Our Lady of Aparecida


c.1650: Frei Agnostino de Jesus, sculptor and carioca monk from Sao Paolo, made a small statue of the Virgin.

1717 (October 12): Joao Alves, a fisherman of Guarantinqueta, Brazil, cast his net in the Paraiba River near the Port of Itaguago and snared the body of a statue. He and his companions, Domingos Garcia and Felipe Pedroso, cast their net again, this time pulling up the statue’s head. They named the statue Our Lady Aparecida (Our Lady Who Appeared).

1732: The statue was taken to its first shrine.

1745: A larger church was built on a hilltop near Porto Itaguassu to house the statue.

1822: Pedro I declared Brazil’s independence from Portugal and elevated Our Lady Aparecida’s title to Patroness of Brazil.

1888: A larger basilica was built to replace smaller chapel that could accommodate 150,000 pilgrims a year.

1904 (September 8): St. Pius X declared Our Lady Aparecida to be Queen of Brazil. The Cardinal of Rio de Janeiro crowned her.

1930: Pope Pius XI proclaimed her as the principal patroness of Brazil.

1931 (May 31): Brazil was officially consecrated to Our Lady Aparecida.

1931: After a near-bloodless military coup d’etat, Getulio Vargas became dictator of Brazil. As a symbol of a united Brazil, he promoted a semi-official Catholic Church with Our Lady Aparecida as its symbol.

1945: Vargas’ ruled as dictator ended; plans already were underway for a new basilica.

1946-1955: Construction began on a large modern-style basilica.

1959: Masses, and the statue, were moved to the new basilica, still under construction.

1964: Another military takeover occurred in Brazil. Many socialists, including intellectuals and artists, were imprisoned or exiled. “President” Castello Branco named Our Lady Aparecida to be the highest general of the Brazilian Army in an attempt to restrict how public spaces could be used.

1978 (May 16): The statue was desecrated by a member of a Protestant sect.

1980: In anticipation of Pope John Paul II’s visit, the likely date of Our Lady’s discovery, October 12, was enacted into law as an official national Brazilian holiday.

1980 (October 12): Pope John Paul II blessed Our Lady’s shrine.

1995 (October 12): A televangelist pastor, Sergio Von Helder, publicly ridiculed an Aparecida icon during a televised religious service.


Before Brazil fell under Spanish control in 1580, Joao III of Portugal controlled a vast territory but had few resources with which to settle and develop it. He therefore divided Brazil into fifteen captaincies and appointed a governor for each. The governors could levy taxes and rule as they saw fit but were required to populate the area, sustain the population, and defend their territories with their own resources. Gold was discovered in south-central Brazil in 1695 in what was to become the captaincies of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais, and a mining boom ensued. A new governor for Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais, Pedro Miguel de Almeida Portugal e Vasconcellos, the Portuguese Count of Assumar, was due to arrive in his new captaincies, in a town later to be known as Aparaceda, in October, 1717 and was on his way to an important mining site (Johnson 1997).

The local residents wanted to provide a fitting reception for the new governor, and so three fishermen were sent out into the nearby Paraiba River to bring in food for a celebration. The discovery of the statue that came to be called Our Lady of Aparecida on that fishing expedition is “part history, part hagiography” (Johnson 1997:125). In the Roman Catholic Church, saints typically are consecrated after reportedly experiencing a vision or some other manifestation of God (hierophany). However, Our Lady of Aparecida’s path to becoming the Patroness of Brazil was quite distinctive.

Fish catches had not been plentiful immediately prior to the new governor’s visit, and the weather was especially bad when the men set out on their fishing trip. Despite their prayers to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (the Virgin Mary), for many hours Domingos Garcia, Joao Alves, and Felipe Pedroso caught nothing. Finally, casting his net once more, Alves hauled in not fish, but the body of a small statue. The statue had been in the river for a long time (and may have been a Spanish statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe from the period of Spanish control of Brazil between 1580 to 1640), and, as a result, the wood from which the statue was carved had been stained and discolored by the mud and water (Johnson 1997:126).

The men cast their net once more and brought in the statue’s head. They cleaned their catch and decided their statue was one ofOur Lady of the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Mary. They named her Our Lady of the Conception Who Appeared from the Waters, which was subsequently shortened to Our Lady Aparecida. The men wrapped her in cloth, continued fishing, and soon had enough fish to provide a sumptuous feast. The appearance of Our Lady of Aparecida came to be regarded as a double miracle. To the faithful, it was miraculous, first, that the fishermen found both the body and the head of the statue simultaneously and, second, that finding the statue was followed by a bountiful harvest of fish. This miracle resonates with a biblical narrative in which Jesus appears to unsuccessful fishermen, telling them to cast their nets again, which leads them to an abundant catch.

