Nothing can be stronger than religious conviction. It can be the fuel for war, for peace, or for great personal acts all in the name of penance. Pilgrimages are one such events, where hundreds of thousands, or even millions travel for miles on foot simply to show their devotion for their belief.
One such pilgrimage happens in Costa Rica every August, where devotes traverse 22 kilometers on foot, and later down on their knees as a sign of dedication to Costa Rica’s patron saint, the Virgen de lost Angeles.
This pilgrimage, or La Romeria, is an important event for Costa Rica’s devoted. Today, we’ll be taking a closer look at this pilgrimage, its history and what its devotees go through every year.
What is La Romeria de la Virgen de los Angeles?
Romeria is the Spanish term for Catholic pilgrimages, and are common not only in Spain, but also in its many former colonies. Its widespread nature is due mostly to the Spanish Empire’s almost fanatical need to spread the Catholic faith during colonial times. Pilgrimages can be associated with holy locations, relics, and in the case of the Romeria dedicated to La Virgen de los Angeles, a patron saint.
Romeria pilgrimages can be done in cars, horse-drawn carriages, floats, on foot, or even whilst kneeling. For the La Virgen de los Angeles pilgrimage, a huge chunk of the 22-kilmoter journey is done on foot, with the last couple of hundred meters being done whilst kneeling.
The destination for such a long trek is the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles, or the Our Lady of the Angels Basilica in the city of Cartago, where the Virgin Lady of the Angels is being housed.
It is also believed by many that a small stream close to the basilica has healing properties, and it’s not uncommon for pilgrims to wash themselves with its waters immediately after doing their long journey.
The Virgin Lady of the Angels is Costa Rica’s patron saint and is revered by many devout Costa Ricans. The Lady has such a significant historical impact that the pilgrimage to the basilica itself has been done every year for nearly 400 years without fail.
It is estimated that around 1 – 2.5 million devotees make the pilgrimage every year, which is close to 40% of Costa Rica’s entire population. For the people who aren’t able to make the long march or the trip to Cartago to simply observe, it’s pretty much expected to attend one of the many celebrations across Costa Rica that are dedicated to the Day of the Virgin of the Angels. These celebrations include plenty of music, feasts and local fairs.
When is La Romeria de la Virgen de los Angeles Held?
La Romeria de la Virgen de los Angeles is held annually in the city of Cartago on August 2, on the Day of the Virgin Angels. This particular date marks the time when the statuette of the Black Virgin was first found on 1635 by a native woman.
This historical holiday is observed by many catholic Costa Ricans and is considered to be one of the country’s biggest holidays, the scale of which is only surpassed by Christmas and Easter.
History of The Virgin Lady of the Angels
According to historical accounts, the tradition of pilgrimage started on August 2, 1635. Legend has it that a native woman named Juana Pereira found a small statue of the Virgin Mary whilst gathering firewood. This particular statuette was unique, given that it was black.
This strange coloration eventually gave it its nickname, La Negrita, which means the Black Virgin. Juana found the statuette on top of a rock near a spring and decided to take it home with her. She stored the statuette inside a chest and thought nothing of it again.
The next day, as she walked through the same path she travel the day before, Juana found the same statue on the same rock next to a stream. Perplexed, she took the statue again and stored it in the chest. She was surprised to discover that the chest itself was empty. In the next two days, the same thing happened. She found the statuette at the exact same place, and when she tried storing it in the chest, the chest was empty.
On the fourth day, Juana decided to take the Black Virgin statue to a local parish priest instead of taking it home. The priest would then decide to store the statue inside the parish church’s sanctuary. The next day, when he decided to check on it, the statue was gone. Juana found the statue at the same place as before.
After realizing that the statue doesn’t want to be moved, a new church was built around it by the townsfolk instead, which eventually became known as the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles. By 1824, the Black Virgin was declared as Costa Rica’s patron saint, and in 1926, it was officially canonized as Our Lady of the Angels.
Today, the statuette is still kept inside the basilica. It’s even possible to visit the very rock where it was found, and drink from the stream nearby.
History of the Basilica of the Angels
The Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles was built in 1639 but was partially destroyed by an earthquake soon after. Being located at the foot of the Irazu volcano, the region is plagued by strong earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Multiple other natural disasters forced the people of Cartago to rebuild the basilica.
The most significant reconstruction was done in 1939 after the particularly destructive earthquake of 1910. This iteration of the basilica, which features a 19th century Byzantine style of architecture, is the church’s most well-known face. This face continues to grace Cartago to this day, even after a series of eruptions by Irazu Volcano during the 1960’s, which caused significant damage to the church.
Today, the church stands tall, and outside of the pilgrimage, is open all day long for the entire week. People stop by to pray here or offer up silver medals that are shaped like body parts. These medals represent the specific parts of a devotee’s body that troubles them, hoping that the miraculous healing powers of the Virgin of the Angels will help them.