Mexico – Churches And Miracles

MEXICO CITY, like London, possesses a number of old churches, many of which have been overtaken by the onward march of commerce, and find themselves today surrounded by prosaic stores and warehouses. Some of these old structures date from the early days of the Conquest ; they give a touch of the picturesque to otherwise unattractive streets; and their history, too, is often full of romantic interest. Few of them are architecturally beautiful, the outside usually being far more imposing than the interior. They are generally built of stone and stucco, painted with kalsomine or distemper, which has long ago faded into soft tints of pink, yellow or cream, giving them an appearance of great antiquity.

One of these old churches, Jesus Nazareno, is famous for having been founded by Cortes shortly after his occupation of the country. Large sums were lavished by him for this building, which was begun in 1575, and took nearly a hundred years to complete. Appropriately enough, the bones of the great Conquistador rested here. He had directed that should he die in Spain his bones were to be taken, after ten years, to Mexico and deposited in the Convent de la Concepcion, which he proposed to erect, but never built.

Codes died on December 2, 1547, in Castilleja de la Questa, Spain. His body was placed in the tomb of the dukes of Medina Sidonia, and a decade later was removed to Mexico to the Church of San Francisco in Texcoco. There they remained until 1629, when Don Pedro Cortes, his grandson, and the last of the male line, died. The bones of the Conqueror, together with those of the latter, were with great ceremony placed in the Church of San Francisco in Mexico City. But even here they were not allowed to rest longer than 165 years, for in 1734 they were once more exhumed and interred in a splendid marble mausoleum in the church of Jesus Nazareno. This was their home for thirty years ; but during the War of Independence, when everything Spanish was hateful to the Mexicans, the coffin was secretly removed and hidden in another part of the church. Later it was sent to Spain, and found eventually a final resting-place in the tomb of the dukes of Monteleone in Italy. Thus the remains of this great Spaniard, after crossing the Atlantic twice and having been entombed once in the country of his birth and thrice in the country he conquered, found, at last, a final resting place in an alien land.

The ancient-looking church of Nuestra Senora de los Angeles, which faces the Plaza de Zaragosa, about a mile from the Alameda, was founded in 1580 as the result of a strange miracle. During that year the city was inundated, and in the course of the flood an Aztec chieftain, Isayoque, discovered a picture of the Virgin floating in the water.

He erected a chapel of adobe, and had a replica of the picture painted on the walls. Fifteen years afterwards a larger church was built over the mud-brick one, keeping intact the wall on which the picture was painted, in the design of which so many angels figured that the shrine was called “Our Lady of the Angels.” In 1607 much damage was done to the church by another flood, and the picture was injured, but the face and hands were unhurt, an accident which was superstitiously magnified into a miracle. Two centuries later the present church was built, and the remains of the miraculous painting, covered with glass, are shown within.

Not far from the Alameda there also stands the venerable church of San Hipolitc, which marks the spot where the Spaniards were defeated and slaughtered by the Aztecs on the famous “Sorrowful Night” during their retreat from the city. Then the place was occupied by a canal, but this dried up years ago. On the victorious return of the Spaniards on the feast-day of San Hipolito, August 13, 1521, a Spanish soldier, Juan Garrido, built a small chapel of adobe in memory of his fallen comrades. This was called San Hipolito of the Martyrs, and the name is still preserved. In 1599 a much larger church was begun, and completed in 1739. For many years on the 13th of each August the monks made processions to the church, bearing the crimson banner used by Cortes during the wars of the conquest. On the church wall is the ” Sorrowful Night ” memorial tablet. Cut on the stone is an eagle, with an Indian in his claws, the rest of the design being composed of musical instruments, arrows, spears and trophies of the Aztecs.

Another interesting church is that of Jesus Maria, founded in 1557 by two Spaniards, with the idea that the female descendants of the conquerors should take the veil. The convent was completed in 1580 and removed to its present site in 1582, when there came a nun who was alleged to be a daughter of Philip II of Spain, and a niece of the then Archbishop of Mexico. This story gains corroboration from the fact that the convent benefited largely by grants from the royal treasury of Spain and the viceregal exchequer of Mexico.

Almost all these churches, and in fact most of those found throughout the temperate regions of Mexico, are of similar design, with a central dome and Doric towers.

