If Mexicans and others want to find a special patron to intercede during the swine flu outbreak, they might look 75 miles east of Mexico City.
There, they will find the shrine of Our Lady of Ocotlán, located in the town of Tlaxcala in the state of the same name.
The people of Mexico have been doubly blessed: First, there was the Guadalupe miracle in 1531.
Ten years later — 10th anniversaries are always significant — a second spectacular miracle occurred: that of Ocotlán.
Almost 500 years ago, Tlaxcala was devastated by a smallpox epidemic; 90% of its citizens died.
Tlaxcalan Indian Juan Diego Bernardino (no relation to the Guadalupe visionary) worked at the nearby Franciscan convent — the oldest in the country — and did all he could to help his townspeople. On Feb. 27, 1541, he was out fetching water for his sick relatives.
He was utterly astonished when a “beautiful lady” appeared, right in his path. She spoke of a miraculous spring that would cure everyone of the illness. “I will help all who are suffering,” she promised.
Sure enough, all who drank the water were cured. Within days, the epidemic had vanished. But that wasn’t all.
“The beautiful lady” had also given him a message for the Franciscan friars: “Tell the monks that they shall find an image of me — through it I will bring forth my mercy and blessings.” The friars were skeptical: Where would they find such an image? And did such a thing even exist?
By a series of mysterious signs, however, their attention was directed to one particular pine tree. They had been shocked by two strange events: Not only was the forest on fire, but one tree was not being consumed by the flames. Once the fire dissipated, they proceeded to investigate: When the friars took an axe to this tree — in the presence of a multitude of witnesses — they discovered a wooden statue of the Blessed Virgin inside the tree trunk. All fell to their knees in awe and wonder.
The 5-foot-tall statue was carried in joyous procession to the church, where it resides today above the main altar in the shrine of Our Lady of Ocotlán.
The apparition has received the approval of the Church at the highest levels: Five popes have expressed belief in the authenticity of the 1541 miracle, from Pope Clement Xll in 1735 to Pope Pius Xll in 1941. In 1755, she was declared the patroness of Tlaxcala, and later, the shrine was elevated to the status of a basilica. In 1906, the Holy See authorized the liturgical crowning of the image of Our Lady of Ocotlán.
It is not surprising that the Tlaxcalans should be so favored: They played a pivotal role in the Spanish Conquest, allying with the vastly outnumbered Spaniards against the mighty Aztec warriors. Spanish soldier Bernal Diaz, in his firsthand account, The Conquest of Mexico, describes the Tlaxcalans as “fervently loyal.” They were not only the first “friends” of the Spaniards in the New World; they were also the first Christians. The first diocese in the country was established here in 1526.
Tlaxcalans celebrate the miraculous events not on one but five days throughout the year, including the third Sunday of May. And they do so in the gorgeous basilica of Ocotlán.
Travel writers use the superlative in describing the church, calling it “stunning” and “one of the most beautiful churches in Mexico.” Renowned 20th-century British art critic Sacheverell Sitwell refers to it as “the most delicious building in the world.”
Historians cite it as “a masterpiece” of the late Mexican-Baroque style known as Churrigueresque, named after the Spanish architect Benito de Churriguera who dominated Spanish architecture for the first half of the 18th century.
In Mexico, this architectural style intensified and reached its most striking and elaborate expression. The purpose of such design was not frivolity; rather, it was to give effusive and exuberant praise to God.
Inside the single-naved basilica is a profusion of gold, especially on the altarpiece, dome and pulpit: Everything is decorated in an array of gilded, richly carved swirls, scrolls, flowers, grapes, shells, vines and garlands; angels, cherubim, statues and 28 estipte (inverted pyramidal) columns are also featured. At the center of this splendor stands the Virgin of Ocotlán, encased in a crystal niche. Indigenous artist Francisco Miguel Tlayotehuanitzin spent 20 years crafting the more than 200 intricate sculptures. The twin-towered facade features hexagonally shaped red bricks combined with brilliant white stucco ornamentation. In 1670, Bishop Juan Palafox Mendoza of Puebla approved the construction of the present-day shrine.
The story of Ocotlán is ongoing. Pilgrims to the shrine can also pay a visit to the Capilla del Pocito, which houses the miraculous well. Here, in the charming blue-and-white tiled octagonal chapel, they can obtain the same healing water that cured the townspeople of the smallpox epidemic.
Other miracles abound: During a 1987 celebration, Bishop Luis Munive Escobar of Tlaxcala witnessed changes in the color of the statue’s face, a phenomenon observed by many visitors to the shrine.
“Are there healing miracles going on today?” I asked the sister in charge of the chapel. “Oh, yes,” she said, “but far too many to recount. But why should we be surprised? Our Lady always keeps her promises.”
Mary Hansen writes
from North Bay, Ontario.