There is one business that is thriving in this pandemic: The dog-breeding business. Of all things!
This I did not know. I discovered this one day as I was walking along the pier at our lake-side city. A popular spot with dog-walkers. Of which we have a great many in our town. As I struck up a conversation with one dog owner, a couple came along admiring this fellow’s pooch. They wanted one just like it but couldn’t afford it. “The prices have doubled, maybe even tripled since the pandemic began. The prices have gone through the roof!” they lamented. This was news to me.
When I got home I decided to look the topic up on the Internet. And sure enough, this was the case: Barry Harrison, of London, Ontario, a dog-breeder for over thirty years, said “People are scrambling to buy any type of puppy.” He has never fielded so many calls. “Breeders are incredibly overwhelmed with all the inquiries they’re getting,” he said. He cited the main reason as loneliness. “With the pandemic people are incredibly lonely and cut off from social contact. They buy a dog to have company.”
On the subject of loneliness, the people of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, know a thing or two about dealing with such trials, albeit on an exalted plane, a heavenly one to be exact. They have their special intercessor, their special protector, Our Lady of the Lonely, La Soledad, who is the Patrona of the state. She has been looking after her citizens of Oaxaca for over four hundred years. And consoling them when they are feeling lonely and bereft. Many believe that she has supernatural healing powers as well.
Travel writers rave over the city of Oaxaca and rightly so. They call it “a rare beauty, a wonder to behold.” It is no surprise that this elegant city has become a major tourist destination. It is nestled in a valley in the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains and boasts an “ideal climate.” Its zocalo—with its sprawling jacaranda trees and outdoor cafes—is the centre of the city’s social life where visitors can enjoy live music almost every night of the week.
Because her original shrine (the chapel of San Sebastian) was too small to hold her ever-increasing devotees, the bishop authorized the construction of a much larger church to house the magnificent image of Our Lady of the Lonely. The Basilica of La Soledad was completed in 1689. One travel guidebook calls it “the most important religious centre in Oaxaca”, quite an accolade in a city with twenty-seven churches!
The “outstanding façade” of the church is singularly unique in the country: It is formed almost like a folding screen that “moves” on different planes, a Baroque technique which enlarges the surface available for decoration. Twenty-one sculptures adorn the façade. The beautiful interior of the church is in the neo-classical style and above the main altar resides the magnificent statue of Our Lady of the Lonely. Almost life-size, she is sumptuously adorned in a black velvet robe encrusted with thousands of pearls donated by grateful sailors. She is their special patron, after all! She is reputed to be the richest Madonna in Latin America. And this is in the literal sense: Her crown has two kilos of solid gold and six hundred diamonds! All donated by her devoted Oaxacans.
Many are the honours bestowed on Our Lady of the Lonely from the highest levels of the church:
- In 1909 she was solemnly crowned by the authorization of Pope Pius X.
- The sanctuary was elevated to the category of a Basilica by Pope St. John 23rdin 1959.
- Pope St. John Paul ll visited the shrine in 1979.
And one wonders: What was her history? Where did she come from?
She has a most fascinating background! And one of the most unusual in all of Marian scholarship:
The date was December 17, 1620. The muleteers were rejoicing because they had only one day left before they reached the city of Oaxaca. They had left Veracruz several weeks earlier en route to their final destination, Guatemala. This last night they were camping in the country under the “open skies and the stars.” They woke up before dawn and loaded the mules in preparation for the last leg of their long journey. It was still dark as they continued on their way.
Suddenly, one of the muleteers shouted out in a panic, “Patron! Patron! One of these mules doesn’t belong to us! It is a strange mule!” The leader went to investigate and sure enough, it was not one of theirs! But whose was it? And where did it come from? No one in the area had ever seen it before. Not only that—its cargo was different too—the mule had a large box on its back. The patron ordered everyone to search the surrounding countryside to find the owner of the lost mule. Search as they might, they could not find its owner! Nor did anyone they encounter know anything about this particular mule. There seemed to be not a trace of him anywhere. By now the muleteers were worried about reaching their destination of Oaxaca in good time. They could look no longer. They would take up the matter with the mayor of Oaxaca once they reached there.
Famished and exhausted they finally arrived at Oaxaca at 9 am and rested in front of the chapel of San Sebastian. After a quick meal they planned to depart and resume their march forward.
But that mule, “the strange one,” threw himself in front of the chapel and would not budge. And that was that! They tried rousing him, prodding him, beating him, shoving him, shaking him. He still would not move.
And yet they couldn’t leave him there! What to do? They were completely frustrated with this stubborn creature! As if things were not bad enough, the mule then shook himself violently, “as if struck by lightning” and fell down dead!
Now, not only would they be accused of stealing the mule, they would be accused of killing him as well! By this point in time, quite a large crowd of curiosity-seekers had gathered round. “They’ll think you killed him!” they said. “You had too heavy a load on him! That’s why he died!” said another. The muleteers were frantic. They were terrified that they would not only be arrested but that they would be put in jail!
At 11AM, the mayor and his four employees arrived. They were startled to find a dead mule! No one had yet dared to open up the box on the mule’s back. “Open the box!” declared the mayor in an authoritarian manner.
Inside the box they saw an image of Our Lord Jesus Christ and a sign. At the other end of the box, “as though sustained by a mysterious force” they found an image of Our Lady—a beautiful head and delicate hands, exquisitely sculptured as by a “master sculptor from Spain.” The words on the sign, in upper case letters, declared “HOLY MOTHER OF THE LONELY, AT THE FOOT OF THE CROSS.”
The mayor was overcome by emotion and in a shaken voice said: “This is not within my competence, call the priest!” Several of the group immediately ran to get the bishop, Bishop Bartolome de Bohorquez e Hinajosa. When he saw the image of Our Lady he proclaimed, “Milagro! Milagro!” (Miracle! Miracle!). He placed the image of Our Lord in a nearby chapel. Once the statue of Our Lady was fully completed and garbed the bishop ordered that it be situated in a place of honour in the chapel of San Sebastian.
And that is the story of how Our Lady of the Lonely became the Patrona of the state of Oaxaca.
One of Our Lady’s titles is “Our Lady, Comforter of the Afflicted.” She is known for this. It is her specialty. St. Louis de Montfort (1673-1716) speaks prophetically about this very thing in his True Devotion to Mary. He says we are consoled by her in “the crosses, toils and disappointments of life—in the ever-perilous times which are to come.”
And are we not living in such perilous times now?
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).