Who doesn’t love a circus? The acrobats. The clowns. The trapeze artists. And the inhabitants of San Juan de los Lagos in the state of Jalisco were no exception. They were abuzz with excitement. The circus was coming to town!
The year was 1623. A family of trapeze artists had just arrived enroute to Gaudalajara. The star of the entourage was a six-year-old girl. The audience marvelled at her performance on the high-wire. She seemed to glide through the air like a bird! Like a tiny ballerina with wings. The spectators were dazzled by it all and couldn’t stop applauding.
To increase the thrill factor, daggers, instead of a safety net, had been placed in the ground with their points positioned upward. All was going perfectly until the child attempted a risky maneuver. And then the unthinkable happened. The little girl lost her footing and plunged to the ground, impaled by a dagger which pierced her heart. The crowd gasped in horror. And sorrow swept through the audience like a tsunami. The little trapeze artist died instantly.
But then, a while later, something happened: A commotion was heard. What was going on? A woman was barreling her way through the crowd. “Wait! Don’t bury the child! I have the remedy,” said 78-year-old Ana Lucia in a firm voice. She was carrying a small, somewhat shabby statue of the Madonna in her arms. “Don’t be ridiculous, Ana Lucia!” bellowed a skeptic. “The child has been dead for hours!” Ignoring him, Ana Luisa placed the statue on the little corpse. Within minutes the faintest of stirrings rippled across the burial cloths. The crowd stared spellbound. Rapt. The girl’s hands began trembling. To the astonishment of all the young performer sat upright and opened her eyes. She was alive! The crowd went wild with cheering and yelling and rejoicing.
Word of the great miracle spread and pilgrims came running from everywhere to see the miraculous statue. And they have never stopped coming.
But to step back a bit: one must wonder why the statue of Our Lady had become so unsightly: The reason, first of all, is its antiquity. Franciscan Friar Venerable Miguel Bolonia had brought the exquisite statue to the town in 1542. He had ordered it from the Tarascan Indians of Patzcuaro, Michoacan, who were renowned throughout the country for the sculpting of religious images. They had developed a compound known as pasta de Michoacan, a mixture of cornstalk glue and orchid bulbs, which formed a lightweight and malleable substance, ideal for their purposes.
The diminutive statue (it is slightly over a foot in height) was housed in a humble adobe, grass-roofed, chapel. Pedro Antes and his wife, Ana Luisa, were the chapel’s caretakers. Ana was particularly devoted to the statue of Our Lady and called it Cihuapilli (“Lady”). Over time, however, the statue’s face became blackened and disfigured by insects and the elements. By 1623, the statue was no longer the exquisite image it had been—it had become tattered and dishevelled. But this was soon to change!
After the miracle of 1623 the acrobat’s father was so immensely grateful to the Virgin, that he asked permission to take the statue to Guadalajara to be restored. The pastor, Don Diego Camerena, gave his permission for the undertaking. When the father arrived in the city he was met by two handsome strangers who approached him: “Are you looking for an artist to repair a sacred image?” they asked. “If so, we are at your service.” In a short time the statue was “beautifully restored” and the artists vanished, without asking for any payment. No one has ever discovered the identity of the two “mystery” artists. Who were they? “Well, of course they were angels,” explained Ana Maria, who lived to be 110 years old.
Today, defying all scientific explanation, the statue is in pristine condition. Like the tilma of Juan Diego, the statue should have disintegrated into a powder-like substance in a few short years. Instead, after four centuries, it is intact and robust.
An investigation by ecclesiastical authorities in 1634, 1639, and 1668, verified the authenticity of the 1623 miracle as well as a “multitude of miracles performed by Our Lady by means of her image of San Juan de los Lagos.”
These miracles are continuing to the present day. Beside the sanctuary is a sala (a room) which gives evidence of “an uninterrupted series of favours and miracles.” Its walls are covered with testimonials of thanksgiving from grateful recipients. We read about Adriana Bastida who is thanking our Lady on May 21, 2006; she fell and fractured her cranium and is “all cured” and about Margarita Perez from San Felipe who is thanking Our Lady in December 2005 for curing her sick husband.
Today the shrine is the second most visited church in Mexico, after Our Lady of Guadalupe. The original little adobe chapel is no more. In its place is a magnificent Baroque cathedral-basilica which is home to four large paintings by the 17th century Flemish master, Peter Paul Rubens.
The basilica has received the approval of the church at its highest levels: In 1904 the statue was solemnly crowned with the authorization of Pope Pius X. In 1923 the church was raised to the level of a Collegiate church by a Papal Bull of Pope Pius XI and in 1947 Pope Pius XII elevated the sanctuary to the category of a minor basilica.
Probably the greatest honour of all accorded to the statue occurred on May 8, 1990: St. Pope John Paul ll visited the shrine on that day. He was so moved by the image that he spent three minutes before the statue in a spirit of “intense recollection.” As he was exiting from her presence, he turned back (as if he couldn’t tear himself away) and spent an additional “120 seconds” in prayer before the revered image.
No stranger to religious persecution under the Nazis and the Communists, St. Pope John Paul ll would have been acutely aware of the persecution in Mexico. San Juan de los Lagos, as did all of Mexico, suffered during the fierce, anti-Catholic revolution of the 1920’s. According to Graham Greene, in his book, The Lawless Roads, “It was a time when every priest was hunted down or shot.”