Some scores of the finer city churches and convents were confiscated by the government after the disestablishment, and are now used as warehouses, hotels, private residences or government offices.

For two centuries after the Conquest there was an epoch of church-building in Mexico. Peon and millionaire sub-scribed lavishly, and the remarkable feature of this great outburst of building was the way in which Aztec and Spanish art were blended, with a result that, if somewhat barbarically florid, is very impressive. Even in secluded villages and townships you can see towers and domes which rival the best work of Italy and are reminiscent of the triumphs of Moorish art. For the most part, they were the work of the native Indians, who carried out the architectural ideas of their Spanish masters. Many of the intricate designs and elaborate figures doubtless represent the mythology of the Aztecs, blended with the traditions of the victorious church. In some details there is a strong likeness to the strange symbols of the ancient Egyptian and Persian monuments. The ornate facades often exhibit a blending of the two religions, the Christian saint’s being substituted for the pagan deities.

In some quite small villages the churches astound with their splendor. Here and there is a towering fane with hardly a trace of a human dwelling near it. But this is not the case in the tropical portions of Mexico, where the churches are of a very humble and unadorned nature. Doubtless this is due to the fact that the early conquerors did not penetrate the hot lands, and also to the difficulty which the constant risk of earthquakes presented to the church-builders.

For the most part the beauty of the churches is external, the interiors being often disappointing and garish in their ornamentation. But as you stand outside you feel strangely impressed with the weird beauty of the extravagant and often bizarre sculptures. On this point Charles Dudley Warner says : “There is a touch of decay nearly everywhere, a crumbling and defacement of colors which adds somewhat of pathos to these old Mexican structures, but in nearly every one there is some unexpected fancy, a belfry oddly placed, a figure that surprises with the quaintness of its position, or a rich bit of deep stone carving; and in the humblest and plainest facade there is a note of individual yielding to a whim of expression that is very fascinating. The architects escaped from the commonplace and conventional ; they understood proportion without regularity, and the result is perhaps not explainable to those who are only accustomed to English church architecture.”

In keeping with the somewhat tawdry ornamentation of the interiors, the organs of most Mexican churches are very inferior, and most of them have too much resemblance to the old-fashioned street organ, lacking both musical qualities and power. The choir-boys rarely have good voices. They are too nasal and harsh.

Most of the old churches were erected as the result of some supposed supernatural occurrence, Mexico, for two centuries after the Conquest, having been a veritable land of miracles. Nearly every town and village has its legend of miraculous appearances of the Virgin, of saints or angels. Almost every church has its wonderworking image or picture, superstitiously guarded through the ages. For example, at Tacubaya, not far from the capital, there is the arbol benito (blessed tree). The story is that an aged monk, weary with his work among the Indians, rested under the shade and gave the tree his benediction, praying that it might be blessed with eternal youth. No sooner had the good man spoken than a choir of sweet angel voices was heard, and a spring of pure water gushed from the roots. You really feel you must believe this, for the tree is standing there, ever green, and the little rivulet flows on forever.

The church of La Piedad, in another suburb, was built by a Dominican in 1562 in fulfilment of a vow. He was commissioned by the brotherhood to bring them from Rome a picture of the Virgin and the dead Christ, painted by a well-known artist. Obliged to come away in a hurry, he brought the picture in an unfinished state. During his journey the vessel was overwhelmed in a terrible storm, and the monk vowed to the Virgin that if the ship came safely to port he would build a church in her honor. The prayer was answered; and more than this, for when the painting was exposed in Mexico, it was found to be finished in all its details. This remarkable picture is hung to-day over the altar.

At Los Remedios, three miles from the city, stands the church of our Lady of Succor, or Senora de los Remedios. During the flight of the “Sorrowful Night” a Spanish soldier, Juan de Villafuente, had on him an image of the Virgin. Wounded and unable to guard it, he hid it under a maguey plant. Twenty years later, an Aztec chief, Cequauhtzin or Juan Aguila, while hunting on the hill of Totaltepec, saw the Virgin in a vision, and she told him to seek the image. The chief searched, found it under a maguey plant and took it home. In the morning it had disappeared, and on returning he found it again under the maguey. Once more he took the image back to his house, where he placed fruit and flowers as offerings before it, but it returned to the plant. Again he brought it back, and this time, being a cautious man, he locked it in a strong-box and all night long slept on the lid. But even these precautions were in vain; for when dawn came, the box was empty, and the image was found under the maguey. The Indian told his story to the priests, and they, convinced that a miracle had taken place, built a shrine on the spot and placed the image in it. This was afterwards replaced by the present church, begun in 1574, and the restless image, which is of rudely carved wood, much disfigured by time, is now enshrined on the great altar. It measures about eight inches. The gourd in which the Aztec chief placed his offerings before it is also preserved in a silken case.

