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Annual Atotonilco–San Miguel Pilgrimage Celebrates a Miracle Shrouded in Mystery



City historian Graciela Cruz

By Jesus Aguado

El Señor de la Columna—the Lord of the Column—is coming. Along with him come carpets of sawdust strewn along Independencia Avenue, palm leaf arches decorated with multicolored flowers, 5am fireworks, and renewed devotion to what believers say was a miracle made manifest.

This yearly event, which is part of the run-up to Holy Week celebrations in San Miguel de Allende, commemorates an event that oral history says happened 196 years ago, when local Catholics brought El Señor de la Columna—a statue of a whipped, bloody Christ on his way to the Crucifixion—from his year-round altar at the Santuario de Jesús Nazareno Church in Atotonilco to San Miguel. This year’s reenactment of the event will take place overnight between April 6 and 7, starting on April 6 at 11:30pm in the Atotonilco sanctuary. Pilgrims will carry the statue to San Miguel in a procession that culminates in an 8am Mass at San Juan de Dios Church on April 7.

A miracle

For the faithful, this event marks what they say is an almost 200-year-old miracle: they believe the statue helped end a mysterious plague that was afflicting San Miguel residents in 1823. At the time, the town was known as San Miguel el Grande. According to a history written in 2010 by San Miguel chronicler Cornelio López Espinoza, when the plague appeared in town, residents would be walking down the street, suddenly sneeze, and then fall dead.

One oral history version says that the population asked for a divine miracle and decided to make a pilgrimage to Señor de la Columna’s sanctuary in Atotonilco and bring the Christ statue to San Miguel in procession. The plague is said to have come to an end with the arrival of the statue, and ever since, Catholic pilgrims have brought the statue to our city in a procession re-creating and commemorating the original event.

But the existence of the plague in this story, as well as the year when the sculpture first traveled to San Miguel, is not backed by hard evidence. Local historian Graciela Cruz, who has deeply researched the history of the Atotonilco sanctuary, told Atención that plagues have afflicted the city in other years, including in 1813 and 1830, but not 196 years ago.

Further adding ambiguity to the lore, Josué Patlán, a member of the Hermandad del Señor de la Columna—a group sanctioned by the Diocese of Celaya in 2002 to take the statue from its niche, cover it, and transport it over 12 kilometers of road up to San Juan de Dios Church—gives another, slightly contradictory, explanation for this annual pilgrimage.

According to Patlán, who believes the plague happened 196 years ago, this tradition exists because of one man, San Miguel resident Cayetano Vargas. As the story goes, Vargas was a wealthy businessman who became ill and believed the only cure would be a miracle granted by the Lord of the Column. At Vargas’s petition, as Patlán tells it, the statue was transported here from Atotonilco on a raised platform, Vargas was cured, and the statue has been brought to San Miguel every year ever since.

However, even the oral histories create confusion, if not outright contradiction: Patlán also cited another piece of oral history asserting that the statue was brought to San Miguel for undocumented reasons in 1848.

Despite the ambiguity, local Catholics celebrate this dispelling of the plague annually. The statue of Christ is draped in hundreds of silk and linen kerchiefs donated by the faithful. Just before midnight, it leaves its niche in Atotonilco and is carried to San Juan de Dios, processing into the city via Avenida Independencia, a route with several stops to venerate the statue. Statues of the Virgen Dolorosa (the Virgin of Sorrows) and the Apostle John follow behind El Señor de la Columna. Men dressed up as Roman soldiers representing Pontius Pilate’s men escort the statues, and the route is lit by streetlight or at times by portable lamps.

The statue

The Lord of the Column statue dates back to 1750, according to Cruz and master restorer Pablo Amador Marrero. The brotherhood that venerated it, Hermandad de la Preciosa Sangre de Cristo, originated in Spain in the seventeenth century and spread throughout New Spain over the following century. The statue is attributed to a priest of the Oratorio of San Felipe Neri, Remigio Angel González, who, legend says, also happens to have been the chaplain at the Santuario de Atotonilco on September 16, 1810, during the War of Independence when insurrectionist troops famously passed by Atotonilco, taking its banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe as their war flag.

The statue weighs 40 kilos and is 1.8 meters in height. Christ leans upon a column (hence the name), bare-chested, with numerous welts across his back from being whipped. Some of his ribs are showing.

The statue’s caretakers

During this yearly procession, hundreds of people can be seen along the paved road from Atotonilco. Those who speak to reporters claim that Christ performed a miracle in San Miguel. They say they come each year to see him pass, to help carry him, or just to venerate him. In addition, the Casa de Ejercicios del Santuario (the Retreat House of the Sanctuary), whose patron is the Lord of the Column, receives more than 50 people each year at this time.

The Lord of the Column is always transported to San Miguel on the Sunday prior to the Friday of Sorrows, this year on April 12.

According to Patlán, the devotees will gather at the sanctuary on Thursday, April 4, to dress the statue. On Saturday, April 6, the Hermandad del Señor de la Columna will report to San Juan de Dios Church at 6:30pm, where they will go to confession and listen to a message from the priest. Then they will proceed toward the Santuario, where, upon arriving, they take the statues of St John, the Virgin of Sorrows, and the Lord of the Column down from their niches.

Around 9pm, the Brotherhood places the statues on raised platforms and screws them down to secure them. After this, they begin to drape the statues with the linen and silk kerchiefs, which each measure 50 by 50 centimeters. They additionally cover the statues with a large cloth to protect them from inclement weather and humidity.

According to Patlán, the donated kerchiefs are changed every year. People wishing to donate kerchiefs to be used in the procession can bring up to two, in silk or linen only, to Cinco de Mayo 16 in colonia Allende. After the statues arrive in the city, donors will be given back the most worn-out kerchiefs.

The route

Those carrying the platforms with the heavy statues alternate positions along the road and make various rest stops in the communities and neighborhoods of El Cortijo, Santa Margarita, Cruz del Perdon, and Miguel Hidalgo. They then stop again on Independencia Avenue, where the statues are uncovered, and finally one last time in Plaza Garibaldi before the statues end up at San Juan de Dios Church for the 8am Mass.

The statues will remain installed in the church until Wednesday, April 24. San Juan de Dios Church is the starting point of various processions to come during the month.

An upcoming anniversary

According to Patlán, the Hermandad del Señor de la Columna has begun preparations to celebrate the supposed upcoming two hundredth anniversary of this tradition, an event which is expected to draw thousands of people, not only from the city but also from different states throughout the nation. They will come to venerate, touch, and transport the Lord of the Column all night until it yet again arrives at its place in the Church of San Juan de Dios.


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