Pilgrimage: Roman Catholic Pilgrimage in the New World

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Roman Catholic pilgrimage shrines are found from Alaska and Canada to Tierra del Fuego. The oldest shrine in the Americas is probably Our Lady of Mercy at Santo Cerro in the Dominican Republic. Here, according to tradition, Christopher Columbus erected a cross in thanks for a victory over local Indians in the mid-1490s. The original image of the Virgin Mary is said to have been a gift from Isabella I, queen of Castile (14741504), and a pilgrimage chapel may have been erected as early as 1505. Thereafter, Catholic shrines spread through the Americas with Spanish, Portuguese, and French colonization. In some cases, as at Guadalupe, Amecameca, and Chalma in Mexico; Esquipulas, Guatemala; Caranqui, Ecuador; and Copacabana, Bolivia, indigenous holy places were christianized. More often, however, the establishment of shrines involved events leading to the sanctification of places not previously conceptualized as holy.

Missionaries and immigrants to the Americas from various parts of Catholic Europe introduced their own special devotions as well as regionally specific ideas about shrines and pilgrimages. Iberian and French influences were particularly important during the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, as were ideas brought by missionaries from Habsburg Germanic regions. Diversity increased with mass migrations from other parts of Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For example, areas of Italian settlement in Argentina, Chile, and southern Brazil have important shrines dedicated to the fifteenth-century Marian apparition at Caravaggio in northern Italy and to the Virgin of Pompei, a late-nineteenth-century cult that originated near Naples. Similarly, eight shrines of the Byzantine rite are found in the diocese of Curitiba, Brazil, where 95 percent of the population are persons of Ukrainian descent, and a shrine at Doylestown, Pennsylvania, honors the Polish Virgin of Częstochowa. As a result of multiple influences from different parts of Europe at different time periods, the pattern of pilgrimage circulation in the Americas is rich in variety.

The New World's most famous shrine is the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the outskirts of Mexico City. Here, according to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared in 1531 to an Indian named Juan Diego. As proof of the apparition's validity, Diego's cloak was miraculously imprinted with an image of the Virgin in the guise of an Indian maiden. The Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe has been proclaimed patroness of Mexico and of the Americas.

Other apparitional shrines of sixteenth-century origin are at San Bartolo, Naucalpan, Tlaxcala, and Zacatecas, Mexico; Cisne, Ecuador; and Chiantla, Guatemala. Later colonial-period shrines of this type are located at Chirca, Bolivia; Lima, Peru; Ambato, Ecuador; Segorbe, Colombia; San Cristóbal, Venezuela; and Higüey, Dominican Republic. One of the most recent accounts of a New World Marian apparition came from Cuapa, Nicaragua, in 1980.

Numerous American shrines commemorate European apparitions of the Virgin Mary, particularly the 1858 event at Lourdes, France. Some of the more important New World Lourdes shrines are at Mar del Plata, Argentina; Santiago, Chile; Montevideo, Uruguay; Maiquetía, Venezuela; Euclid, Ohio; Brooklyn, New York; San Antonio, Texas; and Rigaud, Canada. American shrines celebrating the 1917 apparitions at Fátima, Portugal, are found at Campo Grande and other places in Brazil as well as at Cojutepeque, El Salvador, and Youngstown, New York. A shrine at Mayo, near Buckingham, Canada, commemorates the 1879 Marian apparitions at Knock, Ireland, and several shrines in the United States and Canada are dedicated to a manifestation of the Virgin Mary at La Salette, France, in 1846.

Many New World shrines came into being when a newly acquired relic or an image of Mary, Christ, or a saint was credited with miracles. Some of these images were probably brought by early missionaries. Examples are found at Itati and Laguna de los Padres, Argentina; Monserrate, Colombia; and Zapopan and Querétaro in Mexico. Other images, such as those honored at Cedros, Honduras; Guanajuato, Mexico; Lima, Peru; La Estrella, Colombia; and Cuenca, Ecuador, were sent as gifts by Spanish royalty. Mysterious strangers are said to have left miraculous images in such places as Cuernavaca, Mexico, and Nátago, Colombia. Elsewhere, as at Banos, Ecuador, and Saltillo and Oaxaca, Mexico, the image is said to have been brought by a mule that refused to move any farther. A variation on this theme comes from Luján, Argentina. Here, at the greatest of all Argentine shrines, an ox cart carrying a statue of Mary from church to church for veneration became stuck in 1630, thus indicating the proper place for the shrine.

