Our Lady of the Islands

Devotion to Mary and Saints Abounds in Spanish Settlements


The winds were blowing in off the Atlantic, hurling waves to the shore.

As my hair whipped around my head, and waves spritzed me with a fine mist, I realized the stormy weather was actually quite fitting for a visit to the Basilica of Our Lady of Candelaria (Our Lady of the Candlestick). After all, it was a storm centuries ago that resulted in its creation.

Candelaria is a town on Tenerife, the largest of the seven Canary Islands. Sitting about 60 miles west of the border between Morocco and Western Sahara, the Canary Islands were conquered by the Spanish in the late 15th century. The islands’ inhabitants at the time were an indigenous people called the Guanches.

According to Canarian lore, in 1392, two Guanche goat herders living on Tenerife found a statue of Mary on the beach following a storm. The statue depicted a black Madonna holding Baby Jesus in one arm and a green candle in the other. One of the men tried to hurl a stone at the statue, but his arm was suddenly paralyzed. The other man tried to stab it, but ended up stabbing himself. Yet, when both subsequently touched the statue, they were healed.

Soon, the Guanches were venerating the Madonna — they lovingly tucked the statue into a seaside cave carved into the island.

Enter the Spaniards: Once they conquered the Canary Islands, they began converting the inhabitants to Christianity. The Guanches were easily converted, as they were already respectful of the Madonna.

Over time, a grotto was built next to the cave to house the Madonna in a more appropriate fashion, followed by a grand basilica in 1526. The basilica was subsequently destroyed by fire, and, in the 19th century, the current basilica was constructed.

And the black Madonna who started everything? Interestingly, the statue of the Virgin was lost in 1826, when a tidal wave slammed into Candelaria and swept her back out to sea. A reproduction was created for the basilica.

Today, Our Lady of Candelaria is the patron saint of both the city of Candelaria and all of the Canary Islands. Visitors can tour the immense basilica, which features a replicated Madonna, plus the nearby cave and grotto where she was once kept.

Many people come from throughout Spain — and the rest of the world — to pray to the Virgin for assistance. And many report their prayers have been answered.

Twice a year, the Virgin is celebrated. Each Feb. 2, there’s a candlelight evening procession in her honor. And every Aug. 14-15, the city holds a festival with processions, dance performances, floral art offerings and concerts, to coincide with the Assumption feast. Other Marian feasts at this time of year are the Queenship of Mary (Aug. 22); Virgin Mary, Mediatrix (Aug. 31); and the Nativity of Mary (Sept. 8).


Other Catholic Gems

While the Basilica of Our Lady of Candelaria is the major Catholic site in the Canary Islands, there are a wealth of other impressive churches to visit, many of which were built during the Conquistadors’ era in the 16th century.

Most are located on Tenerife, which is about 90% Catholic. Two places not to miss are Our Lady of the Conception in Santa Cruz, Tenerife’s capital, and the Church of San Francisco in nearby La Laguna.

Our Lady of the Conception sits on the waterfront, and its steeple is a city symbol. The oldest church on Tenerife, it’s home to the Cross of the Conquest, which Spanish leader Fernandez de Lugo stuck into the sand upon his arrival. The church also contains several pieces of 17th- and 18th-century artwork, including a carved, wooden altarpiece.

La Laguna is home to the Cathedral of St. Christopher, a World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, it’s currently in the midst of a restoration and can’t be visited. A great alternative, however, is the "Little Church of San Francisco." A favorite of locals, the small church was named after St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of La Laguna.

The church named in his honor is relatively small and simple, but it has an impressive silver altar and cross, upon which a very realistic Christ figure, made of black oak, is housed. The crucifix is removed several times a year to be used in religious processions. In addition, a room adjacent to the sanctuary features an interesting representation of St. Francis’ life. The re-creation, comprised mostly of paintings, was created in 2000 by local artist José Vicente Rodríguez.

Melanie McManus writes from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.