One of those who suffered grievously was the martyr, San Pedro Esqueda Ramirez (1887-1927), who was born in the town. As the pastor of the nearby St. John the Baptist church (just steps away from the Cathedral-Basilica) he had a fervent passion for Eucharistic Adoration, Our Lady (particularly in her title as Nuestra Senora de San Juan de los Lagos) and the catechesis of children. As a young priest, he had founded a school for the training of catechists.
He was taken prisoner by the revolutionary soldiers and beaten, scourged and bludgeoned. For four days. “Deny Christ! Deny your priesthood! Then we will let you go!” “Never! Never!” answered the saint. He was shot to death by a soldier on Nov. 22, 1927. He was canonized by St. Pope John Paul ll in 2000.
And in Mexico we saw the chronology:
First they came after the statues: “The statues were carried out of the church while the inhabitants watched, sheepishly, and saw their children encouraged to chop up the images in return for little presents of candy.” (The Lawless Roads)
Then they came after the churches: “They went to the cathedral—and sprayed it with gasoline and bombs were set—and the imposingly massive structure—was badly damaged.” (Mexican Martyrdom by Fr. Wilfrid Parsons, S.J.)
And then they came after the priests—
Our Lady of San Juan de los Lagos, St. Pedro Esquada,
Pray for our beloved priests.
This strange, new vocabulary! Which dominates the evening news, night after night: “Variants, ‘compulsory jabs,’ Moderna, Pfizer, mRNA vaccinatios, Astra Zeneca, digital passports, ‘needles-in-arms’.” And as if that were not enough there is the ubiquitous Doctor Fauci. At some point you must have to wonder if the fellow is bi-locating. He seems to be everywhere. At all times. In all places. Such is our world of 2021. Everyone seems to be worried to some extent or another about Covid-19. Where do we turn? And in whom do we trust? Do we put our faith in vaccines? In the WHO? Or, heaven forbid—in Dr. Fauci?
The Tlaxcalans of Mexico, almost five centuries ago, were worried too. And they had a lot more to be worried about than we do! A plague of smallpox swept over their countryside like a tidal wave, leaving hardly a family untouched. Ninety percent of their population died from the disease.
The Tlaxcalans, of all people! Because of their loyalty they held a special place of privilege in the newly conquered Mexican nation: They were the first friends of the Spanish, they were the first Christians in the new land and they were home to the first archbishopric in the country; it was established in 1525.
So outnumbered were the Spanish by the mighty Aztecs, that historians believe that the Spanish conquest of 1521, “an utterly unbelievable victory,” would have been impossible without the alliance with their new friends, the Tlaxcalans. The Aztecs had never been able to subdue this tiny, but fierce, warrior state.
The first convent in the country was built in Tlaxcala in 1526. This Franciscan convent plays a role in the story of Our Lady of Ocotlan. It was headed by the legendary Fray Torobio Motolinia (“the poor one”). He was one of the 12 Franciscan friars who landed in the country in 1524 to begin the evangelization of Mexico. They were known as “the twelve apostles,” friars of exemplary character and holiness. Fray Motolinia would go on to become “the greatest evangelizer in Mexican history.”
After the Guadalupe apparition of 1531 many Indians had become fervent Christians. One of these was Juan Diego Bernardino (no relation to the Guadalupe visionary) who worked for the friars at the monastery. Because of his innate holiness and his ardent devotion to the Blessed Virgin, he also served as sacristan at the convent.
One radiant, sunny day, on February 27, 1541, Juan was out fetching water for his sick relatives, many of whom were close to death. As he entered the forest, he was startled to see a beautiful lady standing in front of him. She greeted him with a joyful smile and said, “God be with you, my son. Where are you going?” He replied, “I’m fetching water to bring to the sick people of my village who are dying with no hope of a cure.” The lady then said to him:
“Come with me! I will give you a different water that will cure the sickness of your people. Not only your relatives and friends will be healed, but also all those who drink it.”
Juan followed the lady to the peak of a hill where a fountain of water was gushing forth. He was shocked because he had never seen such a fountain before and he had walked along this path many times. She continued:
“My heart always desire to help those who are suffering. My heart cannot bear to see so much pain and anguish among people without healing them. Drink as much water as you desire. Upon drinking just one drop, the sick will not only be cured, but they will receive perfect health!”
Juan realized—incredibly— that he was speaking with Our Lady, the Mother of God! He quickly filled his jug with the miraculous water and raced to his village with the amazing news. He soon became aware of a new sensation: it seemed that a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders. And that he ran with a light step and an even lighter heart! Even the heavy jug of water seemed weightless. Juan was ecstatic: All who drank of the water were healed!
Our Lady had also given Juan a message to deliver to the Franciscan friars at the monastery:
“Tell the monks that in this place, they shall find an image of me, which not only will represent my perfection, but also through it, I will bring forth my mercy and blessings. I want the image to be placed in the chapel of St. Lawrence.”
The Franciscans decided to investigate the astonishing events for themselves. They accompanied Juan to the forest to locate the miraculous fountain. What a sight they encountered: the forest was on fire! They also noticed a strange phenomenon: only one tree, the tallest tree—defying all scientific explanation— was aflame! Because it was so late at night they decided to return the next morning to resume their investigation
The friars, accompanied by half the town, returned in the morning when the fire had dissipated. But how would they ever find Our Lady’s image in such a vast forest? Impossible task! But by a mysterious series of signs they were directed to one particular tree, the tallest tree which had been ablaze. The friars took an axe to the tree to split it open.
