There is a strange new vocabulary which dominates the evening news, night after night: “Variants; ‘compulsory jabs’; Moderna; Pfizer; mRNA vaccinations; Astra Zeneca; digital passports; ‘needles-in-arms’.” And as if that were not enough there is the ubiquitous Doctor Fauci. At some point you have to wonder if the fellow is bi-locating. He seems to be everywhere. At all times. In all places. Such is our world in 2021. Everyone seems to be worried to some extent or another about COVID-19. Where do we turn? And in whom do we trust? Do we put our faith in vaccines? In the WHO? Or, heaven forbid—in Dr. Fauci?
The Tlaxcalans of Mexico, almost five centuries ago, were worried too. And they had a lot more to be worried about than we do! A plague of smallpox swept over their countryside like a tidal wave, leaving hardly a family untouched. Ninety percent of their population died from the disease.
The Tlaxcalans, of all people! Because of their loyalty they held a special place of privilege in the newly conquered Mexican nation: they were the first friends of the Spanish, they were the first Christians in the new land, and their territory was home to the first archbishopric in the country, established in 1525.
So outnumbered were the Spanish by the mighty Aztecs, that historians believe that the Spanish conquest of 1521 was “an utterly unbelievable victory” that would have been impossible without the alliance with their new friends, the Tlaxcalans. The Aztecs had never been able to subdue this tiny, but fierce, warrior state.
The first convent in the country was built in Tlaxcala in 1526. This Franciscan convent plays a role in the story of Our Lady of Ocotlan. It was headed by the legendary Fray Torobio Motolinia (“the poor one”). He was one of the twelve Franciscan friars who landed in the country in 1524 to begin the evangelization of Mexico. They were known as “the twelve apostles,” friars of exemplary character and holiness. Fray Motolinia would go on to become “the greatest evangelizer in Mexican history.”
After the Guadalupe apparition of 1531 many Indians had become fervent Christians. One of these was Juan Diego Bernardino (no relation to the Guadalupe visionary) who worked for the friars at the monastery. Because of his innate holiness and his ardent devotion to the Blessed Virgin, he also served as sacristan at the convent.
One radiant, sunny day, on February 27, 1541, Juan was out fetching water for his sick relatives, many of whom were close to death. As he entered the forest, he was startled to see a beautiful lady standing in front of him. She greeted him with a joyful smile and said, “God be with you, my son. Where are you going?” He replied, “I’m fetching water to bring to the sick people of my village who are dying with no hope of a cure.” The lady then said to him:
“Come with me! I will give you a different water that will cure the sickness of your people. Not only your relatives and friends will be healed, but also all those who drink it.”
Juan followed the lady to the peak of a hill where a fountain of water was gushing forth. He was shocked, because he had never seen such a fountain before and he had walked along this path many times. She continued:
“My heart always desires to help those who are suffering. My heart cannot bear to see so much pain and anguish among people without healing them. Drink as much water as you desire. Upon drinking just one drop, the sick will not only be cured, but they will receive perfect health!”
Juan realized—incredibly— that he was speaking with Our Lady, the Mother of God! He quickly filled his jug with the miraculous water and raced to his village with the amazing news. He soon became aware of a new sensation: it seemed that a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders. And that he ran with a light step and an even lighter heart! Even the heavy jug of water seemed weightless. Juan was ecstatic: All who drank of the water were healed!
Our Lady had also given Juan a message to deliver to the Franciscan friars at the monastery:
“Tell the monks that in this place, they shall find an image of me, which not only will represent my perfection, but also through it, I will bring forth my mercy and blessings. I want the image to be placed in the chapel of St. Lawrence.”
The Franciscans decided to investigate the astonishing events for themselves. They accompanied Juan to the forest to locate the miraculous fountain. What a sight they encountered: the forest was on fire! They also noticed a strange phenomenon: only one tree, the tallest tree—defying all scientific explanation— was aflame! Because it was so late at night they decided to return the next morning to resume their investigation
The friars, accompanied by half the town, returned in the morning when the fire had dissipated. But how would they ever find Our Lady’s image in such a vast forest? Impossible task! But by a mysterious series of signs they were directed to one particular tree, the tallest tree which had been ablaze. The friars took an axe to the tree to split it open.
An early chronicler documents what happened next:
“A new marvel met their eyes: within the trunk of the fallen tree was visible the image of the Holy Mother of God.”
All fell to their knees in wonder and awe. The magnificent 5’ (1.5 m.) statue was carried in solemn procession to the church where it resides today above the main altar in the Basilica of Our Lady of Ocotlan in the city of Tlaxcala. It is considered by many church historians to be one of the most beautiful churches in the country. Architects cite it as a “masterpiece of the late Mexican-Baroque style known as Churrigueresque.” The name of Our Lady of Ocotlan comes from ocote del ande—the oak tree that burned.
Five popes have granted approval of this apparition: Clemente XII (1735), Benedicto XIV (1746), Pius VI (1799), Pius X (1906), and Pius XII (1941). The statue of Our Lady of Ocotlan was pontifically crowned in 1906.
Although Our Lady of Ocotlan is such an important Marian apparition and is well-known and revered in Mexico, it is virtually unknown in the rest of the world. It seems to be completely eclipsed by the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe! Yet the parallels between the two are striking:
- It occurred 10 years after Guadalupe. 10-year anniversaries are always significant! Guadalupe occurred in 1531. The Ocotlan apparition occurred in 1541.
- Both visionaries were named Juan Diego. The last name of the Gaudalupe visionary’s uncle was Bernardino. The second Juan Diego’s last name was Bernardino as well.
- Both were converted Indians who were devoted to Our Lord, Our Lady and their Catholic faith.
- In both apparitions Our Lady gave motherly messages of concern: “Am I not here who am your mother? What do you need?” she said at Guadalupe.
- At Ocotlan, Our Lady fulfilled and extended the promises she made at Guadalupe: “My heart cannot bear to see so much pain and anguish among people without healing them,” she said at Tlaxcala. And heal them she did!
- Both apparitions exhibited wondrous and miraculous images of Our Lady—not made by human hands. At Guadalupe, the image was a painting, at Tlaxcala, the image was a statue!
The sisters at the Basilica assured me that healings and all kinds of blessings are ongoing at the shrine. They have witnessed countless numbers of them. Now that the plague is wreaking havoc in the world perhaps it is high time that Our Lady of Ocotlan be made known to the world outside of Mexico!
Mary Hansen writes at MadonnasOfMexico.com. She is a former teacher and has written for the for the National Catholic Register, The Catholic Register and OnePeterFive. She has a B.A. from Queen’s University and a Master of Education and Master of Divinity from the University of Toronto (St. Michael’s).