. The magnificent crown is visible today!
The painting has the most fascinating history:
in 1580 torrential rains flooded the Mexican capital.”Streets became rivers and homes were swept away.” Debris was rampant. But out of the flotsam, an Aztec Indian chief named Isayoque spotted a painting of exquisite beauty floating in the flood waters. It depicted Our Lady surrounded by a multitude of baby angels. He was so moved by the loveliness of the image that he built a small adobe chapel to honour this depiction of Our Lady. In 1595, worried that the painting was showing signs of deterioration, he commissioned an artist to paint a replica on the chapel’s adobe wall. In that same year the church hierarchy approved the chapel for public worship.
Over time, however, the old chapel fell to ruins—all that is, except for the adobe wall containing the image! The painting, miraculously, was still intact despite decades of exposure to the elements. In 1746, church authorities decided to “seal” the painting by covering it with wet mats and nailed boards. A year later when the coverings were removed the painting was in pristine condition! Sadly, though, three decades later, the small chapel was a “complete ruin.”
In 1776 a pious tailor was passing by the chapel. He was so struck by the painting’s beauty that he was resolved to build a new chapel. With the permission of the Archbishop of Mexico he began the renovations.
In 1793 Pope Pius Vl affiliated the Church of Our Lady of the Angels with the Church of St. John Lateran in Rome and granted it all the indulgences to be gained in the Lateran church. “To recount the marvels worked through the intercession of Our Lady of the Angels would require a volume in itself,” reports a historian.
But probably, the greatest miracle of all is the preservation of the image itself. Since 1580, the image’s hands and face have not been “retouched in the slightest.” And still today, it remains “radiant with beauty” according to the author of the book MEXICO, LAND OF MARY’S WONDERS.
Best of all, you can see the painting yourself! It can be found above the main altar in the magnificent Church of Our Lady of the Angels in central Mexico City.
The painting above the main altar of the church of La Piedad has the most intriguing history—
The story of the
Dominican convent of La Piedad dates back to 1595. The friars wanted a painting of Our Lady for their new convent so they sent a friar and a laybrother to Rome to commission an image of Our Lady holding her Crucified Son. Once in Rome, the two found a renowned painter who agreed to their terms; however, he couldn’t give them a completion date. “We have to return to Mexico in a month,” they told him. He merely shrugged. In fact, he didn’t seem particularly interested in the project at all!
When they went to collect the painting a month later the artist handed them a black and white sketch. “That’s the best I can do!” he said. “But we’re leaving tomorrow!” cried the friar. “Well, that’s too bad,” said the artist, none too concerned.
The heavy-hearted Mexicans had no choice. They carefully packed the “painting” in a wooden crate for the long journey home. During the voyage a fierce storm engulfed the ship. “Padre! We’ll all be drowned!” they shrieked.in terror. “Have confidence in Our Lady, Star of the Sea,” answered the priest. “She can calm the waters in a glance.” All on board prayed fervently to Our Lady of Piedad to save their lives. Sure enough, the sea became calm and the pair arrrived safely in Veracruz. As they travelled overland to Mexico City they became increasingly uneasy. “How disappointed they all will be!” murmured the friar.
After warmly welcoming the travellers home, the friars were anxious to see the painting. “Open the crate!” they shouted. “Let’s see the painting!” When they removed the wrappings from the container—the sketch was no longer a sketch! Instead, in its place, was a full-colour painting of immense beauty. Full of wonder, the amazed pair knelt before the painting and recounted the extraordinary tale.
The miraculous oil painting has been venerated for four centuries up to the present day where it hangs above the main altar of the church of La Piedad in central Mexico City. Its size is immense: 9 ft.(3m) in height by 8 ft.(2.5m) in width. The colours today are as vivid and bright as if they had been painted yesterday.
Countless miracles have been enacted through her intercession and many of these have been verified by formal ecclesiastical investigation. Numerous indulgences have been authorized to the church of La Piedad and it has been elevated to the status of a Minor Basilica. The English name for La Piedad is Our Lady of Compassion.
The Church of La Redonda (known as Our Lady of the Round) is one of the oldest in the country. It was founded by the renowned and saintly Fray Padre de Gante in 1524 and was dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
But one is forced to ask: ” Why the strange name? How did it originate?” It came from the fact that the church has an unusually shaped appearance because of the circular shape of its apse.
Since the early 17th century the image of Our Lady of the Round has been venerated in Mexico City. The image’s origins are Spanish: Franciscans from Spain sent the head and hands of Our Lady’s statue to the church of La Redonda. This was common practice in New Spain (Mexico) where the statue would be completed and vested by Mexican artisans. When an elderly Indian woman saw the parts of the statue she eagerly volounteered to complete it. When she arrived home she saw two men waiting for her whom she had never met before. “We’re master craftsmen and we’re here to finish the statue,” they said. The woman readily agreed and handed over the face and hands.
When she collected the statue three days later the artists had mysteriously disappeared—without their pay! Everyone was struck by the wondrous beauty of the image. It was considered by all as a “work of art wrought through a miracle.”
Many miracles have been associated with La Redonda; two will be related here: In 1670 there was an “extreme scarcity of rain” in the city. The parishioners, in desperation, requested a license from the civil authorities to hold a procession of La Redonda, with the purpose of praying for rain. This was granted but strict geographical limits were placed on the participants. On July 9, the procession was held with spectacular results: a heavy downpour did, in fact, happen!
