Our Lady of Loreto, the arrival of a queen
By Antonio De Jesús Aguado
Mysticism, history and tradition surround Our Lady of Loreto, appointed as Grand Patroness of the Villa of San Miguel el Grande on September 8, 1736. This year the celebrations to honor her will last until September 22, beginning at the church of El Oratorio, continuing in the Montes de Loreto neighborhood, and ending in La Ermita.
The Virgin and the holy house
Devotion to the Virgin of Loreto, according to Father Josué Alejandro Rodríguez from El Oratorio, dates from the 13th century (1291, approximately), when the house where the Virgin Mary was born was moved to Loreto, Italy because it was being used as housing for Turkish slaves. The image of the Virgin does not have arms, and there are two different stories to explain this. The first claims that the house was moved from Nazareth to Italy by angels, supported by the Virgin’s arms. According to local historian Graciela Cruz, the second version explains that a very wealthy Italian family paid to bring the house stone by stone from Nazareth to Italy. In this second version, the Virgin does not have arms because during a war against the Turks a priest was partially disemboweled. After the fight, he walked toward the Holy House of Loreto supporting his entrails with his hands, but he also had support from the Virgin’s arms. The priest arrived at the holy house, gave a mass, and then died.
Cruz explained that in Mexico, the devotion to the Virgin of Loreto has Jesuit roots. The Jesuits arrived in New Spain after the conquest, during the 17th century. In San Miguel, the Virgin is linked to the De la Canal family, especially don Manuel Tomás de la Canal. According to Cruz the de la Canal family was very powerful and was associated with the city council of New Spain as well as the council of commerce. This family is known for their great support of the Jesuits through funding for civic and religious buildings such as colleges and monasteries, including the Monasterio de Tepotzotlán; in this monastery the first reference in Mexico to the Virgin can be found at the Holy House of Loreto, which also has a camarín (a room in which holy images are dressed).
Arrival of the Virgin
Don Manuel Tomás de la Canal travelled to the Tierra Adentro, as this area was known at the time, and arrived at San Miguel el Grande. Once here, he started supporting the recently founded (May 2, 1712) congregation of El Oratorio de San Felipe Neri. The current space of the Holy House in el Oratorio was sold to don Manuel Tomás by the fathers of this church. According to Rodríguez, the image of the Virgin arrived in San Miguel between 1734 and 1736, from Italy. Cruz commented that the current church of La Ermita was the intersection where the roads to Querétaro and to Mexico City separated, and in that space a small chapel was constructed to hold the image. Information from the Oratorio states that the virgin arrived at the small chapel of La Ermita to be uncovered and adorned with beautiful and showy clothes. Later, the virgin was carried upon men’s shoulders and moved to the Holy House in El Oratorio “with all the honors that were proper of a queen who was also mother of Christ, because of the importance of the de la Canal family, and because of her entrance to her Holy House,” said Cruz.
Cruz said that normally Holy Houses are replicas of the one in Loreto, but La Ermita is different. It is a modest chapel that originally did not even have a sculpture of the Virgin, but it did have a painting representing the journey of the house through the skies. This painting is currently behind the main altar. Don José, who is in charge of La Ermita, commented that it is clear from its features that the sculpture of the Virgin of Loreto now in that church was made by a Mexican artist. Cruz added that in 1876 La Hermita was added on to by the architect Zeferino Gutiérrez, the designer of the Parroquia of St. Michael the Archangel. This bricklayer added a neoclassical arcade to the church as well as a column with a Virgin on top.
“La Ermita is a very important chapel in San Miguel’s history, and this celebration is one of the most traditional in the city,” said Cruz, who added that there are documents that show that for 200 years local residents have worked to preserve the church and the celebration, which this year will be held September 21 and 22 in the chapel.
Holy House and the Camarín of El Oratorio
The Holy House located inside the Oratorio is based on the one in Italy, but smaller. It has only three walls, to represent the belief that God’s house is open to everyone. The camarín, which is located behind the Holy House, is built in baroque style and has paintings representing the travel of the house from Nazareth to Italy. It also has baroque sculptures that represent the mystery of the incarnation. The whole camarín represents the virgin’s belly, and it also represents a crown made just for her.
Celebrating the Virgin of Loreto
According to Cruz, the Virgin was appointed as Grand Patroness of the Villa of San Miguel el Grande on September 8, 1736, by the Spanish city council, and for that reason a celebration to honor her was held every September. The inhabitants of the village used to ask the Virgin for favors in hard times, such as times of illness or drought. “There are documents with testimonies of miracles granted by the Virgin, such as the healing of illnesses,” said Cruz. She also commented that the celebration was as important and spectacular as that for St. Michael the Archangel, and she concurs with Father Roberto Almaguer that the festivity lost its importance owing to social and religious changes in the country, most importantly because the tradition was tightly linked to Spanish families in the village. But it is notable, commented Cruz López, that the largest neighborhood in the village, with more than 400 families, bore her name: Barrio de Loreto.
The Virgin’s clothing
The Virgin is dressed in a wide dress in the shape of a fan, which represents Virgin Mary as a mystical rose; the dress has embroidery of wheat and grapes, which represent the eucharist. The sculpture also has a flowery cape that covers its arms, in which the Virgin carries the baby Jesus. The crown represents the church’s power. The Baby Jesus in his left hand carries a sphere with a cross which represents the world where Christ reigns, and with his right hand he is giving a blessing.
One of the miracles granted by the virgin is recalled in a votive offering at the Holy House. It tells the story of a sanmiguelense who was run over by a car, but he called on the Virgin of Loreto and survived unharmed.
It has been said that Ignacio Allende was taking part in the festivity to honor the Virgin of Loreto when he was notified that the conspiracy to overthrow Spanish rule had been found out.
A long time ago, a sailor donated a pair of arms to the Virgin as an offering, so she could direct his ship to a safe landing. In the past, when the priests took down the image for the celebration, they used to bless the single adult women so they could find husbands.