An early chronicler documents what happened next:
“A new marvel met their eyes: within the trunk of the fallen tree was visible the image of the Holy Mother of God.”
All fell to their knees in wonder and awe. The magnificent 5’ (1.5 m.) statue was carried in solemn procession to the church where it resides today above the main altar in the Basilica of Our Lady of Ocotlan in the city of Tlaxcala. It is considered by many church historians to be one of the most beautiful churches in the country. Architects cite it as a “masterpiece of the late Mexican-Baroque style known as Churrigueresque.” The name of Our Lady of Ocotlan comes from ocote del ande—the oak tree that burned.
Five popes have granted approval of this apparition: Clemente XII (1735), Benedicto XIV (1746), Pius VI (1799), Pius X (1906), and Pius XII (1941). The statue of Our Lady of Ocotlan was pontifically crowned in 1906.
Although Our Lady of Ocotlan is such an important Marian apparition and is well-known and revered in Mexico, it is virtually unknown in the rest of the world. It seems to be completely eclipsed by the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe! Yet the parallels between the two are striking:
– It occurred 10 years after Guadalupe. 10-year anniversaries are always significant! Guadalupe occurred in 1531. The Ocotlan apparition occurred in 1541.
-Both visionaries were named Juan Diego. The last name of the uncle of the Gaudalupe visionary was Bernardino. The second Juan Diego’s last name was Bernardino as well.
-Both were converted Indians who were devoted to Our Lord, Our Lady and their Catholic faith.
-In both apparitions Our Lady gave motherly messages of concern: “AM I NOT HERE WHO AM YOUR MOTHER? WHAT DO YOU NEED?” she said at Guadalupe.
-At Ocotlan, Our Lady fulfilled and extended the promises she made at Guadalupe: “MY HEART CANNOT BEAR TO SEE SO MUCH PAIN AND ANGUISH AMONG PEOPLE WITHOUT HEALING THEM,” she said at Tlaxcala. And heal them she did!
-Both apparitions exhibited wondrous and miraculous images of Our Lady—not made by human At Guadalupe, the image was a painting, at Tlaxcala, the image was a statue!
The sisters at the Basilica assured me that healings and all kinds of blessings are ongoing at the shrine. They have witnessed countless numbers of them. Now that the plague is wreaking havoc in the world perhaps it is high time that Our Lady of Ocotlan be made known to the world outside of Mexico!
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D.H. Lawrence wrote a novel about Mexico in 1926, a time of severe persecution of the Church in that country. In his book, The Plumed Serpent, he recounts the words of Dona Carlota to her friend, Kate. Dona Carlota’s husband, Ramon, is the leader of a group dedicated to Quetzelcoatl, the Aztec serpent god. “Could you follow Ramon? Could you give up the Blessed Virgin? I would sooner die!” she said. “Ah Senora,” said Kate, “as if a woman who had ever known the Blessed Virgin could ever part from her again!”
Although these words were written almost a century ago they could well apply to Mexico’s love for the Virgin Mary at the present time, particularly in their passion for Our Lady of Guadalupe. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is everywhere in Mexico. In taxicabs. Buses. Restaurants. Store fronts. And roadside shrines. Renowned Mexican novelist, Carlos Fuentes, speaks of this phenomenon: He states that “Our Lady of Guadalupe is the central unifying force of the Mexican people.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared in Mexico in 1531 to a ravaged and distraught nation. The once proud, mighty Aztecs suffered an ignonimous defeat at the hands of a miniscule Spanish army in 1521. Soon their ubiquitous practice of human sacrifice was abolished and they were fearful that their pagan gods would exact revenge, causing immeasurable chaos in the cosmos. Carl Anderson and Eduardo Chavez, authors of Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love said that “the collective depression from this crisis of faith was so great that some of the natives committed suicide.”
And the small group of Spaniards in the country were in a desperate position as well. Because of the cruel and tyrannical behaviour of The First Audencia (the secular, governing group sent over from Spain) bitter animosity eruptedbetween the two cultures. Outnumbered six hundred to one, the Spaniards were terrified for their very lives. Bishop Zumarraga, the first bishop of Mexico City, feared that a massacre was imminent. He prayed urgently to Our Lady and asked for a very specific sign that a miracle would be forthcoming. Soon, the kindly Bishop (whose title would become “Defender of the Indians”) began hearing stories from a newly converted Chichimeca Indian about appearances of the Virgin Mary—
On Dec. 9, 1531, Juan Diego was walking to Tlalteloloco (a distance of nine miles) to attend the Saturday morning Mass in honour of the Blessed Virgin. On his way he encountered a most “beautiful Lady” at the top of Tepeyac Hill. She appeared as a mestiza woman (a woman of mixed race) and spoke to him in his native Nahuatl language. “She is one of us!” he said. And she called him “son.” What is striking is that Our Lady appeared as a mestiza woman. At this time in the New World the only mestizo people were children, most of whom would be under ten years old. And these poor children! They were “despised” and often left to “search the animal stalls for food left for pigs and dogs.” And Our Lady came as one of them, the most lowly and ostracized group in society. And she came as their Mother. She came as family.
And what words of love she spoke to Juan! “Listen, my son, to what I tell you now. Do not let anything worry or afflict you; do not fear illness nor any trouble-some happening nor pain. Am I not here? I who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your life and health? Are you not in my embrace and in my prayers? What else do you need?”
