“The church is on fire! The church is on fire!” shrieked the startled church-goers as they fled outside to safety. The padre of the church of Our Lady of Tonatico had invited all from the surrounding parishes to celebrate the blessing of the new church. Within minutes of the first flames, the roof crashed in, and the entire church became a mass of burning timbers.

There was one consolation, however; the beloved life-sized statue of Our Lady of Tonatico was undamaged by the fire. But, stranger than fiction, the statue was found outside of the church! “How did it get there?” everyone wondered. All present swore that they had not touched it. Furthermore, this was one very large statue—there is no way that it could have been removed from the church clandestinely! The mystery has not been solved to the present day. And there was one other matter: although the statue was undamaged by the fire, it had changed in one remarkable way. Our Lady’s face was now tilted upward (visible in the photo of the statue) as though she was “watching the destruction of the church.”

From then on, the devotion of the residents of Tonatico increased exponentially to their Virgin. Soon miracles were being reported and this phenomenon continues to the present day. So many favours were being recounted that an entire building had to be constructed to display such testimonials of thanksgiving. Many of them begin with the words “DOY GRACIAS” which means “I give thanks” in Spanish.

These testimonials are in the form of Ex-Votos which testify to the gratitude of those giving thanks for Our Lady’s goodness and mercy. They can be found in many churches in Mexico although not to the extent that they are displayed in Tonatico.

They are small paintings, usually painted on tin, which illustrate the predicament or danger that the person is facing. A statue of Our Lady of Tonatico is present in the painting and we see the petitioners praying for her intercession. These are painted by popular artists and are dated and signed with the person’s name. It is a way of giving public thanks to God through his mother.

The testimonials go back in time to the 1780s and continue to the present day. We read a testimony from Eva Diaz Gomez on Jan. 2, 1990 : she had a tumour on her toe and was not able to go to school because of her illness. She thanked Our Lady for her “recovery” that she could now continue with her studies. On March 23, 1987, “the child, Mario Gomez de Coatepec, from Harinas, Mexico, fell in a tank of water and was drowned. I implored Our Lady of Tonatico and in half an hour the child became alive. Thanks to the little Virgin for returning him to life.”

The story of Dan Manuel Zarinara is another favourite with the Tonaticenses: One day in 1783 he was out in the fields with his workers and a bolt of lighting struck one of the workmen, who fell to the earth, apparently dead. Imploring the intercession of Our Lady of Tonatico, “the inanimate figure was seen to move and soon recovered consciousness.”

Built in 1660, the Shrine of Our Lady of Tonatico, a superb “architectural gem” in the neoclassical style, attracts more than a million visitors during its feastday (which begins the last Sunday of January and ends on Candlemas Day, February 2nd). Pilgrims come to pay homage to their much revered Our Lady of Tonatico. And they come by the thousands during the rest of the year as well—