Above: the abandoned pagan pyramid of Kukulcán, in Yucatán, Mexico, photographed in 1860. Public domain.
The year was 1632. Padre Nicolas de Zamora was heartsick. Disconsolate. He was the pastor of the parish of El Pueblito, a small hamlet 6 miles north of the city of Querataro in central Mexico.
The city of Queretaro was founded by the Otomi Indians in 1446 but became absorbed by the Aztec Empire a few years later, in the 15th century. It was conquered by the Spanish in 1531 and became the headquarters for the Franciscan friars who would eventually establish missions, not only in central Mexico but in northern Mexico as well (this region later became the southwestern United States). The Franciscans were the first evangelizers in the New World following the conquest by Hernán Cortés in 1521.
It was over a hundred years later when Padre Nicolas was heartsick in El Pueblito.
Why was he so unhappy? Why was he so downhearted? The reason is this: he was on fire for God! He was full of zeal for the faith and longed to bring all to know the love of the Lord but he met only with resistance from the inhabitants of El Pueblito. So few asked for Baptism! And of those who did, a sizeable majority reverted to their pagan practices as soon as he left the premises, even though he had taught them the truths of the faith.
They had built shrines to their pagan idols on a hilltop near the pueblo known as San Francisco Galileo. At night they would proceed up the hill to adorn their idols and practice their rituals. The fervent priest prayed fervently for their conversion but found it seemingly impossible to uproot their pagan worship.
The pastor’s friend, gifted sculptor and Franciscan friar, Fray Sebastian Gallegos, was aware of the situation. The friar lived at the great Franciscan convent in Queretaro and had his workshop in the cloister. Sculpting religious images was his passion! Particularly, images of Our Lady, for whom he had a deep and child-like devotion. He knew what he must do: He would make a statue of Our Lady for Padre de Zamora. She would bring everyone to her Son! He set to work in his studio.
Finally, he was done.
Fray de Zamora was enchanted with the image. “It robs the heart!” he said. The two Franciscans decided to place the image in the open air, facing the hill of the prehispanic pyramid, the site of all the idol worship.
And what was the result of this endeavour? According to tradition, “The effect was remarkable! The Indians came in groups to see the small altar erected by Padre de Zamora. They gazed upon the delicate features of the sacred image, and, burst spontaneously into songs of praise.” They came in ever-increasing numbers and conversions were numerous. “She won their hearts!” said Padre de Zamora. The image from this time forward became known as Our Lady of Pueblito.
What was it that so attracted the new converts to this image of Our Lady? Perhaps like the love of the Aztecs for the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, it may have been the maternal expression on Our Lady of Pueblito’s face, “so tender, and yet so regal” reported one historian. She “has the softness of the Maiden and the majesty of the Queen,” described another.
She is accompanied by her Divine Infant Son; contrary to expectation, however, He is not cradled in her arms. No! Instead, He stands at her side, on a column, “like the Lord of creation that He is.” He is holding a small globe in His left hand and is blessing the people with his right. A statue of St. Francis of Assisi serves as the pedestal for the Mother and Child. He is shown holding three globes which represent the three Franciscan Orders. These two statues were added at a later date.
According to Father Joseph Cassidy, author of Mexico: The Land of Mary’s Wonders, “the devotion of the people of Queretaro to Our Lady of Pueblito almost surpasses belief.” Three times a year she is carried in procession to the capital and in times of calamity as well, especially in times of drought, plagues and famines. At these times, thousands of people line the roads along the route to honour Our Lady.
She is very generous in bestowing her favours. “Many are the well-authenticated cures and favors attributed to her sovereign intercession” says Padre Francisco de Florencia in his “monumental” work, Zodiaco Mariano.
In 1875 Our Lady of Pueblito was declared Patroness of the diocese of Queretaro and in 1946 she had the distinctive honour of being pontifically crowned with the solemn authorization of Pope Pius Xll. 50,000 people witnessed the event with “great joy.” In the same year she was proclaimed Reina y Madre of the state of Queretaro.
How Queretaro loves its Virgin! She has had countless books, novenas and booklets written in her honour and 20 musical works composed, including an opera in four acts. It was written to commemorate the coronation and is named “The Offering.”
The statue remained in its original primitive abode for 82 years. In 1714 the Franciscans constructed a small adobe chapel where it resided for the next 22 years. The present Franciscan church was built in 1766 in the same location as the original chapel. The Franciscan convent, next door to the church, was built in 1775. A hydraulic lift was installed in 1997 so that the statue could be raised and lowered electronically.
In 2007 I visited the shrine of El Pueblito, unaware that it was the year of the 375th anniversary, giving the word “serendipity” a whole new meaning!
The whole town was decked out for the occasion: Marigolds, Morning Glories, Bougainvillea flowers in spectacular hues, giant Dahlias, banners, arches, and blue ribbons abounded. Everywhere. Marching bands, white-veiled schoolgirls and Mexican ladies dressed in traditional huipil dresses accompanied Our Lady of Pueblito in her procession through the hamlet.
While at the shrine I had occasion to glimpse the small statue (it’s only 16” in height) first hand. It is really something this statue. I can understand why those early Otomi Indians were so moved. J. Guadalupe Ramirez in his Echoes of the Coronation of Santa Maria del Pueblito speaks of the image: “It is a true transcript of the Mother in Heaven,” he says, showing “a heart full of mercy and goodness.”
I can attest to this. It is not a beautiful image of Our Lady, nor is it pretty in any conventional sense. Whereas Our Lady of Guadalupe says the actual words, the most consoling words of all time: “I am your Mother. What do you need?” Our Lady of Pueblito says not a word. But she doesn’t have to. Thanks to the genius of sculptor Fray Gallegos her facial expression conveys this same message. I know. I experienced it. Just as did those Otomi Indians over 300 years ago. The message is unmistakeable: “I am your Mother. What do you need?”
As Fray de Zamora says of the statue: “It robs the heart!”
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). She writes from Ontario, Canada.