From the moment of its discovery, the statue was venerated by the fisherman and their families and neighbors. Felipe Pedroso took the statue to his house where others came to see her. When he moved to Porto Itaguassu, he took the statue with him. In 1732, his son Atanasio built its first shrine. Thirteen years after the first shrine was built, a larger church was erected on a hilltop near Porto Itaguassu for Our Lady of Aparecido. This remained her home for over a hundred years.

Pedro I declared Brazil’s independence from Portugal in 1822 and elevated Our Lady of Aparecida’s title to Patroness of Brazil, the constitutional separation of church and state notwithstanding. Our Lady of Aparecida became an increasingly more important destination for religious pilgrims in Brazil. By 1888, approximately 150,000 pilgrims were arriving every year. In response, a larger basilica was built to replace the smaller chapel. A succession of elevations of sacred status followed. On September 8, 1904, St. Pius X declared Our Lady of Aparecida to be the Queen of Brazil, and she was crowned by the Cardinal of Rio. Just twenty-six years later, in 1930, Pope Pius XI proclaimed her to be the principal patroness of Brazil, and Brazil was officially consecrated to Our Ladyof Aparecida on May 31 of the next year. In 1931, Getulio Vargas seized power in Brazil after a military coup d’etat. While in power he sought to create a unified Brazil and so promoted a semi-official Catholic Church with Our Lady of Aparecida as its sign. Vargas’s reign as dictator ended in 1945, but by then the plans were already underway for a new basilica. In 1959, Our Lady of Aparecida was moved to the unfinished building. In the meantime, after a period of civilian government, military rule returned in 1964. Catello Branco, who was designated as president, symbolically named Our Lady of Aparecida to be the highest general of the Brazilian Army in an attempt to restrict how public spaces could be used. When the new basilica was finally completed in 1980, Pope John Paul II visited and blessed her shrine. His visit led to the creation of a law which named October 12, her likely date of discovery, an official national Brazilian holiday. The mixing of religious and political legitimation for Our Lady of Aparecida has been controversial but has also meant that Our Lady has been not only a symbol of the Catholic Church but also of Brazil as a nation (Johnson 1997:129).


Since her appearance in the river, Our Lady of Aparecida has always been associated with miracles. For example, after the statue was first moved into its prayer chapel near the river, miraculous events were reported: candles that blew out in the chapel would relight, a slave running from a cruel master prayed to the idol for freedom and his chains were released, a blind girl received sight, and a man who wished to harm the statue found his horse’s feet “locked fast to the ground at the entrance of the building” when he tried to enter the chapel (“Our Lady Aparecida” n.d.). Further, while the new basilica was being constructed, it was reported that the every evening the statue was moved to reside in the in progressing Basilica, but every morning, she would appear back in the old Basilica. This went on for several years. Eventually, it is believed, the statue gave up and realized that no member of the clergy was going to heed her desire to remain at her old resting place.


The date dedicated to Our Lady of Aparecida has changed many times over the years. The original date in her honor was set as December 8 from as early as the eighteenth century. However, soon after the Vatican declared May to be the Month of Mary, the episcopate decided to make a special date devoted to Our Lady, the fifth Sunday after Easter, which would always fall in May. Just nine years later, in 1904, “the date was officially changed to the first Sunday of May” (Fernandes 1985:805). However, this date was not recognized by all of the churches, and some chose to use September 7, Independence Day, instead. Years later, in 1939, September 7 was officially established as the new day of Aparecida. Unfortunately, this led to a drastic drop in support from pilgrims at festivals in her honor, apparently as a result of both celebrations occurring on the same day. Thus, in 1955, the National Conference of Bishops moved the date for a final time to its current day, October 12. In 1980, this date became a national holiday.

There are several ritual themes that pilgrims to the Our Lady of Aparecida site express: dependence, territorial bond, and inclusion. The first is Dependence, in which pilgrims worship in order to get protection. This may also be accompanied by a vow, wherein the pilgrims may promise to accomplish something in the name of Our Lady of Aparecida if she will grant them something. The second is a Territorial Bond, wherein pilgrims bring items to be blessed by the statue to improve their relationship with Aparecida. Finally, there is Inclusion, which connotes that, while there are many rituals associated with Catholic Saints, all of them are related and equally important. This is directly contrasted, though, by the attitudes of pilgrims who come to see the idol. They generally arrive to visit the statue and nothing more. They do not confess their sins or hold much stock in the other aspects of Catholicism. In their minds, the statue of Our Lady of Aparecida is the only reality they need.

Pilgrims report extraordinary and miraculous experiences at the basilica. Dawsey (2006:7) writes that “They described the suffering of the pagadores de promessas (payers of promises) who carried crosses and climbed the stairways of the cathedral on their knees. They recalled the people stretched out on the floor of the basilica; they spoke of the people in rags, the sick and lame, and unemployed. At the end of the corridor, in the recesses of the church, they had seen the piles of crutches – allegories of the extraordinary healing powers of the saint. In the sala dos milagres (room of miracles), amid a stunning collection of enchanted objects, they saw up close the signs of the wonderful grace of the Mother of God.


