The streets of Buenos Aires bear witness to the fact that, for many people, Eva Perón – “Evita” – was, and always will be, the First Lady of Argentina. As one of the most influential women in all of South American history, Eva used her position as the wife of Argentinian President, Juan Perón, to help the poor and fight for women’s rights. Her efforts earned her the love and affection of millions of Argentinians who revere her to this day. But while it is true that the streets are still filled with her images, it is in the hearts and minds of the people that her memory is enshrined forever.
But despite Eva’s fame and good deeds, there is another woman who has an even greater claim to first place in the hearts of Argentinians and of all people. Like Evita, this woman was also born in poverty; however, unlike her, this woman remained poor and lived in obscurity for her entire life. Veiled from the eyes of the world and regarded as insignificant, most people did not see past this woman’s outward appearance to recognize her true greatness. This woman – who theologians often refer to as the “new Eve” – is not loved today because she was famous, nor because she had any great political power or influence. She was not flamboyant or charismatic, nor was she considered in any way to have been ‘larger than life’. Rather, she was holy, humble, and hidden.
The new Eve never set foot in Argentina, and the image that is the cause of her devotion today is only 23 inches tall. Yet this woman has an even greater hold on human hearts because her love and care for us transcend the boundaries of earthly life. She is one of us, yes, but she is also one with God. Preserved from the stain of Original Sin from the moment she was born, this woman – unlike any other earthly woman – is completely free from any weakness or failing. Argentinians are devoted to her because of her motherly love, her tenderness and compassion, and her great intercessory power. Who is this new Eve, you ask? She is the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Mother, who is especially loved by Argentinians under the title of Our Lady of Luján.
The History of Our Lady of Luján
The story of Our Lady of Luján goes all the way back to 1630, when a devout, Catholic farmer from Portugal – a man named Farias – arrived in the Argentinian village of Sumampa, about 950 kilometers (590 miles) northwest of Buenos Aires. Dismayed by the lack of faith among the townspeople, Farias decided to build a chapel on his property. He wrote a friend in Brazil, asking if he could send him a small statue of Our Lady to enthrone in his new chapel.
The friend wasn’t sure which image Farias would prefer, so he decided to send two: the first was of the Madonna with Child, and the other was a representation of the Immaculate Conception. The statues made their way south by boat to Buenos Aires, and once they had arrived in port, they were loaded onto a cart to begin the journey inland. As the natives in the region were very hostile, a number of carts and pack horses banded together in order to travel in safety.
After a day’s journey, the caravan passed the Luján river and stopped for the night at the ranch of a certain Don Tomás de Rosendo de Oramus. The night passed without incident, but when the carts prepared to move out in the morning, it became apparent that there was a problem. The cart carrying the two statues of Mary stood stock-still; the animals refused to move. Other drivers in the caravan came over to help, but though they coaxed and prodded the animals, it made no difference. Wondering if something supernatural was happening, the men began to remove boxes from the cart. It was only when the box containing the statue of the Immaculate Conception had been removed that the animals moved forward and the caravan was able to continue on its way.1
The people were so convinced that Our Lady wished to stay in that place that the statue of the Immaculate Conception was left behind. An 8-year-old native slave boy named Manuel had been so mesmerized by what had happened that he begged to be allowed to stay with the statue in order to serve Our Lady. The necessary arrangements were made, and the statue was solemnly carried to the ranch and enthroned in a special room of its own. The primitive shrine soon became a place of pilgrimage, and many miracles were attributed to Our Lady’s intercession. Manuel happily served Our Lady until Don Rosendo died some forty years later, in 1670.
Our Lady Finds a New Home
After the death of Don Rosendo, a pious local woman named Doña Ana de Mattos, got permission to move the shrine to a chapel on her own property, located about 24 kilometers away (15 miles) on the other side of the River Luján. This was considered a prudent move, for Don Rosendo’s ranch was very remote and constantly under threat of attack from hostile natives.