She appeared a total of four times to Juan Diego and once to his ill uncle, Juan Bernardino, curing him. She asked Juan to bring a message to Bishop Zumarraga that a church be built at Tepeyac Hill. The humble Juan Diego demurred: “Send someone more important!” he begged. “No, Juan!” she said. “It is you I want to carry out my requests!” Juan Diego then went to the Bishop with Our Lady’s message. He was understandably skeptical and asked for a sign to prove the authenticity of the apparition. On Dec. 12th Our Lady once again appeared to Juan and directed him to pick some Castilian roses to bring to the bishop. But the fact of the matter is this: Castilian roses were unknown in Mexico at that time and would never be able to grow in the rocky soil of Tepeyac Hill! Nonetheless, here they were! With the roses snuggly enveloped in his tilma, Juan hastened to the bishop’s residence. The bishop was astonished when he realized that Juan was carrying a large assortment of CASTILIAN roses! This was the sign he had been secretly praying for. “But at this time of year!” he mused. “Impossible!”
But this was just the beginning: When Juan removed his cloak an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was miraculously imprinted on its surface. The astounded Bishop Zumarraga fell to his knees in wonder before the holy image, as would multitudes of believers throughout the generations, to the present day.
Father Harold Rahm, author of “Am I Not Here?” spoke about the effects of this apparition: “A supernatural explosion occurred on this continent,” he said. “Within a few years an explosion of Catholic churches, monasteries, convents and schools sprang up all over the once-pagan country.” “Conversions of the Aztecs were so numerous as to be unprecedented in the history of the church” he said . Estimates are that nine million Aztecs converted to the Catholic faith within a decade and a half, thus making Mexico the first Christian nation on the American continent. Our Lady of Guadalupe also brought peace to the two warring cultures. Today the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is the most visited Marian shrine in the world. Twenty million pilgrims visit annually. They come to see the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Basilica, the only heavenly portrait of Our Lady in existence.
The ongoing existence of the tilma is a miracle in itself. The image is still intact after almost five centuries. The tilma, an outer garment worn by the Aztecs of Juan Diego’s time is made from the delicate ayate fibres of the Maguey cactus plant. Its normal lifespan is about 20 years! And, after all this time, the sacred painting shows not the slightest indication of decay. Defying all scientific explanation it is in immaculate condition. Even its colours remain bright and vibrant, seemingly impervious to fading. Richard Kuhn, German Nobel prize winner in chemistry in 1936, found that no colouring of any kind was used in the fibres, stating that the existing “colours” were unknown to science, being of neither animal, vegetable or mineral origin. Recent investigation in the field of computerized technology in ophthalmology revealed another phenomenon: that twelve people, believed to be witnesses to the miracle, were found imprinted in the Virgin’s eyes.
The designs on Our Lady’s garment were profoundly meaningful to the Aztecs: The fact that Our Lady is standing in front of the sun, for example, signified to them that she is more exalted than their sun-war god, Huitzopochtili; the fact that she is standing on the moon indicates that she is superior to the moon god; because the black band around her waist signifies her pregnancy, it is a sign of renewal and things to come; because of this manifestation, she is the patroness of the Pro-Life movement in the Americas. One notices also the black cross on her brooch signifying that her god was that of the Spanish missionary friars, Jesus Christ, who died on the Cross for all of humanity.
The apparition abounded in music and flowers, both signs of truth and divinity in the Aztec culture. Our Lady’s mantle is an aqua-blue colour and in 16th century Aztec Mexico only the emperor could wear this colour! Her tunic and mantle are held up by an angel, indicating that she “reigns over the whole cosmos.” They had no doubt whatsoever that their new mother was from Heaven!
In 1939 a monument to Our Lady of Guadalupe was erected in the Vatican Gardens. His holiness Pope Pius Xll spoke about Our Lady’s messages to Juan Diego: “It is an instruction without limits in maternal love,” he said.
Etched above the main altar of the basilica are the unforgettable words:
NO ESTOY YO AQUI QUE SOY TU MADRE? “Am I not here, I who am your Mother?”
Who can resist such a message?
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On May 30, 1990, a grievously depressed teenager hurled himself from the balcony of his apartment in Mexico City, plunging 30’ to the pavement below. He suffered life-threatening head injuries and the doctors gave him a zero chance of survival. Hoping against hope, his family prayed urgently to Juan Diego for a miracle. Ten days later 19-year-old Juan Jose Barragan walked out of the hospital. The family was granted their miracle: Juan Jose was completely healed. The doctors were dumbfounded. And claimed that it was medically inexplicable.
Ironically, that same day in Rome, Pope John Paul ll was celebrating Mass for the beatification of Juan Diego! Twelve years later, on July 31, 2002, Pope John Paul ll travelled to Mexico City for his canonization Mass. According to the Financial Post (Aug. 2, 2002) twelve million people graced the streets of the city to welcome their beloved “Papa” who had come to Mexico for the canonization of Mexico’s first indigenous saint. Juan Jose’s cure was the requisite miracle for Juan Diego’s canonization.
During this process intensive research uncovered new information about Juan Diego: Contrary to common belief, he was not an illiterate, indigent peasant. He was of the macehual class (middle-class), he owned property, and ran a thriving mat-making business on the shores of Lake Texcoco. He was educated as education was compulsory in the Aztec empire. Although he was associated with the mighty Aztec empire, he was not an Aztec, he was a Chichimeca Indian, a people who had arrived in the Valley of Mexico three centuries earlier.