Greater far than all these miracles, however, is that of our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, which is honored by a great national festival on the tenth of every December. The shrine of Mexico’s saint is an imposing church at Guadalupe Hidalgo, about three miles from the capital. Thousands of Indians pour into the city to attend this festival, some by train, some on horsehack or burro, hundreds more tramping on foot from remote parts of the Republic.

The legend to which these remarkable pilgrimages owe their origin dates from the early days of the Conquest. In the year 1531, so the story goes, an Indian, Juan Diego, a native of Tolpetlac, walking over the hill of Guadalupe to mass, of a sudden heard the singing of angels, and to him appeared the Virgin, who bade him go to the bishop and say that it was her wish that in her honor a temple be built on the spot. Juan hurried to the bishop, Don Juan Zumarraga, who, however, doubted the story. Much disappointed, Juan reclimbed the hill ; and again the Virgin appeared to him, bidding him once more convey her commands to the bishop. Juan again returned, but the bishop still discredited the message, and asked the Indian to prove his story in some way. On his departure, the bishop sent two of his servants to follow him, but on approaching the hill he mysteriously disappeared from view. The third time the Virgin appeared, and Juan told her the bishop demanded a proof of her appearance. She bade him come the next day, when she would give him a sign. On his return home, the Indian found his uncle dangerously ill, and during the next day he was busy nursing the sick man.

The following morning Juan started for Tlaltelolco to fetch a confessor. In order to avoid meeting the Virgin, he did not take the usual road, but went by another on the eastern side of the hill, yet, despite this precaution, the Virgin again appeared. Juan told her the reason of his absence the day before and of his errand. She replied that he need have no fear, as his uncle was completely restored. Then she bade him gather flowers from the barren hillside, and to his amazement he saw beautiful flowers growing around. The Virgin ordered him to gather these and take them to the bishop, warning him not to show them to any one until the bishop had seen them. Carefully wrapping the flowers in his blanket or tilma, Juan hurried to the bishop’s house. On his arrival, he unfolded his tilma, when upon it there was seen a beautifully painted image of the Virgin. Taking this wonderful picture, the bishop placed it reverently in the chapel of his residence, and when Juan returned home he found his uncle quite well, as the Virgin had declared.

The bishop ordered a chapel to be built on the spot where the Virgin had appeared, and in it was placed the holy painting in February, 1532. It is now kept in a tabernacle in a frame of gold and silver, covered with plate glass. The tilma is a coarse cloth of ixtl fibre, and of the picture which is painted on it much of the coloring still remains, the blue robe and pink skirt of the Virgin and the surrounding halo being wonderfully well preserved. Ecclesiastics declare that the painting has been examined by many Mexican artists, but the manner of its exact production remains a mystery. Sceptical Mexicans scoff at this and declare the picture is a crude piece of work, while admitting that the coloring is remarkable considering its age.

The present church of Guadalupe was completed in 1836 at a cost of two and a half million dollars. It is a massive stone structure, with a central dome flanked by towers filled with bells. Its height from the floor to the dome is 125 feet. In size the church is quite a cathedral, and its services are so organized. The interior is magnificently adorned, a massive railing of solid silver weighing twenty-six tons enclosing the high altar of Carrara marble. Here is enshrined the sacred tilma. Over the altar are some Latin lines in honor of the Virgin, written specially by Pope Leo XIII. The walls of the basilica are adorned with five frescos portraying the history of Guadalupe. In 1895 a golden crown, richly bejewelled, was presented to the church to be suspended over the painting, the gems having been subscribed by the women of Mexico from their own jewels. It is a glittering mass of diamonds, rubies and sapphires.

