A series of miracles was soon attributed to the Virgin, including the freeing of a runaway slave named Zacarias. After he was caught, Zacarias was being marched back to his owner in shackles when he passed by the little Aparecida shrine. Legend has it he prayed to the Virgin to intercede, and the shackles fell away. Upon hearing the story, Zacarias’ owner immediately freed him.
As news of the miracles spread throughout Brazil, the number of pilgrims grew exponentially, and a series of ever-larger churches were built to house her, culminating with the sprawling domed basilica that was begun in 1955 and holds up to 45,000 worshippers in the city named after the Virgin.
Her saint’s day, Oct. 12, is now a national holiday in Brazil, and tens of thousands of pilgrims annually mark the day by trekking to the Sanctuary of Aparecida. So many have made offerings to the saint there’s a room in the sprawling church where the gifts of famous devotees are on display, with a helmet once belonging to the late Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna next to a soccer ball from celebrated striker Ronaldo.
David Gibson, a New York-based reporter for Religion News Service, called Marian devotion the church’s “connective tissue,” which “binds people together.”
“It’s the faith on its knees in prayer, rather than an intellectual faith,” said Gibson, adding that Argentine-born Francis has long been a Marian devotee. “Benedict XVI was a theologian, John Paul II was a philosopher, but Francis is a pastor. He’s a Catholic that an average Catholic can recognize. He’s a guy who’s very devoted to the Virgin Mary and sees these popular devotions as the faith of the people.”
Still, Aparecida has been a target of friction between Brazil’s Catholic majority and its fast-growing Pentecostal community, many of whom accuse the church of promoting idol worship with its reverence for Mary.
In 1978, a man with alleged links to a Pentecostal church smashed the Virgin’s protective glass case, snatched the statue from its niche and broke it into more than 100 fragments. Following a painstaking restoration, the statue was returned to Aparecida in an ambulance.
In 1995, a televangelist pastor caused a nationwide furor by repeatedly kicking a plaster replica of the Virgin.
The clay used to make the statue has been traced to a pit in Sao Paulo state, and it’s thought she might be the work of a Benedictine monk and sculptor who lived nearby. Friar Agostinho de Jesus was known for figurines embellished with clay pearls and flowers, like the ones that adorn the Virgin of Aparecida’s hair and gown.
Though her unique chocolate color has long been part of the Virgin’s appeal, experts say it was likely initially painted in bright colors. Her time in the river and surrounded by candles in the shrine are thought to have given the Virgin her trademark chestnut hue.
“We are a nation of African descendants, so this black Virgin in a country of blacks has a huge place of honor,” said Fernando Altemeyer, a theology professor at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo. “For black Catholics, obviously Our Lady of Aparecida is the same color as they are. It’s the feeling of ‘she’s black like us!’ so it’s incredibly important for them.”
Like millions of Brazilians, Damiao, the taxi driver, said he lives a humble life. But he’s grateful to the Virgin for protecting him and his loved ones.
“It’s not that my life is so great, because it’s not, but in my family we’ve never had sickness, never been hungry,” he said. “I think we have to thank Our Lady of Aparecida for that.”