He was born in 1474 in Cuatitlan, a city 14 miles northeast of the capital. Cuatitlan was a member of the “Triple Alliance”with the Aztec empire. He would have been an eye-witness to the volcanic changes which enveloped Mexico after the arrival of the Spanish and their conquest of the immense Aztec empire in 1521. An event of dramatic significance which enabled Christianity to be introduced into the country. In 1524 the first missionary group of Franciscans arrived from Spain. They were twelve Franciscans, famously known as “the twelve apostles.” By all accounts they were an exemplary group of priests. Robert Ricard, in his Spiritual Conquest of Mexico, speaks about the “exceptional worth of these friars.” They established the first mission headquarters at the church of St. James (the patron saint of Spain), at Tlaltelolco, the site of a former pagan temple which had been dedicated to Huitzilopochtili, the god of war.
Juan Diego and his wife, Maria Lucia (who died in 1529), were one of the first Christians in the land. They were baptized in 1525 at Tlaltelolco after being catechized for several months by these same Franciscan friars. Juan and his wife sat spellbound as they listened to the friars teaching about “Our Lady and her precious Son” who loved them without measure. Juan Diego’s uncle, Juan Bernardino, was converted shortly thereafter. What a contrast to the frightful religion Juan had known all his life! The prophet Jeremiah could have been speaking of Mexico when he said “It is a land of idols.” (Jer.50:38)
Bernal Diaz in his acclaimed first-person account, The Conquest of New Spain, records what the Spaniards witnessed as they penetrated into the country: He speaks of one city called Tenayuca which was called “the city of snakes” because they kept three serpents in their temple and worshipped them as gods. Human sacrifice and cannibalism were rife. Both were practiced on an enormous scale. “At Veracruz” he said “they had just sacrificed two boys. Their cruelty upset us greatly!” He spoke frequently of temples filled with “idols of most hideous shapes” whose walls were “caked with blood.” They arrived at Tlaxcala “in such a state of terror” at what they had seen and heard. “Every province had its own idols—infinite numbers of them and they sacrificed to them all.” They believed that human sacrifice was necessary to appease their insatiable, vengeful gods. This: as opposed to the incredible, glorious, Christian teaching, “He gave His only Son out of His love for us” (John 3:16).
Juan was so devoted to Our Lady that he walked nine miles every Saturday before dawn to attend the Mass in her honour at Tlalteloco (and walked the same distance every Sunday as well). It was there that he was heading on that Saturday morning on December 9, 1531. On this journey he encountered the remarkable “Beautiful Lady.” According to The Nican Mapohua, Juan heard a voice from the top of Tepeyac Hill calling him: “Dear Juan, dearest Juan Diego.” The Nican Mapohua is the earliest account of the apparitions, written in 1540. The author was Antonio Valeriano who was a mestizo (a man of mixed race) who may have spoken to Juan Diego personally. The description of the encounter continues: “Her clothing was shining like the sun” Juan reported and she called him “My son, my youngest son, Juanito” (a term of affection). One can only Imagine the effect these words must have had on him! This recent widower who was fearful that his beloved uncle (his only family) was about to die. By these words he was being welcomed into a new family!
She revealed herself as the “Holy Virgin Mary, the Mother of the one true God.” She appeared to him three more times and reassured him that his uncle would be cured. At the exact moment that these words were being spoken his uncle reported that Our Lady also appeared to him and healed him! She also told him her name: “Our Lady of Guadalupe”. She continued to speak consoling words to Juan. Words that would comfort generations of believers throughout the centuries: “Am I not here, I who am your mother?” “Why do you worry? You are in the hollow of my mantle! You are under my protection!’
On December 12, 1531, a momentous event occurred: Our Lady’s image appeared miraculously on Juan Diego’s tilma (cape) in the presence of Bishop Zumarraga and several others. She appeared as a mestiza (a woman of mixed race). “And absolutely everyone, the entire city, without exception, trembled when they went to behold her precious image.” “They marvelled at something divine” reported The Nican Mapohua. Franciscan historian Fray Toribio de Benavente, one of the original twelve, declared that within a decade of the Guadalupe miracle nine million Indians had converted to the Catholic religion.
A small chapel—known as the chapel of Los Indios— was built at the base of Tepeyac Hill to house the image. Bishop Zumarraga appointed Juan Diego to be the perpetual guardian of the sacred tilma. A one-room addition was built on to the chapel and this would be Juan’s home for the rest of his life. He would spend the next 17 years joyously teaching the truths of the Catholic faith to the millions who came to venerate the image. He died in 1548 and is buried in this chapel; the ruins of his dwelling can be seen at the present day.
Juan’s indigenous name was Cuauhtlatoazin which means “the eagle that speaks.” A fitting name for one who could be called the Saint Paul of Mexico! Today the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the most visited Marian shrine in the world. And the humble Juan Diego was the human instrument of it all.
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On that day in 1609 Senora Antonia Negreros was mightily puzzled. She was the owner of the inn on the main street of Acatzingo, a town not far from Puebla, the capital of the state of the same name. Senora Negreros was not a timid innkeeper! She was an energetic, imperious business-woman (what one would call a “dominant” personality) with a “beautiful fighting spirit” and a voice that could be heard from one end of the inn to the other. Normally she would be full of questions for her guests! She could be more than a little suspicious. But this time—with this guest—she had none. He had a “trustworthy” look and that was enough for her. Even though he was a complete stranger and she had never met him before. It was his huge package that puzzled her! “What could it contain?” she wondered.