The statue was duly transferred to its new home, prayers of welcome were said, and the doors of Doña Ana’s chapel were locked for the night. But in the morning, the statue was gone. A search party was sent out, and Our Lady was found back at Don Rosendo’s property, sitting on the same pedestal on which she had been enthroned for the past 40 years. They returned the statue to Doña Ana’s chapel, and this time they not only locked the doors but also posted a guard to keep watch. Again the statue vanished – and again it was found at its former location.
At first Manuel was accused of stealing his beloved statue, but it soon became evident that it would have been impossible for him to have been involved. Doña Ana understood then that something supernatural was happening, and she went to the bishop and the governor of the province to ask their advice. Because of the danger posed to pilgrims, it was decided that it was best for the statue to be returned to Doña Ana’s chapel. However, when they transferred the statue this time, Our Lady was carried to the chapel by the bishop and the governor in a solemn procession. Manuel also took part, and it was decided that he should continue on as Our Lady’s caretaker. Now that Manuel was with her, Our Lady was content to stay in her new home.
Miracles Attributed to Our Lady
Veneration to Our Lady of Luján was becoming widespread, and as more and more miracles were attributed to her intercession, pilgrims began to come to pray in ever greater numbers. A larger building was needed, and in 1677, construction began on a new chapel in Luján.3 The miracles continued to multiply. Among them were the following:
- Our Lady told Manuel when he would die, and she told him that he would be buried at the foot of the altar. He died a holy death on that day.
- In 1710, one of the priests entrusted with the care of the shrine developed a tumour in his throat. He took some oil from one of the lamps that lit Our Lady’s shrine and rubbed it on his throat. His tumour disappeared.
- In 1780, news arrived that a large group of natives was advancing toward Luján, slaughtering people along the way. At first the people panicked, but then they turned to Our Lady to ask for her help. While they prayed, a thick fog descended on the town and hid it from the enemy’s sight. The natives lost their way and ended up in a completely different place. Luján was spared.
- When a cholera epidemic swept the nation, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires prayed to the Virgin of Luján, asking that the people of his Archdiocese be spared. He vowed to make a pilgrimage to Luján if she would help him. Both the city of Buenos Aires and the surrounding province were untouched by the epidemic.4
In response to the growing renown of Our Lady of Luján, a still larger church was built to replace the small chapel in 1763. Then, in 1904, Our Lady was transferred to her present home: the Basilica of Our Lady of Luján.5
Who is Our Lady of Luján?
The Blessed Virgin is depicted standing on top of a jewelled crescent moon, her hands folded in prayer. Her face is oval, and her eyes are clear blue. She is dressed in a light blue cape and white dress. The extent of the devotion of the people is shown by the fact that the colours of her garments served as the inspiration for the Argentinian flag.
The terracotta statue is small, measuring a mere 58 1/2 centimeters in height (about 23 inches). “A halo of 12 stars encircles her head, and behind this extend 15 large rays made of solid gold. The virgin’s robe and mantle are delicately embroidered with gold thread and enriched with sprays of gems. Made of baked clay, it is surprising that a statue of such delicate material could have survived so many transfers during its more than 350 years of existence. We can only credit Manuel’s loving care of the statue and the cautious handling of it by those who followed him.”7 In 1904, the Bishop of La Plata ordered that the image be covered with silver to prevent the terracotta from disintegrating. Now, only her dark oval face with big blue eyes and hands folded in prayer are visible.
In 1886, Pope Leo XIII decided to honour the miraculous statue with a Canonical Coronation.8 The crown that was commissioned for Our Lady is made of pure gold and set with 365 diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires, 132 pearls, and a number of enamels that depict the emblems of the Archbishop and the Republic of Argentina. The coronation took place on May 8, 1887. The choice of celebrant for the occasion was significant: it was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires – Archbishop Federico León Aneiros – who made a pilgrimage at that time to thank Our Lady for sparing his archdiocese from the cholera epidemic.
Our Lady of Luján, pray for us!
