Today is a very special day in Mexico. It’s the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Back in December 1531, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, a local indigenous farmer (and one of the first to be baptized after the arrival of Franciscans in 1524), saw the Virgin Mary on five separate occasions high on a hill in Tepeyac, Mexico – which is now part of Mexico City.
She first appeared to him on the morning of December 9th, 1531, as he was walking along the hill at Tepeyac, and asked him to visit the local Bishop and request a church be built on the hill in her honor, so she could relieve the local people of their suffering and distress. He agreed and visited the Bishop to make the request, but he was told to come back another day, once the Bishop had time to think about the request.
Later that same day, Mary appeared again to Juan Diego as he returned to the hill at Tepeyac to tell her he had failed, and that she should perhaps look for someone with more prominence in the community to make the request. She insisted that he was the one she had chosen for this task and once again asked him to return to the Bishop. He returned to the Bishop again the next morning (Dec 10), reiterating the request. But the Bishop asked for some sort of proof that he was telling the truth and sent him away again. Juan Diego once again went back to the hill at Tepeyac, and asked the Virgin Mary for a sign for that Bishop that Juan Diego was telling the truth. She promised to give him a sign the next morning (Dec 11).
But, the next morning, Juan Diego’s uncle, Juan Bernardino, was sick, and he immediately went to be by his side. By the next morning (Dec 12), the uncle was gravely ill, and Juan Deigo set out to find a priest to hear his uncle’s confession. Juan Diego was afraid that the Virgin Mary would appear to him again on the hill, so he deliberately went another way so as not to be delayed (& also because he was embarrassed to have not gone to see her the previous morning). The Virgin Mary intercepted him along the way and, upon hearing what had happened and where he was going, gently chided him for not coming to her for help. She uttered the now famous words, “No estoy yo aqui que soy tu madre?” (Am I not here, I who am your mother?).
She assured him that his uncle was now cured and that she should go up to the top of the hill and collect flowers there as a sign to the Bishop that his story was true. So Juan Diego climbed the hill, not expecting to find many flowers in December on a hill were little more than cactus usually grew. But when he reached the top, he found roses in bloom all across the hilltop. He used his mantle (also called a tilma) as a sack to hold the flowers (with part of it still tied around his neck), and then carried them down the hill to the Virgin Mary, who rearranged them in his mantle and told him to take the flowers to the Bishop.
Juan Diego did just that, entering the Bishop’s chamber and opening his tilma. The roses spilled out onto the floor, and revealed an image of the Virgin Mary on his mantle – it was the miracle and the proof that the Bishop needed. That day was today, December 12th, 1531.
The next day, Juan Diego found his uncle fully recovered. Juan Bernardino told him that the Virgin Mary had appeared at his beside and instructed him to tell the Bishop of her appearance at his bedside and his miraculous cure, and also that she wanted to be called Guadalupe.
On December 26, 1531, a procession carried the miraculous image on the tilma up to a makeshift altar on the hill. And then they built a church there.
Many churches have been built on and around the hill at Tepeyac since then. The area is now known as La Villa (The Way), and it is a super popular pilgrimage site. There are loads of churches there, spanning the past 500 years, and you can easily spend half a day here just exploring the site, its beautiful gardens, and stunning churches.
The tilma is now on display in the new Basilica, which was completed in the 1970’s after the previous Basilica was damaged by earthquakes and a sinking foundation.
Just inside one of the many doors of the Basilica, you get your first glimpse of the miraculous mantle.
You can also go below the sanctuary and get on a moving sidewalk that takes you past the mantle – so you can admire it from below.
After you tour the Basilica, you can climb up the steps to the top of Tepeyac Hill.
There are beautiful gardens and views everywhere.
Juan Diego was canonized in 2002, as the first indigenous saint from the Americas. And La Villa and the miraculous site and tilma, continue to draw millions of pilgrims and visitors every year. And Guadalupe celebrations are huge all across Mexico. Guadalupe offers protection, guidance, and assistance to the people of Mexico, and all who ask for her help.
Here in Oaxaca, there are parades, a fair (complete with amusement park rides), a costume competition for whose little kiddo makes the best Juan Diego, masses, and roses roses roses everywhere. Definitely a special time for celebration.
We’re not practicing Catholics, but have visited La Villa on several occasions and find it a beautiful and spiritual way to spend part of a day. It’s peaceful and quiet, and the grounds and churches are so beautiful. Apologies if we’ve gotten any of the story or history incorrect here. 🙂
Wanna learn more? Here’s a fun video about what it’s like to visit La Villa.