Strangely enough, when he left the inn, he asked Senora Antonia to keep the parcel for him. He would pick it up on his return trip. The problem was, he never did return! And Senora Antonia’s curiosity grew day by day. Finally, she could no longer resist! She unwrapped the bundle and to her astonishment discovered a beautiful treasure: a large painting of Our Lady of Sorrows , 1 m (36”) wide x 2 m (72”) long. Being a very devout woman she fell in love with the painting and hung it in a prominent place at the inn.
The next day she noticed something striking: the painting of Our Lady was sweating! Crowds began to pour into her inn as though it were a temple. All came to witness the miracle. Prayers were being answered. Over time the townspeople began relating miracles that Our Lady of Sorrows had worked in their lives.
Soon the village pastor insisted that the holy image be taken to the church for safekeeping. But Senora Antonia missed her beloved painting. And on January 23rd in the dead of night she crept into the church (it was pitch black!) and stole back her precious image. And ran away as fast as she could! Unfortunately, the sacristan noticed that the painting was missing and began chasing the unhappy “thief” down the street yelling “Stop! Stop!” as loud as he could. In her panic, Senora Antonia tossed the painting in the village well at the centre of town. The next morning the sacristan retrieved it and to his astonishment it was bone dry! Even though it had been in the water the entire night long. This was the second miracle to be attributed to the divine image.
Once the painting was reposed in the church, Our Lady of Sorrows began dispensing favours in a most generous manner! She inspired great devotion among the inhabitants of the region. In the 18th century a confraternity was established in her honour and a most SUMPTUOUS sanctuary was built from the alms collected for this purpose. Thousands of pilgrims from Puebla, Veracruz, Oaxaca and Guerrero descend on the church on her two feastdays, Sept. 6 (to commemorate the first day the “perspiration” appeared on the painting) and Good Friday. On Sept. 15, 1924, she was granted a singular honour: she was pontifically crowned with the official approval of Pope Pius Xl. The painting resides over the main altar. The façade, adorned with the signature Talavera tile of Puebla, is one of the most beautiful churches in Mexico. And to this day Our Lady of Acatzingo is attentive to all of her devotees!
Our Lady of Health is not only one of the most revered images of Mary in Mexico, she is one of the first to be created in the country. And her origins are linked to one person—
The first-time visitor to Patzcuaro, Michoacan, notices one thing immediately: the name “Vasco Quiroga.” You see his name everywhere: on streets, stores, plazas and parks. You even see his name on restaurant menus, such as Pescado de Tata Vasco (fish) or Helado de Tata Vasco (ice cream). “Tata” is a term of endearment meaning “Father” or “Daddy.”
And you can’t help wondering as you stroll through the town, “Who was this person? Was he a famous politician or a military figure or even an entertainment icon?” But no! He was none of these things. VASCO DE QUIROGA was the first bishop of the newly erected diocese of Michoacan; he was appointed in 1536.
He was born in Spain and was a lawyer in Salamanca. His was a late vocation. In 1531 he was sent by the Spanish Crown to be a member of the Second Audencia to govern the newly conquered lands of New Spain. This group comprised “an outstanding group of men” of whom Quiroga was the “most distinguished.” He was considered one of New Spain’s “greatest statesmen and churchmen.” These administrators set out to reverse the disastrous abuses of the First Audencia whose president was the notorious Nino de Guzman; his tyranny and cruelty were legendary. Such actions led the indigenous Tarascan peoples of Patzcuaro to flee to the mountains in terror. Through the efforts of this second group the deserted cities once again became populated, the friars returned to preach the gospel and a number of the indigenous people converted to Christianity. The bishop’s title was “Defender and Protector of the Indians.” During his long life in Mexico (he died at the age of 96) he was much beloved by the Tarascan peoples of the area. A sentiment which continues to the present day!
In the beginning, the new bishop was faced with a severe challenge even though the first missionaries had arrived as early as 1526: the Tarascan “priests” were reluctant to relinquish their pagan rituals and idols. And, not surprisingly, for obvious reasons, they hated the Spanish and their religion!
The bishop, who had a deep devotion to Our Lady, commissioned one of the Tarascan priests, an expert sculptor of pagan idols, to create an image of the Virgin Mary. He used a mixture of corn stalks and orchid bulbs known as Pasta de Michoacan to sculpt the image, which would become one of the first Marian statues to be made in the country. Eventually, Patzcuaro became renowned as the centre of religious sculpture in all of New Spain.
The bishop placed the exquisite statue in the chapel of his newly constructed hospital and consecrated all of the Tarascan peoples to her protection and care. Soon, stories of remarkable favours and cures began to spread through Michoacan. So numerous were the healings which occurred that the Tarascans began calling her La Salud, Our Lady of Health.
In time the small chapel became too miniscule for all her devotees! In 1690 construction began on a much larger church to be named after La Salud. In 1899 amid “sumptuous celebrations” the statue was granted a singular honour: she was crowned pontifically by the decree of Pope Leo Xlll. In 1924 Pope Pius Xl elevated the church to the dignity of a basilica and in this same year Our Lady of Health was named the principal Patrona of the archdiocese of Morelia, the capital city of the state of Michoacan. In 1962 an unbalanced atheist entered the basilica and fired 10 shots at close-range toward Our Lady’s face. Miraculously, the image remained unscathed!
So numerous are the favours and graces granted by Our Lady of Health that she is known as a “wonder-working” image.
