The History of Our Lady of Guadalupe Prior to the Apparitions in Mexico
by Sister Gabriel, O.P.
Devotion to the mother of God under the title of our Lady of Guadalupe dates from the close of the sixth century. In the old, as well as in the new world, the miraculous favors of our Lady under the title of Guadalupe have at all times called forth the public homage of a grateful people. Mount Extremadura in Spain (or Mount Guadalupe, as it was called by the Arabs), was favored as the scene of the miraculous apparition of the Blessed Virgin to a poor shepherd, in the fourteenth century.
When Pope Gregory the Great ascended the pontifical throne on September 3, 590, he found the Eternal City in profound gloom. A dreadful pestilence, which had raged for months, threatened to destroy the entire population. Filled with trust in God, Gregory ordered public prayer to be offered, and had a miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin, which he had always kept in his private oratory, carried in procession through the streets of the afflicted city. As the prayers of the distressed people ascended to the Most High and as the procession bearing the miraculous image advanced, the plague-stricken victims were instantly cured and the pestilence gradually subsided.
Some years later the Pope made a gift of this miraculous image to St. Leander, Bishop of Seville, as a token of his esteem and friendship. St. Isidore, the brother of St. Leander, was requested to convey the precious image to Spain. During his voyage from Italy to Cadiz the ship encountered violent storms which threatened to engulf it at any moment. St. Isidore carried the image of our Lady on deck and all besought her powerful aid in their great peril. The storm suddenly ceased, the sky cleared and the ship reached port in safety.
Passengers and crew immediately repaired to the Church, where they offered prayers of thanksgiving for their miraculous preservation from death. The image was subsequently conveyed to Seville, where the Bishop with his clergy and people welcomed it with great joy. Among the inhabitants of that city the public veneration of this image at once began, and for more than a century they were signally favored by the Queen of Heaven in the wonders she wrought in answer to their devoted prayers. Their faith in her intercession, however, was to be put to a severe test. During the inroads of the Moors in the year 712, Don Rodrigo, the last of the Gothic kings was conquered and slain in the battle of Xeres. The fierce conquerors immediately stripped the Christian churches of their sacred treasures and proceeded to erect the crescent in place of the sacred sign of redemption.
The devout inhabitants of Seville hastened to collect the holy vessels, relics and images, particularly the statue which had been given by St. Gregory the Great to St. Leander more than a century before. With this precious burden they traveled some distance and found at the base of the Mountain of Extremadura or Guadalupe a cave which offered a suitable place in which to conceal their treasure. Burying the revered image and closing the entrance to the cave with large stones, these zealous people retraced their steps, and afterwards placed themselves under the protection of the Christian army at Asturias. For six centuries the image remained undisturbed, when it pleased God to reveal its existence by miraculous events. There is a legend to the effect that a poor herdsman named Gil, in the year 1326, had vainly searched for a cow that had been lost for several days, when at length, worn out by his efforts, he sat down at the foot of the Mountain of Guadalupe to rest. After a short time, to his great astonishment, he suddenly beheld the missing animal lying dead at his side. Rising hastily he carefully examined the body, but could find no traces of bruises or wounds. He thereupon concluded to remove the hide, and taking out his knife commenced to cut the breast, when lo! the cow arose sound and well. Turning, Gil saw before him a beautiful lady, who thus addressed him:
“I am the Mother of the Redeemer, and it was I who restored life to the dead animal. Go to the priest and the people, and tell them that it is my wish that they should come and remove the stones that obstruct this cave, where they will find my image. Tell them to have a chapel erected on this spot, and in time to come I shall make the shrine a center of my heavenly power and protection. The astonished herdsman lost no time in communicating this wonderful occurrence to all whom he met. His well known veracity secured for him eager listeners, who gazed in amazement at the traces of the knife on the breast of the cow as she rejoined the herd. Gil, desirous of carrying out the commands of our Lady, joyfully hastened homeward. His gladness was soon turned into mourning. His only son had died suddenly during his absence, and his wife was inconsolable. After his first burst of grief, Gil recollected that the Blessed Virgin had restored life to the dead cow, and he confidently exclaimed: “She is powerful enough to raise also my son to life.”
