Puerto Rico’s Our Lady of Divine Providence Offers an Invitation to Trust
The island’s patroness is a striking reminder of the Lord’s aid amid hardships.
Nestled in the recesses of the oldest church on U.S. soil in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is a statue of a sleeping baby Jesus, collapsed in an attitude of total serenity on the lap of his Mother, who looks down lovingly upon him beneath a lace mantle. This striking depiction of Jesus in the surrender of deep sleep, draped across Mary’s lap, is Nuestra Señora de la Providencia, or Our Lady of Divine Providence, the patroness of the island.
Msgr. Leonardo Rodriguez, vicar of the Shrine of Our Lady of Divine Providence in San Juan, told the Register about the history of the devotion and how Mary under this title has come to be an important symbol for many Puerto Ricans of trust in the Lord’s providence amid hardships.
History of the Devotion
The devotion originated in Italy in the 13th century, when St. Philip Benizi, fifth superior of the Servants of Mary, invoked Mary’s aid when his friars had nothing to eat. Afterward, there were knocks at the door, and two baskets of bread were found. Msgr. Rodriguez explained that Our Lady of Divine Providence received that title from the incident because “God provided after they asked the Virgin to help them.”
In Rome, the devotion was promoted by the Barnabites in their Church of San Carlo ai Catinari, which is home to a famous image of Our Lady of Divine Providence, painted by Scipione Pulzone in the 16th century, featuring the child Jesus resting in her arms as she gazes down at him.
From Rome, the devotion made its way to Spain; and Bishop Gil Esteve y Tomas, who hailed from Barcelona, where the devotion was popular, brought it to Puerto Rico when he became bishop of the island in 1849.
Msgr. Rodriguez said that the new bishop came from Barcelona already “very devoted” to Our Lady of Divine Providence, adding that, after his arrival, “he found a very difficult situation … the cathedral was not finished, and the church was poor.”
He prayed to the Virgin of Providence to help him finish the construction of the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista and continue the evangelization of Puerto Rico. When the construction was completed, in 1853, he brought to the cathedral the statue of Our Lady of Divine Providence, which he commissioned from Barcelona. “From that time on,” Msgr. Rodriguez said, the devotion to Our Lady of Divine Providence “began to be known as the patroness or the protector of Puerto Rico.”
The statue that the bishop brought from Barcelona differed from the painting in Rome, as the Child Jesus is depicted lying in a deep sleep upon the knees of the Virgin. Msgr. Rodriguez said that the image shows the faithful that the Child Jesus “can be sleeping and calm because his Mother takes care of him, and she takes care also of the disciples of Christ,” so “we can also be at peace in the hands of our Mother.”
In 1969, then-Archbishop Luis Aponte Martinez of Puerto Rico asked Pope Paul VI to make the Virgin of Providence the official patroness of Puerto Rico. He did so on Nov. 19, 1969, a date that became her feast day and is the date of the discovery of Puerto Rico.
Msgr. Rodriguez said that devotion to Our Lady is growing on the island, and there is also “great devotion in the Puerto Ricans that are in the United States,” where special Masses and processions are held on her feast day in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and elsewhere. He said that when many Puerto Ricans immigrated to the United States in the 1960s, they relied on Our Lady of Divine Providence in their struggles to find work. “Sometimes they have more devotion than us,” he said, “because they feel the relation of the devotion to the Virgin and their love for Puerto Rico.”
A Coronation After Fire
Father Rafael Capó is a Puerto Rican-born priest in the Archdiocese of Miami and vice president for mission at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens. He told the Register that the devotion to Our Lady of Divine Providence was very important to him since his childhood in a “vivid way.” He recalled a “beautiful image” of her in his K-12 school and receiving her holy card for his first Communion, which he has kept to this day.
“The year I was preparing for first Communion, that was the year when Pope Paul VI declared Our Lady of Divine Providence to be the patroness of Puerto Rico,” he recalled. That night, he remembered, “before the pontifical crowning of the image when Our Lady was declared patroness, there was arson in the cathedral. They vandalized the cathedral and the image of Our Lady, and they burned the image.”
Father Capó recalled that “the image was all burned, but it retained its form, and the face of Baby Jesus was kind of intact,” and “the hands of Jesus touching Our Lady and the face of Our Lady looking down at Baby Jesus, so they held the celebration and the coronation, and she was crowned like that: all burnt.”
He said the moment was very powerful because it had the opposite effect of “trying to erase the memory of Our Lady,” as “the devotion just grew, and everybody was asking for the intercession of Our Lady and trusting themselves to our Blessed Mother after seeing the horrendous act that had happened.”
