Story of Guadalupe Begins With Little Hill in Mexico City

Author: Fr. Kevin P. Gallagher


Fr. Kevin P. Gallagher

Recently, while studying Spanish in México, I was asked to write an article of interest. After a brief reflection it became clear in my own mind what is the most fascinating place in México City. The place is not a building, a park, or strictly speaking, even a grand church.

The place is a small, seemingly insignificant hill in the north of the city. It is the hill where pagans worshiped their gods, where Aztec royalty received revelation, where "conquistadores" encountered their rivals, where millions of Catholics have worshiped God, and where a pope beatified a saint. This is a hill where even the Mother of God saw fit to visit for the sake of her adopted children on what was two new and wild continents. This hill has been known for centuries as Tepeyac.

Tepeyac is the hill which princess Pantpantzín, the beloved young niece of the Aztec king Montezuma II, would ascend frequently during the first 15 years of the 16th century.

From this height she would look out and see the grand lake of Taxcoco and her beloved island city of Tenochtitlán. From the base of Tepeyac hill south was a long causeway which joined the island with the mainland and her beloved Tepeyac.

She was there on Tepeyac to pray for her city and for her people. Tradition states her prayer was always more intense when she would sight the long processions of captives on the causeway exiting the city to be sacrificed.

One wonders whether she would see the faces of her uncle and the soldiers as they would bow to the grand statue of Quetzalcóatl, their great winged creature god, in the Temple of Tonantzín on the top of Tepeyac.

One also wonders if it was not the pleading of this teenage pagan princess that would in 15 short years transform that causeway of death to the "Avenida de los Misterios" (Avenue of the Mysteries). Still today, after numerous centuries, one can drive down the avenue and see the 15 great monuments of the rosary.

The year 1511 was marked by the historical occurrence of Princess Pantpantzín's mysterious revelation to her uncle Montezuma II. Simply she proclaimed that the "true faith" would one day be manifest to her people and the sign of its arrival would be a black cross.

Ten years later, in the year 1521, as the Spaniard Hernán Cortés approached that which would become Veracruz, his ships where sighted with excitement. Each of the numerous sails possessed a great black cross. A short time later, the great warrior king welcomed Cortés and his men with anticipation at the northern end of the causeway atop Tepeyac.

The great feather crown of Quetzalcóatl was offered to Cortés, which he swiftly rejected.

And in a moment of command and zeal, he and his men toppled the statue of the Aztec god. They quickly replaced it with a two-foot-high statue of Our Lady of the Remedy.

Today this statue is reserved in a shrine found in the national park northwest of the city named for the statue: Los Remedios.

Needless to say, relations between Cortés and Montezuma II and eventually the king's successor, were strained. Yet, historical citation identifies on Montezuma's part, a genuine regard for Cortés' religion of the cross. Two principle reasons may be cited. First, the Aztecs never used their complete force against the Spaniards, a force which was well-known by the surrounding terrorized communities. And second, the first cathedral was built on the north coast of the island in the midst of an Aztec temple in 1524. This was only three years after the statue's toppling on Tepeyac.

Today the old Cathedral of Santiago may be found in the Plaza of the Three Cultures, near the subway stop of Tlatelolco.

The fascinating history of the hill was far from over at this point, in fact, much had, as of yet, to materialize.

Twenty years after the Aztec princess' revelation of the cross and 10 years after the coming of Cortés with crosses emblazoned upon his sails, comes the visit of what appears to be a beautiful pregnant Indian woman. Amazingly, on the locket around her neck was the now familiar black cross.

On Saturday, Dec. 9, 1531, a baptized Indian, Juan Diego, ascended Tepeyac hill. He was on his way to morning Mass at the Cathedral of Santiago in Tlatelolco, as was his new daily custom. His journey brought him to Tepeyac in order to walk the causeway. Like the princess, he too could not fail to ascend the hill to look out over the beautiful lake and island. There, he too, prayed for the city, his people, and most likely on this morning, his personal intention regarding his beloved uncle and friend, Juan Bernardino, who was seriously ill in their hut at Tulpetlac.

On this particular morning Our Lady appears to Juan Diego. She asks him to go to the bishop and demand that a church be built on Tepeyac hill. Following orders, he speaks with Bishop Juan de la Zumarraga that morning, through the assistance of the translator Juan González. He tells him of her wishes. Being quite skeptical, the bishop asks him to return some other time.

That same afternoon, on his return home, Juan Diego encounters Mary a second time. She repeats the request commanding him to return to the bishop. To this second request, the bishop asks for some sign from Our Lady that this is her will. Juan Diego reports this to Mary on Sunday afternoon. She requests that he return Monday morning whereas she would grant the necessary sign.

On Monday, Dec. 11, 1531, Juan Diego failed to return to Tepeyac's heights. It was not irresponsibility that called him to skirt the hill, but the immediate need of a priest for his dying uncle.

The following Tuesday, Dec. 12, Juan Diego, in all his simplicity and embarrassment, did not climb Tepeyac but walked around the far side of the hill as if to avoid Our Lady. Mary encounters him with love, assures him of his uncle's complete healing, and asks him to climb the hill to pick the roses growing there. This is an absolute impossibility. Besides being in the midst of winter, the cold is compounded, for the base of the hill is already over a mile high in elevation.

Dutifully climbing the hill, he fulfills this task, using his "tilma" or poncho made of cornstarch fiber, to hold them. At the base of the hill, Mary herself arranges the roses.

Today, this spot is marked by one of the six churches of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe (the Church of the Indians) and the foundation of the small adobe of Juan Diego, where he lived until his death in 1548.

Later, as he opens his cloak before Bishop Zumarraga and the visiting Bishop of Santo Domingo, Sebastián Ramírez de Funleal, the roses fall to the floor and there before the startled men is the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe as she appeared to Juan Diego four times and once to his uncle at Tulpetlac. Today there is a Shrine Church north of México City in Tulpetlac marking the place of this apparition and healing of Juan Bernardino.

Immediately craftsman are employed to work in the new church atop Tepeyac. Simultaneously, the Church of the Indians is begun at the base of Tepeyac. This little church, still in use today, is finished in a mere two weeks. The day was marked by a solemn transfer of the image of Our Lady from the Cathedral of Santiago to the chapel. In the following year, the image is again moved to the Chapel of the Roses. Today the image will be found in the newest and the largest of the Shrine Churches. It was finished in 1976 and can hold an astounding 20,000 people for Mass.

Only now was the mystical and truly profound history of Tepeyac beginning. In an age when the Church in faraway Europe was wrought with the confusion and error of the Protestant reformation, when thousands were alienating themselves from the divine gift of the Sacraments and the motherhood of Mary, she seemingly heard the cry of a teenage Aztec princess a continent away. When the faithful became faithless by the thousands, she sought out the faithless to become faithful by the millions. In the eight years following the apparitions, 3 million entered the true Church, the Church designated by the cross.

The story of the hill and the profound mysteries continue each day. It would be quite impossible to continue much more of the story here for volumes would be necessary. The graces of conversions, healing and the like abound.

Today, if you stand in the plaza in front of the Chapel of the Roses, you will not find a beautiful lake and island there before you. The Avenue of the Mysteries is no longer a causeway but one of the many streets stretching out across the city. The Plaza of the Three Cultures is no longer on the bank of an island, but is a subway stop downtown. Today the lake is gone. I know not when, but I think I know why. Mary came not to look over scenery, but to look over her children. How profound to think the spot she chose would one day look over the most heavily populated city in the world.

Fr. Gallagher is associate pastor of St. Philip Parish in Falls Church.

This article appeared in the September 1, 1994 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.