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!
Monterrey, in the northern state of Nuevo Leon, is the third largest city in Mexico (after Mexico City and Guadalajara) with a population of about three million people. It is a prosperous, bustling place and is considered the high-tech centre of the country, along with Mexico City. Surrounded by the Sierra Madre Mountains, it is dominated by a uniquely shaped mountain peak known as the Cerro de la Silla (Saddle Hill) which has become the signature emblem of the city. Monterrey is one of my favourite cities in Mexico because of its wondrous MACRO PLAZA or “grand plaza.” It is six blocks long and covers 100 acres. Filled with parks and fountains and monuments it is considered the most stunning plaza in the country. It is certainly the largest! It is larger than the zocalo in Mexico City or even Red Square in Moscow.
Steps away from the gran plaza is one of the most majestic churches in the city: The Basilica of Our Lady of the Oak or LA BASILICA DE LA VIRGEN DEL ROBLE It is home to the miraculous statue of Our Lady of the same name. Its story is a fascinating one—-
The Spanish conquest of Mexico by the conquistador, Hernan Cortez, in 1521, made possible the introduction of Christianity to the New World. The first missionaries to arrive were the Franciscans. Twelve of them, referred to as “the twelve apostles,” landed in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1524. The evangelization of Mexico had begun! They first settled in the centre of the country and then eventually moved north to the Nuevo Leon area. In 1592 Spanish Franciscan Fray Andras de Leon placed a statue of Our Lady in the hollow of an oak tree; this was a Franciscan custom—thus forming a natural shrine for Our Lady. When the Franciscans departed from the area they left the statue in its “leafy hermitage.” Why did they leave the image behind? Perhaps the friars, who had placed the land and their mission under Mary’s patronage, left her image that she would continue her protection for the people of this northern area!
As the years went by, the hamlet continued to grow. In 1596 the ninth Viceroy of New Spain, Don Diego de Montemayor, named the flourishing community, “The Metropolitan City of Our Lady of Monterrey.”
One day, as tradition recounts, a little shepherd girl was tending her sheep in the countryside near Monterrey in the year 1650. She was startled to see a motionless figure of Our Lady standing within the niche of an oak tree trunk. Our Lady was calling to her! Word about the miracle spread throughout the hamlet and all came to see and pay homage to the miraculous statue. They believed that this was the statue that the Franciscan friars had placed in the oak tree so long ago! With solemn reverence and great rejoicing, they carried the image to the chapel where they were accustomed to worship. But—as the legend goes—Our Lady of the Oak did not want to stay in that shrine. She returned one night to her tree-trunk home to indicate: “This is where I want my temple to be erected!” Her mantle was covered by brambles and dust, for she had made the journey walking—“to sanctify by her footsteps the land that she loved.” They built a little shrine for her on the exact location where she was found in the oak tree.
The present basilica was built in the same location as this original shrine. The great portico entrance is so impressive! A mural of Our Lady appearing to the shepherd child adorns the façade and eight stately marble columns stand sentry over the elegant neo-classical church of the Basilica of La Virgen del Roble (oak).
The interior of the church is overwhelming in its beauty! It is designed in the shape of a Latin Cross and has three naves. Stained glass windows abound and 24 columns of mottled marble divide the central from the side naves.
On Oct. 24, 1905, the roof of the church caved in, burying the sanctuary and the image of Our Lady under a pile of rubble. By the providence of God, the statue which was submerged by tons of rock, remained intact and unharmed. A milagro (miracle) in itself. And fortunately no one was hurt or injured by the upheaval.
The miraculous statue is 20”(58 cm) in height and is made from a type of clay (made from cornstalks) known as pasta de Michoacan. The statue resides over the main altar in the Basilica. Her hands seem a bit large: this is to show that she is offering her graces and protection most generously to all who ask for her intercession! One niche in the church portrays her statue, surrounded by hundreds of photos and letters from grateful petitioners.
May 31, 1964 was an important date in the history of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Oak: Not only was Our Lady crowned with the approval of Pope Paul Vl on that date but the newly completed temple (the previous one on the site was built I n 1947) was solemnly consecrated by the ecclesiastical authorities. In 1976 the pope elevated the church to the level of a Basilica. Our Lady of the Oak is the official patron and protector of the city of Monterrey.
Our Lady of the Thunderbolt is known as one of the principal advocates for those with urgent needs. Along with St. Jude, of course! She resides in the city of Guadalajara, the second largest city in the country in the western state of Jalisco. It is an elegant, bustling city, abounding with parks and fountains and plazas. It also boasts as having one of the best climates in the world on a parallel with Nairobi, Kenya. That is why frozen Northerners often flock there in the winter.
Her miraculous statue is located in the convent adjoining the Church of Jesus Maria, a five- minute walk from the Guadalajara Cathedral and the zocalo (the central plaza of the city). She could well be called “the St. Jude of Guadalajara” so popular is she in that part of the country. And to top it all off, she has the most fascinating history:
It all began over 200 years ago on August 13, 1887. That was a night to remember in the Dominican convent of Jesus Maria. At 2:30 in the morning a violent thunderstorm erupted. This was a common occurrence in the “rainy season” (July to October) in Guadalajara. Since 1792 the nuns had lived in the convent 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. Waking everyone, a tremendous crash shook the convent to its foundations.
In the dormitory lightning had hit the statue of Mary! 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, long neglected and forgotten, had been damaged beyond repair; its crystal eyes had been shattered, its face blackened and blistered, its vestments, scorched. The pearl rosary which encircled the statue was now black and twisted.