Shipwrecks, or the "refusal" of ships to leave harbors, resulted in the acquisition of important cult objects at Antón and Portobelo, Panama, and at Montecristi, Ecuador. The image of Christ at Bom Jesus de Lapa, Brazil, was brought in 1690 by a workman who spent years of penitence in a grotto before becoming a missionary priest, and the image of Santa Rosa of Lima venerated at Pelequén, Chile, was brought south from Lima by a soldier in 1840. Shrines of this type in the United States include those at Dickinson, Texas, where a relic of the True Cross was enshrined in 1936; San Juan del Valle, Texas, where an image of Mary was brought from Mexico by the local priest in 1949; and Miami, Florida, where a modernistic pilgrimage church has been built in honor of the "exiled" image of Our Lady of Charity that arrived from Cuba in 1961.

Many New World shrines trace their origins to the finding of relics or images, usually under mysterious circumstances, similar to events dating to early Christian times in Europe. Stories of such discoveries account for some of the most important shrines in the Americas. Among those of sixteenth-century origin was the dark image of Christ that "appeared" in a cave at Chalma, Mexico, around 1540.

Fishermen at Cobre, Cuba, found a statue of Mary floating on the waters of the bay in 1601. An image of Mary was found on a lake shore after a 1603 flood at Caacupé, Paraguay. Early in the seventeenth century, some Indians found a statue of Mary in a cave at Catamarca, Argentina. At Cartago, Costa Rica, in 1635 an Indian woman found an image of Mary in the woods. Boys found a faded painting of Mary in a hut at Táchira, Venezuela, in 1654, and the painting was miraculously restored. In 1685, just south of Bogotá, Colombia, a man looking for lost treasure found a statue of Mary.

At Yauca, Peru, in about 1700, a group of farmers found an image of Mary in some bushes. A woman on her way back from a pilgrimage to the shrine of Coromoto at San Cristóbal, Venezuela, in 1702 found an image of Mary in a tree at Acarigua. At Aparecida do Norte, Brazil, fishermen found a black image of Mary in a river in 1717. An elderly peasant man found an image of Mary buried in the ground at Suyapa, Honduras, in 1747. At Ipiales, Colombia, in 1754, a young girl saw a painting of the Virgin on a rock face. In 1780, an image of Mary was found after a rainstorm on the edge of a solar, a usually dry lake bed, at Copiapó, Chile.

In 1807, a flash of lightning revealed a damaged image of Mary in the corner of a convent room in Guadalajara, Mexico, and in 1868 a rustic wooden cross was found on a mountain with pagan associations near Motupe, Peru.

Other shrine-generating images are said to have been found in oak tree branches, inside trees being cut for timber or firewood, in fountains, under stones in rivers, in thorn thickets, under magueys, and in ruined churches. At least one, at Sopo, Colombia, appeared in an eroded stone.

Other important New World shrines came into being as the result of a miraculous transformation of an already existent image. For example, in 1586, the cult of the Colombian Virgin of Chiquinquirá emerged when a painting of the Madonna was mysteriously restored. Similar stories are told about once-faded copies of this image that have been venerated since the mid-eighteenth century at Aregue and Maracaibo, Venezuela. Similarly, at Talpa, Mexico, a deteriorating corn-paste image of Mary is said to have been miraculously restored in about 1644. Weeping and sweating images of the Virgin Mary have given rise to the establishment of pilgrimage shrines in several places, including Lima, Peru (1591), and Santa Fe, Argentina (1636). Pilgrimages began to the Colegio San Gabriel in Quito, Ecuador, in 1906 after students reported that a painting of Mary opened and closed its eyes several times, and a similar event in 1888 encouraged the development of pilgrimages to a Marian shrine in Cap de la Madeleine, Canada. One of the most recent examples of this type of phenomenon is a plaster image of the Virgin in the cathedral at Managua, Nicaragua, reported to be sweating copiously in 1980.