“Many people think that the church should have kept the image as it was after the vandalism act because it really moved hearts,” he said, adding that he was of that opinion as well because “it was a sign of, even in the difficulties that we go through, Our Lady of Divine Providence, our Blessed Mother, is always caring for us, sending us to Jesus, telling us to ‘Do whatever he tells us.’”
“The Baby Jesus, he’s confident in his Mother’s lap, and there’s this beautiful connection: Mary holding Jesus’ hand as well, in a very tender, motherly way, and Jesus is asleep because he’s with his Mother,” he said of this depiction, “that has always been a connection for us Puerto Ricans to feel a calling to just trust that, even in difficult times, we put ourselves under our Blessed Mother’s care because she will take care of us, just as she took care of Jesus.”
“This has been alive in the Puerto Rican trials during the last couple decades, with the hurricanes and the earthquakes and the difficult moments that Puerto Rico has been through,” he said, “this invitation of Our Lady to just trust.”
Following the fire, he image was sent to Spain for restoration, and a different image of Our Lady of Divine Providence replaced it until it was returned to the cathedral in San Juan.
Father Capó has fond memories of his years in seminary in Rome, when the group of Puerto Rican seminarians and priests that lived there “would get together for the feast of Our Lady of Divine Providence” at the Church of San Carlo ai Catinari, where the ancient painting of Our Lady of Divine Providence is kept by the Barnabite fathers. “Every time I go back to Rome, I try to make it to go pray at that church,” he said.
In some ways, Our Lady of Divine Providence has followed Father Capó in his global travels. At World Youth Day in Portugal this past summer, he was struck by a moment during the Stations of the Cross, when Jesus is taken down from the cross at the 13th Station. There was a representation of the Pietá, and Jesus taken down from the cross in Mary’s lap, but “they were singing a lullaby, and it was so moving,” and “the reflection made the connection between Baby Jesus in Mary’s lap and the moment of taking down Jesus from the cross and again on Mary’s lap.” He said this connection is “ingrained in Puerto Rican Christmas spirituality,” with Christmas carols called Aguinaldos in Puerto Rico, that “sing to this mystery of the connection.”
Lessons of Trust and Hope
Alberto and Yseth Calimano, a Puerto Rican couple living near Arlington, Virginia, with their four children told the Register about the influence the devotion has had on them and how they are passing it on in their family.
“We grew up learning about Our Lady of Divine Providence,” Alberto said of their childhoods on the island. Yseth called the image “impactful” for her, seeing Baby Jesus with Mary and “sleeping, trusting her.”
He said they use the image to show their children “how Jesus is resting in Mother Mary’s arms” in an attitude of trust in the Lord. Yseth added that, “as parents in our domestic church, it is very important to link the providence of Our Lady with hope, one of the three theological virtues,” something she wants her kids to hold on to in the chaos of this life. She emphasized two things she teaches them from the image: “the providence of our God and that the Virgin Mary is our perfect intercessor.”
“I’ve seen the image around throughout our lives and here in the states,” Alberto said, even with people who “don’t even know it’s part of Puerto Rico, but I tell them that’s Our Lady of Divine Providence, Puerto Rico’s patroness.”
Yseth recalled hearing about the vandalism of the image and the cardinal saying in his homily at the time that the fire meant to destroy the statue instead lit a fire of devotion in the “hearts of all Puerto Ricans.”
They celebrate her feast day every year with a procession and coronation at their parish, Our Lady of Lourdes in Arlington, featuring a smaller version of the image, special Puerto Rican hymns to Our Lady of Divine Providence and Puerto Rican food.
A Shrine to Our Lady of Divine Providence
Msgr. Rodriguez said that the idea of constructing a special shrine to Our Lady of Divine Providence became popular after she was declared patroness in 1969. In his homily in the cathedral when he visited Puerto Rico in 1984, St. Pope John Paul II said that he would pray for the completion of a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Divine Providence.
So far, the shrine only consists of a large cross and outdoor square.
The space for the shrine was first blessed in 1990, and the cross and square were built in 2000. They have a design plan for the shrine and are working towards getting government approval for construction. There are also concerns about cost, and he acknowledged that building the shrine “will be more difficult,” but said, “we are in the hands of Providence to make that dream come true.”
But Msgr. Rodriguez noted that many young people come to events at the shrine, and “we have the hope that this new generation love the Virgin, our patroness, and they will make also a great effort to make the construction possible.”