Strangely, the Infant Jesus in His Mother’s arms was completely untouched by the fire, as were the two paintings hanging on the wall on either side of the statue, one of St. Dominic and the other of the Most Holy Trinity. All the nuns were safe. One of the nuns who was sleeping inches away from the statue miraculousy escaped, unharmed in the slightest.
A Mass of thanksgiving was offered the next day in gratitude for Our Lady’s protection during the disaster. The statue of Mary (heretofore neglected) was relegated to a place of honour in the convent chapel.
This is not the end of the story. Five days later, on August 18, 1807, two workmen and some 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 stupefied occupants of the chapel were petrified! They wanted to bolt from the room but found themselves unable to move. Mesmerized, they stood as if “turned to stone,” their eyes riveted on the image.
In the next moment a loud bolt of thunder crashed through the chapel, followed by an “extraordinary” flash of lightning. The whole chapel became illuminated with an unusual, brilliant light. The drama was just beginning!
Several times the statue changed color, from rosy pink to white, then back again. 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 turned to peachy-pink. In fact, the entire statue looked better than it had originally. The Rosary which had become darkened 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 and the future Bishop of the state of Michoacan, Don Jose Maria Gomez y Villasenor. Understandably, the fame of Our Lady of the Thunderbolt grew exponentially as the events of August 18th were made known.
She was pontifically crowned on Aug. 18, 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” (104 cm) high and the eyes have a slightly downward cast. The Infant Jesus is carried in her left arm. Both Mother and Child are dressed in exquisitely adorned vestments and gold crowns studded with precious gems and jewels. Thousands of testimonies placed near the sanctuary give witness to her powerful powers of intercession. Such evidence gives proof that she is well deserving of her title “Patroness of Urgent Needs.” It seems that St. Jude just might have some powerful competition coming his way!
This article has been re-printed with permission from THE CANADIAN MESSENGER OF THE SACRED HEART
St. Junípero Serra is most famous for founding nine missions in California and is subsequently known as “the apostle of California.” A statue of him in the US Capitol Building commemorates this achievement: California Senator B. Dockweiler said of him in 1927, “He is worthy of first place among the immortal heroes who created our nation.”
He was born in Majorca, Spain, in 1713. At the age of 16 he entered the Franciscan Order at Palma, taking the name of Junípero in honour of an early companion of St. Francis of Assisi. During his novitiate he became absorbed in reading the lives of the great Franciscan saints, particularly missionary saints. His heart was stirred—how he longed to become a missionary!
In the meantime, the clever Junípero, who was ordained at the age of 24, received a doctorate in philosophy and became a university professor at the age of 30. But his missionary dream never left him. When the missionary call came, he was more than ready!
But before he ever reached California he spent two decades in Mexico, work which provided the foundation for his evangelization of the state. For 200 years the Spanish missionaries had been unsuccessful in their evangelization efforts in the rugged mountainous Sierra Gorda region of Central Mexico. The Pame Indians of the region resisted their efforts every step of the way until Father Serra arrived in 1750. His work with the Pames was enormously successful and resulted in the construction of five Mexican Baroque mission churches, all of which are active parishes today.
Father Serra, who had a fervent devotion to Our Lady, dedicated two of these churches to her: The one in Tancoyol is dedicated to Our Lady of Light and the other, in Aguas de Landa, is dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.
These mission churches, designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 2003, are notable for their extraordinary, elaborately carved facades, “sermons in stone,” facades which are unique in the Americas. They are a synthesis of the two cultures, blending Christian symbolism with superb indigenous artistry.
In 1749 he set sail for America, accompanied by friars Juan Crespi and Francisco Palou, his former student (who would also become his biographer). The three would be lifetime companions in the New World. After a tortuous crossing they arrived in Veracruz, Mexico, on December 6, 1749. Junípero decided to walk (in imitation of St. Francis) to Mexico City, a distance of 275 miles over four mountain ranges. Walking (despite his injured foot) became his preferred mode of transportation in the new country.
When he reached Mexico City he headed straight for the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. There he would pass the night in prayer. It was December 31, 1749. Father Serra would dedicate all of his future missionary works to Our Lady of Guadalupe on this night.
The kindly Father Serra worked tirelessly for his beloved Pames. His years in the Sierra Gorda, according to biographer Abigail Fitch, were “arduous years of unremitting labour.” “He habitually spent his entire salary on the Indians,” she says. “He won the hearts of them all” states Father Palou. He sewed brightly-coloured clothes for the children (“they squealed with delight when he came round”), taught the Pames skills and trades and worked alongside them in constructing the churches. By the time of his departure nine years later, the missions were not only thriving spiritually, they were thriving agriculturally and economically as well.
His one primary goal was to transmit the truths of the Catholic faith. “His religion was alive, a glowing spark burning in the depths of his soul. It was his one great passion in life,” records Fitch. A plaque in the museum at Jalpan records his final words to the Pames: “I arrived with nothing. I leave you with nothing, but I leave you with a great treasure, the faith.”
Recently I attended the Saturday 7pm Mass in Jalpan, the principal mission church of the Sierra Gorda. It was standing room only. The church was packed. Father Serra had done his job well.
He was canonized by Pope Francis in 2015. His feastday is July 1st.
Excerpts from this article have been taken from an article I wrote on the saint for ST. ANTHONY MESSENGER magazine.