Strangely, though, the area immediately outside the area of the procession received no rain at all! Not one drop. The area bounded by the limits of the procession was deluged!
On December 11, 1676, a fierce fire erupted in a nearby church, the old church of St. Augustine. There was great fear that the fire would spread and engulf the entire neighbourhood. The image of La Redonda was brought in haste from the church. “When the statue neared the blazing building, the flames ceased at once, as though on command,” reported a chronicle of the event. A spontaneous procession of thanksgiving was formed and over three thousand people, carrying candles and torches, escorted the image of La Redonda back to her shrine.
The church of La Redonda was declared a national monument in 1932. You can visit it yourself today—it is a well-known historical monument (and active parish) in the centre of the city.
photography by Mary Hansen
The town of Loreto is a magnet for its “perfect” climate (average temperature is in the 80’s) and vacation activities, along with its beaches. It is also known for its famous church: the mission Church of Our Lady of Loreto, the first mission church of the Californias.
An inscription above the main portal of the church solemnly declares its primacy: Cabeza y Madre de las Misiones Baja y Alta California (“Head and Mother of the Missions of
Lower and Upper California”). The mission is steps away from the shimmering, sapphire-blue waters of the Sea of Cortéz.
Loreto, “the oldest permanent settlement in all the Californias” is located on the eastern coast of the Baja California peninsula at the base of the Sierra de Gigante mountain range, 700 miles south of San Diego.
Loreto became the capital of Baja Sur and thus, was the first capital of the Californias.
The mission of Loreto has more claims to fame: It was the home of the Franciscan “Apostle of California” Fray Junípero Serra for a period of time. When the Jesuits were expelled from New Spain in 1767 the Franciscans were authorized to take over the 15 Jesuit-run missions on the Baja peninsula. Serra became Presidente of these missions in 1768 and the mission
of Loreto served as his headquarters. Loreto was also the “cornerstone” and central departure point for missionary expansion northward into Alta California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, from which new missions and new towns and cities came into existence.
The mission of Loreto was founded by Italian-born Jesuit and explorer Father Jean Marie de Salvatierra on Oct. 25, 1697. He dedicated the mission to Our Lady of Loreto for whom he had a keen devotion.(The tradition of Our Lady of Loreto commemorates the miraculous transference of the Holy House of Nazareth to the town of Loreto in Italy).
Father de Salvatierra disembarked at Baja, California, carrying the emblem of the cross and the statue of Our Lady of Loreto. He declared her queen of the expedition and Patroness of all future missions in California.
He brought his own life-sized statue of Our Lady of Loreto from Italy and described her reception by the new community: In a letter dated November 27, 1697, he wrote: “The next day we brought ashore the Holy Madonna. She was received on land with many salvos. We recited with the Indians the Ave Maria in their language and sang the litany of Loreto.
The Virgin was carried in procession, and the Indian men and women gave expression of their intense joy at the arrival of the sacred image—the tent donated by Don Domingo de la Canal was decorated as a church and on Saturday October 26 Mass was celebrated.”
In 1697, the Jesuits were given authorization by the Spanish King to Christianize the Baja area. During the next 70 years they founded 14 more missions in the region. With the help of the local Guaycura Indians, construction on the first church of Loreto began in 1699. Jesuit Father Jaime Bravo initiated the building of a larger church in 1740.
The town of Loreto remained the capital and the commercial centre of the region for almost 150 years—until disaster struck in 1829: A devastating earthquake demolished much of the town. Although the church of Loreto was damaged, its basic structure, “solid, squat and simple,” remained intact.
In 1830 the capital was transferred to La Paz, a now-bustling city 210 miles south of Loreto. In 1854, diocesan clergy assumed control of the mission of Our Lady of Loreto. In 1967, Pope Paul Vl declared Our Lady the patrona principe of the Diocese of Mexicali.
A plaque in the narthex describes the church as a “magnificent temple with thick stone walls—worthy of the California capital.” Built in the shape of a Greek cross, it has a “very long rectangular floor plan somewhat out of proportion.”
The single nave, with its austere, white-washed interior and chestnut-brown cedar-beamed ceiling, is a cool and tranquil oasis from the blistering desert sun. The five-piece “very grandiose” gilded
altarpiece, however, is anything but austere: Painted in radiant shades of crimson red and powder blue, it is adorned with an array of 3-D sculpted cherubs, angels, grapes and scrolls.
A statue of Our Lady of Loreto with the Infant Christ stands at the center of the altarpiece, directly above the tabernacle. Fittingly, for a shrine of Loreto, a large painting above the altarpiece depicts the Holy Family in their home at Nazareth.
The first stone church is now a chapel, situated next to the presbytery. Dominating the space is the original statue of Our Lady of Loreto. The chapel’s ambiance—white-washed walls and an altarpiece in shades of robin’s-egg blue and cream—provides a soothing retreat for the weary soul.
The museum next door is a must-see: Its comprehensive “and surprisingly sophisticated” displays recount the history of the Baja and its missions. A plaque at the entrance movingly documents the gratitude of the people of Loreto toward the founding Jesuits: “To them we dedicate this museum as a humble and respectful recognition of their courage and greatness.”
In 1769, Blessed Serra departed from the mission of Loreto and journeyed to Alta California (present-day California) where he founded a series of new missions and settlements—with names like San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Carmel.
But the mission of Our Lady of Loreto was the first of them all.
Mary Hansen writes from North Bay, Ontario
Reprinted with permission from the NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER