The Indians of Tlaxcala, in the region of today's Mexico, had been a fierce tribe in the eraly 1500's. They had never been defeated. And yet, these same Indians were the first to befriend Cortes, a spanish leader, and these Indians were the first to accept Our Lord Jesus and His Church in the New World. Thus they were the first Christians. In the beginning of 1541, a devastating plague (believed to be Small Pox) attacked the Indians of Tlaxcala. Smallpox was a European sickness in which the native people of Mexico had no immunity. Nine out of every ten died. There was not a family left untouched by this disease that spread like a fire out of control. The Indians turned to their medicine men. They were helpless! They had never seen anything like it.
On June 24, 1541, only 49 years after Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, and 10 years after the apparition of "Our Lady of Guadalupe", it was late evening, Juan Diego Bernardino, a poor native Indian, (No relation to Juan Diego of the apparition of "Our Lady of Guadalupe".) climbed up the western slope of the hill of San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence) and entered into an oak tree forest. In those days the trees ran alongside a cliff.
Juan Diego was a convert to Catholicism who was known for his piety and was a altar server at the Franciscan monastery. This kind hearted soul had just drawn some water for his sick family from the Zahuapan River. His relatives had been one of the many unfortunates stricken by a terrible smallpox epidemic. Many of the villagers believed that water would cut their burning fever or even cure them. They had an extra high regard for the water of the Zahuapan, trusting it to have special medicinal properties for skin diseases.
Juan Diego who worked for the Franciscan friars in the convent (monastery) of Tlaxcala had obtained their permission to do so. He had taken a water jar, walked down the hill from the monastery, filled up his container, and started walking to Xiloxoxtla, where his family lived.
Suddenly, without warning, an extraordinarily beautiful Lady emerged from "out of nowhere" in front of Juan Diego. She wore a white tunic and a blue mantle, and Her expression was most kind, attractive, and friendly. Upon appearing, She greeted Juan Diego by saying: "May God preserve you, My son. Where are you going"?
Juan Diego was so surprised and overwhelmed by the sight of such heavenly goodness and beauty, he could barely speak. Startled, he responded, "To carry water from the river to my sick ones, who are dying without remedy."
This answer charmed and pleased the Lady. She took delight in Juan Diego's concern, compassion, and graciously extended him the following invitation: "Come follow Me," She said.
"I will give you another water with which virus will be extinguished, and not only your relatives will be healed, but whoever drinks of it; because My heart, always favorably disposed to the poor, can no longer endure seeing such misery without helping them."
Though a frequent journeyer to this area, Juan Diego had never before seen this "healing water" spoken of by this Lady. Still, he eagerly followed Her down a steep hill as the night began to fall. At the bottom was an oak grove with a spring of water, that still exists today. "Drink of this water as much as you desire, assured that through even the smallest drop, the sick will receive not only relief, but perfect health."
"Perfect health?" How wonderful! Juan Diego thought, as he gladly emptied his pitcher of the water from the Zahuapan and refilled it with the marvelous water from this newfound source of medicine.
The beautiful Lady had more to reveal. Before she departed and bid Juan Diego to be on his joyful way, she gave him a message to deliver to the Franciscans in the same Tlaxcalan monastery, where he worked. She instructed him:
"Advise the religious, on My behalf, that on this site they will find an image of Me, representing My perfections. Through it I will distribute My mercies and charitesies. Once found, I desire that it be placed in the chapel of San Lorenzo."
With the Ladies words singing in his heart, Juan Diego raced home to Xiloxoxtla, trusting, overjoyed, and unslowed by the heavy pitcher of water on his shoulders. As soon as he arrived, he attended to his family by giving them drinks of water from the kind Lady's well. What followed overwhelmed them all and rapidly caught the attention of the entire village.
Just as the beautiful Lady had promised, not only did his family's sufferings lessen, but they were completely taken away. Instantaneously all their pains vanished. The very moment each one drank the holy water, they all regained perfect health.
Beside themselves with joy, Juan Diego and his family quickly went outside to share their good fortune with their neighbors. News of this amazing occurrence swiftly traveled through "the native grapevine" of Xiloxoxtla along with the knowledge a "message from heaven" was among them.
Before he could rest to a quiet place, or return to the monastery in Tlaxcala, Juan Diego was overwhelmed with curious, faithful, and needy neighbors. They all wanted to hear for themselves the wonderful story ("The Lady Woman") in the oak tree forest. Where was Her miraculous spring? What did She look like? What did She say? Is She coming back again?
While he told and retold the story of the apparition and the miraculous well, he administered the water to the townsfolk. Everyone who was sick or had a sick relation received a few drops, and unexplainably, everyone who drank the water recovered on the spot.
Night set in on Juan Diego's "heavenly hospital," and before he realized it, it was too late for him to return to the monastery. Eager to fulfill his mission from above, he reluctantly went to sleep in his family's house, but arose with the first rays of dawn. On this morning, it didn't take much to rouse him from bed and speed him on his way.
At the first opportunity, Juan Diego followed through with the Lady's command and relayed the miracle to the community of friars. They listened to Mary's message with the rest of the miracles, and said they would investigate the matter. Then they prudently sent Juan Diego along to his chores, while they reserved passing judgment.
A little later in the day they carefully again questioned him, looking for any inconsistency in his story. They directed their questions in such a way as to discern any discrepancies whatsoever. They repeated their interrogations a third time.
These investigations convinced them Juan Diego was telling the truth, as every time he perfectly reaffirmed what he had first said. His simple and straightforward answers, amid these repeated skilled cross-examinations, led them to discuss the incident.
They finally decided to see the place of the miraculous spring and the alleged apparition firsthand. They agreed it would be best to wait till the natives outside the monastery were asleep, before following Juan Diego to the spring. They did not wish to draw any attention to these circumstances and they hoped to further investigate them unobserved.
This wish to be quiet and unseen failed. Once a few townspeople saw the friars following Juan Diego in the dark, their curiosity led them to alert their neighbors, house-to-house. Before the friars had journeyed very far, a procession of anxious townspeople had joined them. Since no one travels by night except in emergency, the villagers thought this entire "exodus" was very strange. If the friars were not leaving them, the Indians wanted to see and know what was happening.
When the informal procession arrived at the forest, they fell back. The whole forest was on fire! Especially, the largest ocote (oak) tree. The flames were encircling it, like huge tongues, devouring it. As it was very late and they had not come prepared for such a catastrophe, they left.
The next morning, the community once again set out for the grove. This time they were also accompanied by many townsfolk, now a little more than curious about the prior evening's event. When they reached the grove, not only was the fire extinguished, but the main damage was to the little branches of the trees, very contrary to what typically occurs! Once on fire, this type oak is like a "pine torch," and in the dry season (which it was) should have been entirely consumed it. All were surprised.
Having brought an ax with them, under the orders of the Franciscans, the community had him chop down the trunk of the large oak, whereupon, a new marvel met their eyes. When the oak tree was "hatcheted" open, a light shown forth from the womb of the wooden Virgin. The dazzling image of Mary had been buried into the oak tree, and everyone wondered, "How could this happen?"
The entire town rejoiced at their good fortune as the Franciscan fathers raised Mary's miraculous image upon their shoulders, and walked through the midst of and accompanied by the jubilant crowd. True to our Lady's wishes, all followed Her elevated image to the summit of the hill was placed on a throne previously occupied by the great and holy martyr Saint Lawrence. This spontaneous event is called the "First Ascent".
Upon arriving at the chapel, they raised the statue of Mary into the place that had been reserved for Saint Lawrence, while they removed his figure and placed it off to one side.
According to legend, the chapel's Indian who was in charge of the church's sacred vessels and Priestly vestments, the "doubting Thomas" of Ocotlán, had developed a great devotion to Saint Lawrence, and was more than a little upset when his Saint was replaced by the Virgin Mary. He became saddened as devotion to the holy martyr fell, while fervor and piety towards Mary increased. On three occasions he determined to fight these "intruders" to "his sanctuary." On the first of these, he waited to nightfall, entered the church, replaced our Lady from Her location, and replaced Saint Lawrence there. He then relocked the chapel and went home to sleep. When he entered the chapel the next morning, the Blessed Virgin was in Saint Lawrence's place again, and he was off to the side. Thinking someone had tricked him by hiding in the chapel and rearranging the statues, the man set out to outfox this supposed trickster a second time.
That very night, he once more swapped the holy image of Saint Lawrence for Mary's, but also took the added precaution of taking our Lady's statue home with him. After unlocking the chapel he came back the following day, he yet again saw the Blessed Virgin above the altar and Saint Lawrence off to the side.
He again tried to unseat Mary's image. After switching the statues again, he placed our Lady's in case. Then, covering the case with his coat, he went to sleep upon it. As he slumbered, the holy Angels were wonderfully "busy." Through this work of the holy Angels, Our Lady of Ocotlán was permanently restored to Her place of honor.
Awakening to an empty case and the sight of the Blessed Virgin's image again above the altar, nearly scared him to death. He feared heaven's wrath, and rushed to the religious at the monastery to explain what he had done. Having finally recognized God's hand in all this, and coming to his senses, he sought only pardon and grace.
The Statue's Beauty
It is miraculously carved from oak and She wearing a long tunic and mantle. The tunic is gold, mantle blue, with red trim. It measures about a meter and a half tall, almost 5 feet, the same size of most of the Indians who lived there in 1541. The carved hair is brown and has seven plaits (interweave the strands) of hair in back. The age and style of the garment indicates it was native to the ladies of the region, at the time she appeared to Juan Diego.
Normally, the statue is dressed in a cape and a large crown that was given to the statue in 1975. It also has pierced ears, earrings, and many finger rings in addition to the scepter it carries. A silver crescent moon with a "man in the moon" face looking up at Her has been put at the base of the image.
The stunning image of Our Lady of Ocotlán, derived from the words: ocotl-ocote (oak), and tlatla-arder (to burn). (Our Lady of the Oak That Burned)
Her hands, gently joined at the finger tips in front of her, point upwards in prayer. Her features are plain and simple: thin lips and straight nose. Of pious posture, she possesses very appealing eyes, a slender neck, and a royal head in the manner of a woman of royalty. Her black hair falls in curls over her shoulders and down Her back.
The face of the Virgin of Ocotlán has a reputation for changing color from red rose to pale and back again. As recently as 1987 the Bishop of Tlaxcala, presiding at the procession of the statute, the face of the Virgin changed vividly from a pale to a rose color, and left everyone astonished. Father Loayzaga, the great historian of Ocotlán, saw this for himself, and furthermore affirms that the Virgin perspires. Father Escobar reports seeing drops of perspiration sprinkled on a linen handkerchief, and adds that sometimes the holy image of Mary weighs like lead and other times it weighs as light as a feather.
Devotion to the Virgin of Ocotlán occurs at various processions that take place several times during the year. The statue leaves the Basilica of Our Ladyover the altar on three fixed dates: New Year's Day and the first and third Mondays in May.
On the third Monday of May in Ocotlan. The statue is taken from the Basilica and processed through town starting at 3:00 a.m. The streets are covered in flowers, the procession is led by the Bishop and many priests. They say Mass at various places along the route and return to the Basilica at 3:00 p.m for a high Mass and return the statue to its resting place above the main altar. It is magnificent and inspirational to watch.
Five Popes have been involved in affirming the appearance of Our Lady of Ocotlan from the eighteenth century to the twentieth century: Pope Clement XII (1735), Pope Benedict XIV (1746), Pius VI (1799), Saint Pius X (1906) and Pius XII in our century in 1941.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Ocotlan, in 1746, was raised to the stature of Our Lady of St. Mary Major.
Free Holy Water
The holy water is free and available to all and can be dipped from a deep basin in the centre of the chapel. Outside, a pleasant lady sells a variety of recycled plastic containers for those wishing to take some water home with them.
The water is very accessible, but down steps and a walkway along a steep hillside. The sisters at the bottom are very helpful and kind. The water is fresh and clear.
Travel to the Basilica
To reach the Basilica, fly first to Mexico City and then taking a first-class bus to Tlaxcala. ATAH bus lines now provides direct bus service from the Mexico City airport to downtown Tlaxcala. Buses leave the airport at the following times:
7:00 am, 8:30 am, 9:30 am, 11:00 am, 12:30 pm, 1:30 pm, 4:30 pm, 6:00 pm, 7:00 pm, 8:30 pm, and 9:30 pm daily.
The fare is $130 pesos (about $12.00 USD).