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The Legend Of The Virgin of Caacupe, Paraguay
The small town of Caacupe in Paraguay is home to a famous religious relic, a statue of the Virgin Mary and the center of a yearly pilgrimage that brings thousands of people every year. Paraguay is a small land-locked South American country where I lived for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. Paraguay is, like most of the rest of South America, a predominately Roman Catholic country, around 99%. The Paraguayan people are devoutly religious and adamantly believe in the legend of their sacred virgin.
Sometime in the seventeenth century, a group of Mbaya Indians were pursuing a Guarani Indian near the mountains of Tobati. They may have wanted to kill the man because he was from another tribe, but more likely because the Guarani was a Christian convert and follower of the Franciscans, a group that caused a great deal of fear in the hearts of the Mbaya.
Completely surrounded, the Guarani convert hid behind a huge tree. Trembling, he began to pray, and could feel the presence of the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Mary. He vowed, if he survived, he would carve a statue in her image to show his gratitude for saving him. Miraculously, none of the Mbaya found the Guarani, and he lived out the rest of his life solely for the purpose of keeping his promise to the “queen of the skies”.
He later returned to the trunk of the tree where he was saved and patiently began drying the wood to begin his project of perfection. With all the fervor and skill he could muster, the grateful Guarani sculpted not just one, but two identical statues, one twice as big as the other. The larger was taken to a church in Tobati and the smaller was kept by the Guarani for his own devotion.
Some years later, there was a great flood of the Ypacarai Lake. The waters washed away many homes and dead animals. Among the debris floated a cylindrical leather box, which passed by an Indian carpenter by the name of Jose from the town of Atyra. He took the box to dry land, only to be surprised that it contained the famous image of the Immaculate Conception, the smaller of the two statues the Guarani had carved. The “Indio Jose” cared for the statue, but contrary to what is popularly believed, he was not the creator of the image which is venerated today at the cathedral in Caacupe.
The true identity of the creator of the statues remains unknown to this day. It has been suggested that he either moved from Tobati to the town of Arekaya or was one of the victims of the great flood. What is certain, is that his works have been visited and venerated by millions of people from all over the world at the the cathedral of Caacupe. Ironically, the larger of the two statues graces the lesser known church in Tobati because that is where the Virgin Mary interceded to save the unknown Guarani sculptor.
I remember a teacher at the school where I worked explain to me that stories about creatures like Pombero or Yasu yatere are just myths and therefore not real, but the story of the Virgin of Caacupe is a legend and it is real. Every year on December 8th, the feast of the Virgin of Caacupe is celebrated. Starting several days or up to a week or so before the festival, thousands and thousands of people start a pilgrimage to the town of Caacupe. Most people walk in groups with their family and friends. December is summer in Paraguay and extremely hot. None the less, the roads are full of pilgrims making their way to see the Virgin Mary. At the culmination of the festival the holy Statue of the Virgin is brought outside the church for the people to see and venerate and Mass is held. It is the biggest religious event of the year and every Paraguayan should make the pilgrimage at least once in their lives. Many people make it a yearly event.
To be honest, I never actually made the pilgrimage myself, but my Paraguayan neighbors did and so did many of my volunteer friends. The volunteers all said the same thing. The experience itself was amazing. Of course, it was physically exhausting to make the journey, but to be part of such an event with people so devote and passionate about something was truly inspiring. The statue itself however, was not. The statue measures only 50 centimeters (20 inches) high. It does not appear as you would expect a statue several hundred years old, carved by an Indian to look. It shows the Virgin Mother, dressed in blue and gold and standing on a serpent and a half moon. True, it has delicate features and beautiful garments. In Paraguay, it is hailed as an example of expert craftsmanship, which is part of the miracle. But to me, it just looks like a fancy doll. It looks very modern. But for Paraguayans, it is their “Blue Virgin of Caacupe”, a sacred relic, dear to their hearts and souls and that’s what’s important..