The most important devotion for northern Mexicans, at San Juan de los Lagos in the state of Jalisco, began attracting devotees in 1623 after a traveling acrobat's daughter, thought to be dead after falling onto upright knives, came back to life when an old woman touched her with an ancient image of the Virgin. Pilgrimages generated by sudden cures have also emerged in Quinche, Ecuador (1589); Sainte Anne de Beaupré, Canada (1659); San Felipe, Guatemala (1820); and numerous other places. Shrines to which there have been a declining number of pilgrimages have often been regenerated by spectacular cures, as happened at Andacollo, Chile, in 1860 and San Juan Parangaricutiro, Mexico, in 1869.

Frequently shrines were established as community thank offerings for salvation from catastrophe. Survival of Indian attack or victory in battle has given rise to shrines in such places as Jujuy, Argentina; Recife, Brazil; Coroico, Bolivia; Villa Vieja, Uruguay; and Maipú, Chile. Riobamba, Ecuador, and San Miguel, El Salvador, are among the shrine centers that commemorate the end of earthquakes and/or volcanic eruptions. Others, like that at Yaguachi, Ecuador, emerged in the wake of epidemics, or, like that at Biblián, Ecuador, in the aftermath of threatened famine.

Votive shrines have also been created by individuals. For example, the venerated image at Guadalupe, Peru, was brought from the Spanish shrine of the same name in the mid-sixteenth century in thanks for the donor's release from prison, and a shrine at Hormigueros, Puerto Rico, is said to have been promoted by a man who was saved from a bull. The famous shrine at Chimayo, New Mexico, was established in the early nineteenth century by Don Bernardo Abeyta in thanks for health and prosperity.

Shrines also emerge in places sanctified through association with saints or exemplary, but uncanonized, persons. This type of holy place is more common in Europe than in the Americas, but there are several New World examples. These include the burial places of Santa Rosa and San Martín de Porres in Lima, Peru; the Aracanian Indian Ceferino Namuncura in Pedro Luro, Argentina; San Pedro Claver in Cartagena, Colombia; Saint John Neumann in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; the Blessed Philippine Duchesne in Saint Charles, Missouri; and the Italian missionary nun Mother Cabrini in New York City.

Mother Cabrini is also honored at a site in the Rocky Mountain foothills near Denver, Colorado. Here, in 1912, the first citizen-saint of the United States struck a rock with her staff, whereupon a spring emerged with waters since reported to be curative. Other examples include a shrine at Midland, Canada, near the place where French Jesuit missionaries were killed by Huron Indians in the 1640s, and the Coronado Cross erected in 1976 near Dodge City, Kansas, at the place on the Arkansas River where Father Juan Padilla offered a mass for members of the Coronado expedition. Killed by Indians in 1542, this Franciscan friar was the first priest martyred in what is now the United States.

Pilgrimages have also developed at a number of places known primarily for their historical significance. Examples include the "La Leche" shrine in Saint Augustine, Florida, at the site of the first Spanish mission in America north of Mexico (established 1565); the Sacred Heart Mission church at Cataldo, Idaho; and several of the Spanish mission churches in the southwestern United States. Although not a pilgrimage center in a conventional sense, Boys Town, Nebraska, established as a home for wayward boys by Father Edward Flanagan in the early twentieth century, provides another example of a religiously significant site. It draws more than one million visitors a year and is considered an important place of inspiration.

Finally, many New World shrines, especially in North America, are of purely devotional origin. They came into being because an individual or a group believed that a pilgrimage center should be created in a particular place and set about to make it happen. Examples of such shrines include the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D. C.; the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal in Perryville, Missouri; the Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother at The Grotto in Portland, Oregon; and the National Shrine of the Sacred Heart at Pointe aux Trembles, Canada.

In 1983 a number of North American churches not previously conceptualized as pilgrimage shrines were scenes of pilgrimages for the 19831984 Holy Year of the Redemption. Given the late-twentieth-century interest in pilgrimage on the part of many American Catholics, it is possible that some of these places will become permanent centers for the devotion of pilgrims, especially if miraculous events are perceived to occur there. Certainly, shrines will continue to emerge in the hemisphere as religious significance is attached to relief from environmental stress ranging from natural disasters to political upheavals.