Popular devotion to Our Lady of Luján is widespread in Argentina today; her image appears all over the country: in most churches, on mausoleums, town squares, in private homes – wherever people live and gather. Pope Francis even has an image of her in his papal apartment. “It is no accident that she is seen as the Virgin with a preferential option for the country’s native people – a people too often oppressed or forgotten.”9 The poor often have no one to speak for them. “Their life reaches out for something beyond this life. Life depends on Someone, and this life must be saved.”10 And so they turn to our Blessed Mother, knowing that she has a special care and concern for them.
Popular devotion has its roots in the culture of the people (as opposed to the liturgy) and has been described by Pope Francis as “the expression of a profound faith.”11 This cultural way of expressing the
Christian faith is integral to the lives of the poor, and it may be expressed in many diverse and colourful ways, such as processions, vigils, and public prayer. Pope Francis has described it as “the original way through which the Holy Spirit has led and continues to lead millions of our brothers.”12 Furthermore, he added, “popular piety comes from the memory of the people … [and] as the Catholic Church has made a preferential option for the poor, this should lead us to know and appreciate their cultural way of living the Gospel. … In the end, [he] said, “the transcendent sense of life glimpsed in
popular Christianity is the antithesis of the secularism that is spreading in modern societies.”13
Today, “[t]he shrine at Luján is literally covered with votive offerings in the form of silver hearts, as well as miniature renditions of arms, legs and body parts, all attesting to the miracles of healing granted by Our Lady.”14 We celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Luján on May 8th, the anniversary of her Canonical Coronation, each year.
- Sharon van der Sloot
1 The statue of Mary, Mother of God, continued on to Samampa where it is still venerated as Nuestra Señora de la Consolación de Sumampa (Our Lady of Consolation of Sumampa).
2 Photo by Oronamauricio (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
3 The city of Luján was founded in 1755 and is located 68 kilometres northwest of Buenos Aires. It is now home to 102,050 people (2012 census).
4 Cf. Alicia Ambrosio, “Our Lady of Lujan,” Salt & Light Media (May 14, 2012); available from http://saltandlighttv.org/blogfeed/getpost.php?id=35993&language=en; Internet; accessed 20 September 2016.
5 Construction began in 1887; the Basilica was completed in 1935.
6 Photo by Dario Alpern – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3303901.
7 John Carroll Cruz, Miraculous Images of Our Lady: 100 Famous Catholic Portraits and Statues (Tan Books, 1993); available from https://books.google.ca/books?id=txKsCgAAQBAJ&pg=PT15&lpg=PT15&dq=death+of+manuel+servant+of+our+lady+of+lujan&source=bl&ots=QtyhakSlcA&sig=I8NncxA2Wqf6_8JSyXxKljkUCbk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiL1sauyqDPAhXI24MKHdrtBO4Q6AEIKzAC#v=onepage&q=death%20of%20manuel%20servant%20of%20our%20lady%20of%20lujan&f=false; Internet; accessed 21 September 2016.
8 A Canonical Coronation is a pious, institutional act of the Pope, expressed through a Papal Bull, in which the Roman Catholic Church recognizes an image of the Virgin Mary under a specific name being venerated in a certain locality. The crowning of an image is an ancient practice, dating back to 1640. The venerated image should be historically old, acclaimed, and in times of need serves as a beacon of faith and hope among the people.
9 Ambrosio, “Our Lady of Lujan,” Salt & Light Media (May 14, 2012).
10 Andrea Gagliarducci, “The ‘theology of the people’, according to Pope Francis,” Catholic News Agency (April 27, 2015); available from http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/the-theology-of-the-people-according-to-pope-francis-83384/; Internet; accessed 24 September 2016.
11 Fr. Federico Lombardi, “Pope’s Appreciation of Popular Piety,” Vatican Radio (December 7, 2015); available from
http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2015/07/12/fr_lombardi_pope’s_appreciation_of_popular_piety/1157929; Internet; accessed 24 September 2016.
12 Gagliarducci, “The ‘theology of the people’, according to Pope Francis.”
14 Cruz, Miraculous Images of Our Lady: 100 Famous Catholic Portraits and Statues.