To the right of the church is a chapel built over a spring which gushed from the ground where the Virgin stood, and which the superstitious believe has medicinal properties. At the back of the chapel are the tombs of Santa Ana and several other men famous in Mexican history. Beginning at the church is the hill of Guadalupe, ascended by a long flight of stone steps which lead to a shrine at the summit. It is a long, tiring climb, but all the pious who make pilgrimages to the church ascend the hill. Halfway up are the so-called Stone Sails of Guadalupe, an interesting monument of the romantic past. Some two hundred years ago, so the story runs, a crew of sailors caught in a storm prayed to the Virgin of Guadalupe, vowing that if they were brought safely to land they would carry their ship’s foremast to the hill of Guadalupe and set the sails up before her shrine. Being saved, the sailors fulfilled their promise, and their curious monument was eventually replaced with sails of stone.

On the day of the great festival, which is kept as a public holiday all over Mexico, I drove with some friends in an automobile to Guadalupe. The electric cars which run out to the city were packed with people, mostly Indians. Hundreds of men, women and children were walking in the road, some coming from Guadalupe, others going there. A large force of the mounted Republican Guard were stationed along the road to keep order. When we arrived within a mile of the church, the crowd became so dense that the police stopped our car. We got out, and making very slow progress, eventually reached the church, where we witnessed a most remarkable scene. The plaza in front of the church was packed with a moving mass of Indians of every tribe and color, wrapped in bright blankets of every hue, the women all wearing the inevitable blue rebosa. There were long lines of booths for the sale of tamales, chili-con-carne, green and red peppers and all the other weird eatables the Indian heart delighteth in, together with gallons of pulque and mescal. There were stalls where crudely colored pictures of the sacred tilma and tilma postcards were on sale, and a roaring trade was being done in candles, beads, charms and trinkets of every kind. The gambling booths were surrounded by excited crowds of Indians intent on losing their last centavos, and a touch of the modern, with its vulgarity, was introduced by the whining screech of a phonograph and the strumming of a piano-organ which ground out tunes for the merry-go-round.

Inside the churchyard, a large stone-paved enclosure, were encamped hundreds of Indian families, some with all their belongings and eatables, a mass of men, women, children and babies. Most of them were filthy and travel-stained, and the smell of this unwashed humanity was almost intolerable. The encampment of these Indian pilgrims extended for nearly a mile around the church; here and there fires were burning, and repulsive-looking food was being cooked. Pushing our way through the crowd, we managed to enter the church, which was filled with kneeling Indian worshippers, holding tapers in their hands. Almost every tribe in the Republic was represented in this strange assembly, the worshippers all pressing forward in the intensity of their devotion, trying to get still closer to the shrine of their patroness.

Mass was being sung by gorgeously robed priests, among whom was the Archbishop of Mexico, wearing vestments of white and gold. Choir boys in surplices of crimson and white, mostly swarthy young Indians, sang incessantly, their voices being very nasal and harsh. The Indians may sing musically in their own language, but when they speak in Spanish or sing in Latin their voices are almost always unpleasantly nasal. But the scene was one which must live in the memory. The great church, ablaze with candles ; the dense throng of devout worshippers in their tattered blankets and worn rebosas; the glittering gold ornaments on the altar, with its wealth of floral decorations, above which hung the sacred tilma with its gorgeous crown; the regal pomp of the clerics standing grouped within the glitter of the solid silver chancel rail; the clouds of incense,—all made such a scene as is scarcely to be described.

While we were viewing the interior of the church, we observed many Indians squirming on the tiled floor, pushing and struggling round small squares of crystal glass. At first they appeared to be searching for something, and I thought they must be scrambling for coins which had been thrown to them by visitors. But on approaching nearer, the small squares of glass proved to contain saintly relics of some kind. The Indians, both men and women, kissed the glass repeatedly, rubbed their hands and faces on it, and some laid their babies on it, all the while uttering pious ejaculations in Spanish and Indian. It was a wild, weird scene. There were several squares of glass set in the tiled floor in different parts of the church, and each had its mass of Indians squirming and struggling around it. Many of the devotees were suffering from bodily ailments for which they sought a miraculous cure. In some parts of the church silver feet, arms and legs of miniature size are displayed on black cloth panels, having been offered by afflicted pilgrims who have been restored.

It is estimated that over forty thousand Indians attend the Guadalupe celebration every year. This means a great harvest for the railways, which run special excursion trains from all parts of Mexico. Pilgrims are coming, however, at all times of the year, for Guadalupe is the Mecca of the poor Indian, and he who has seen the sacred shrine is ever an object of envy.