No comprehensive study of Roman Catholic pilgrimages in the Americas has yet been published. Much of the information in this article comes from letters, pamphlets, booklets, photocopies of accounts in diocesan handbooks, and similar materials acquired in response to mail queries directed to Latin American bishops in 1979 and North American bishops in 1983. These materials are on file in the Department of Geography, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon. Numerous descriptive works on individual New World shrines exist, but they are difficult to obtain except on site or by direct correspondence with shrine administrators. An exception is a work edited by Donald Demarest and Coley Taylor, The Dark Virgin: The Book of Our Lady of Guadalupe; A Documentary Anthology (Freeport, Maine, 1956).

Some of the more important shrines and those that are interesting for the folklore attached to them are mentioned in travel guidebooks and travelers' accounts. Occasional publications by national tourism agencies, such as the Mexican Government Tourism Department's Fiestas in Mexico (Mexico City, n. d.), provide useful information. A thorough search of the ethnographic literature in all relevant languages would undoubtedly yield a rich body of information on shrines and pilgrimages that happened to attract the attention of anthropologists, cultural geographers, and other field investigators.

Compendiums of selected shrine descriptions form a devotional point of view include Joseph L. Cassidy's Mexico: Land of Mary's Wonders (Paterson, N.J., 1958); Ralph Louis Woods and Henry Fitzwilliam Woods's Pilgrim Places in North America: A Guide to Catholic Shrines (New York, 1939); Francis Beauchesne Thornton's Catholic Shrines in the United States and Canada (New York, 1954); Nectario María Hermano's Venezuela Mariana, o Sea relación histórica compendiada de las imagenes más celebradas de las Santísima Virgen en Venezuela (Madrid, 1976); Francisco García Huidobro's Santuarios Marianos del Ecuador (Quayaquil, 1978); and the mammoth two-volume compilation on Marian shrines in Latin America by Rubén Vargas Ugarte, Historia del culto de María en Iberoaméri-cá y de sus imagenes y santuarios más celebrados (Madrid, 1956). Folklore-oriented descriptions of several Middle American shrines can be found in Frances Toor's A Treasury of Mexican Folkways (New York, 1947) and in Edith Hoyt's The Silver Madonna: Legends of Shrines, Mexico-Guatemala (Mexico City, 1963). Short descriptions of important Canadian churches are provided in L'almanach populaire catholique 1984 (Sainte Anne de Beaupré, 1983), but this source does not consistently differentiate between pilgrimage churches and other notable ecclesiastical structures.

I have undertaken preliminary attempts to provide an analysis of Mexican shrines in "The Mexican Pilgrimage Tradition," Pioneer America 5 (1973): 1327, as did Victor Turner in "The Center Out There: Pilgrim's Goal," History of Religions 12 (February 1973): 191230. Victor Turner and Edith Turner included an overview of New World, primarily Mexican, pilgrimages in their pioneer effort to interpret Christian pilgrimage, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives (New York, 1978). Most other published works by social scientists deal with one pilgrimage center or a few regionally interrelated shrines. Examples of such studies include Daniel R. Gross's "Ritual and Conformity: A Religious Pilgrimage to Northeastern Brazil," Ethnology 10 (April 1971): 129148, and N. Ross Crumrine's "Three Coastal Peruvian Pilgrimages," El Dorado 2 (1977): 7686. Numerous shrine and regionally specific pilgrimage studies undertaken during the 1970s were just beginning to be published in the early 1980s. A collection of papers on Latin American pilgrimage, edited by E. Alan Morinis and N. Ross Crumrine, was in the final stages of review as of June 1985.

New Sources

Office of Pastoral Care for Migrants and Refugees. Catholic Shrines and Places of Pilgrimage In the United States. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C., 1994.

Griffith, James S. Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Primería Alta. Tucson, 1992.

Olivas Weston, Marcela. Peregrinaciones en le Perú Antigua Rutas Devocionales. Lima, 1999.

Quiroz Malca, Haydée. Fiestas, Peregrinaciones y Santuarios en México: los viajes para el pago de las mandas. Mexico City, 2000.

Salazar Medina, Richard. El Santuario de la Virgen de la Quinche: Peregrínacion en un Espacio Sagrado Milenario. Quito, 2000.

Sallnow, Michael J. Pilgrims of the Andes: Regional Cults in Cusco. Smithsonian Series in Ethnographic Inquiry. Washington, D.C., 1987.

Mary Lee Nolan (1987)

Revised Bibliography