While any organizational aspects of the lady, including where she resides, how she is dressed (a richly decorated robe is wrappedaround her shoulders and a large crown adorns her head), what honors and special titles she has been given, and the official date for her celebration are controlled by various units of the Catholic church, one might say that actual leadership resides with the pilgrims. When Pope John Paul II visited Brazil in 1980 and great preparation was made to receive the expected increase in pilgrims to Aparecida to coincide with his visit, officials were surprised when no more than the normal 300,000 appeared, as opposed to the 2,000,000 who were expected. It seems that the pilgrims intended to follow their traditional schedules with regard to the Lady and to wait until the Pope visited their own locales to pay tribute to him.


Our Lady of Aparecida has faced a series of challenges through her history. Despite her lofty status as Patroness of Brazil and the annual holiday in her honor, she has not been accepted by everyone in Brazil. Many Brazilians of different religions have expressed resentment toward her. Even some within the Catholic tradition believe that she is more of a hindrance than a help to believers.

In the earliest incident, Our Lady of Aparecida was also caught in the midst of a major power struggle. In 1889, the episcopate took over the sanctuaries and called in priests from Europe to assist in restructuring the belief system. This led to massive conflict, both “between the episcopate and local notables over administrative control” and also “between Tridentine-minded missionaries and the native pilgrims” over devotion (Fernandes 1985:804). The priests wanted to reconvert the pilgrims to Catholicism, yet they found that the pilgrims still practiced some Pagan rituals that had been part of their belief system for centuries and were resistant to change. As already noted, pilgrims regularly traveled to worship Our Lady of Aparecida, but one priest found that “90% of those 30,000 people [who visited the statue] had never confessed, or only once, in their entire lives” (Fernandes 1985:804). The Catholic Church has had a continuing struggle with the facts on the ground; while Our Lady of Aparecida is formally a Catholic icon, many of those who worship her do not closely follow Catholic doctrines.

As second incident occurred in 1978. A member of a Protestant sect took Our Lady of Aparecida from her pedestal and attempted to escape with the statue. He was chased and captured, but just before being apprehended, he smashed the statue to the ground. The statue was repaired, but it proved impossible to restore exactly the original features of the statue’s face.

Finally, on October 12, 1995 (which was a festival day), televangelist Segio Von Helder appeared on the 25 th Hour Program on the Record Television Network. In this segment, Helder criticized the prominence of the idol in Brazil’s culture, stating that “God is changed from principal actor to mere helper” (Johnson 1997:131). He then began to kick and beat the statue he had brought on the show with him. While this was a replica statue, his actions still caused an outrage among viewers. Both the network owner and the televangelist faced immediate and severe backlash from citizens. In the weeks that followed, there was an enormous spike in support for and devotion to the Lady, which coincided with extreme prejudice and anger toward the Igreja Universal, the parent network. Igreja Universal subsequently silenced him and sent him to the United States.

While Our Lady of Aparecida has been at the center of a number of conflicts through Brazil’s history, as the Patroness of Brazil she remains both a powerful symbol of the Roman Catholic tradition in the world’s most Catholic nation and of Brazilian national identity. Legions of pilgrims, both Catholic and non-Catholic, continue to trek to the basilica where the statue resides. Festivals honoring Our Lady of Aparecida are also held by diasporic populations in the United States (Arenson 1998).


Arenson, Adam. 1998. “The Role of the Nossa Senhora Aparecida Festival in Creating Brazilian American Community.” New York Folklore 24:1-4.

Dawsey, John. 2006. “Joana Dark and the Werewolf Woman: The Rite of Passage of Our Lady.” Religião & Sociedade 2:1-13.

Fernandes, Rubem César. 1985. “Aparecida, Our Queen, Lady and Mother, Sarava!” Social Science Information. Accessed from http://ssi.sagepub.com/content/24/4/799 on 2 May 2014

Johnson, Paul C. 1997. “Kicking, Stripping, and Re-Dressing a Saint in Black: Visions of Public Space in Brazil’s Recent Holy War.” History of Religions 37:122-40.

Leon, Luis D. 2010. Teaching Language in Context.” Church History 79:504-06.

Oliveira, Plinio Correa de. “Our Lady of Aparecida – October 12.” n.d. Tradition In Action. Accessed from http://www.traditioninaction.org/SOD/j227sd_OLAparecida_10-12.html on 2 May 2014

“Our Lady of Aparecida” (Nossa Senhora Aparecida). n.d. Mary Pages. Accessed from http://www.marypages.com/LadyAparecida.htm on 2 May 2014.

Yeh, Allen and Gabriela Olaguibel. 2011. “The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Study of Socio-Religious Identity” International Journal of Frontier Missiology. 28:169-77.

David G. Bromley
Caitlin St. Clair