His persevering prayer seemed to avail nothing. The clergy chanted the Office for the Dead, and finally the body of his son was borne to the cemetery. Suddenly the child sat erect in the coffin, and begged his father to lead him to the Mountain of Guadalupe so that he might give thanks to the Queen of Heaven for having restored him to life. This miracle worked in the presence of so many people, had the effect of confirming all that the herdsman had related in regard to the apparition of our Lady. Forming a large procession the priests, with Gil as leader, proceeded to the Mountain of Guadalupe.
Having removed the stones from the cave they found a well-preserved image of our Lady, together with some documents giving the date of its concealment, more than six hundred years before. They also found the relics of SS. Fulgentius and Florentine, and a bell of antique design. Rejoicing in their new-found treasure, the Clergy and people proposed to return at once with it to the city; but Gil opposed this plan, alleging that it would be contrary to the expressed wish of our Blessed Lady. Accordingly they followed the instructions of the herdsman and built a hut for the temporary reception of the image. The stone upon which the statue had rested for so long a period was placed at the entrance of the sanctuary. It may still be seen by pilgrims who visit the shrine.
A chapel was built on the spot by Alfonso the King of Castile. Six chaplains were appointed to conduct the services. The King also erected a hospital and gave land to fifty families, so that they might make their homes near the shrine. Gil, the herdsman, was made a noble of Spain, receiving the title of Don Gil de Santa Maria de Guadalupe. This title was retained by his descendants.
Many royal documents and papal bulls authenticate the miracles performed at the shrine through the intercession of our Lady of Guadalupe. It is related of Alfonso that about this time he made a vow to our Lady that he would perform a pilgrimage to her sanctuary if she would obtain the victory for him over the Moors whose power he had determined to break. The King, with his entire army, attended Mass on the morning of October 30, 1340, and with the allied forces of the King of Portugal set out to conquer the enemy. After a day of fierce fighting the Christian army succeeded in routing the enemy, whose dead were strewn all over the battlefield. In thanksgiving for this remarkable victory, Alfonso made a pilgrimage to the shrine of our Lady of Guadalupe. He enriched the sanctuary with offerings of gold silver and precious stones.
The Jeromites were placed in charge of the sanctuary in 1389. The modern structure, which replaced the primitive chapel, is of great magnificence. It is built of stone. It is one hundred and eighty feet long and ninety feet wide. The church contains three naves and is crowned by a beautiful dome. Our Lady’s image rests upon a throne three feet high, made of rare oriental wood, veneered with silver. Many of Spain’s kings and princes have received sepulture within the peaceful walls of this venerable sanctuary.
In gratitude for the miraculous cure of his son Charles, Philip II. of Spain adorned the sanctuary with rich gifts. A gilded lamp which Don John of Austria had taken from the Turks at the battle of Lepanto, was presented by him to the shrine in 1571. Hernando Cortez, the famous conquerer of Mexico, was a fervent client of our Lady of Guadalupe. Before he undertook his expedition to the New World he visited the shrine and placed himself and his companions under the special protection of our Blessed Lady. His zeal for the honor of the Mother of God led him to build a church on the Isthmus of Panama, which was dedicated to our Lady of Guadalupe. Upon his return to Spain, after having enriched his King by surrendering title to his possessions in the New World, Cortez made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Guadalupe, and gratefully acknowledged the powerful protection of the Queen of Heaven throughout his dangerous adventures on land and sea. A beautiful lamp and a precious Jewel were his gifts to the shrine. This renowned conqueror, basely neglected by the ungrateful King Charles V., died in obscure poverty in a little village of Guadalquivir in 1547. A faithful child of the Church and a devoted client of Mary, with his last breath he tenderly kissed a picture of our Lady of Guadalupe–his beloved Patroness.
It appears a fitting reward of his devotion and confidence that the Mother of God should signally honor with her presence the spot that Cortez had conquered in her name and for the Church. Ten years after the subjugation of Mexico, the august Queen of Heaven miraculously appeared to a Christian Indian and made him the messenger of her clemency to the Mexican nation, leaving with him as a pledge of maternal solicitude the impression of her heavenly countenance upon the coarse blanket which served him as a cloak.