I remember squeezing into the Sistine Chapel years ago and standing shoulder to shoulder in the crowd, looking up at the ceiling and straining to hear the guide. It was a hot August day in Rome and, although I was just as awed by the splendor of this place as everyone else, I was relieved when the tour was over and I could move around without elbowing the person next to me.
Last week’s visit to the “Sistine Chapel of the Americas” was an entirely different experience but also awe-inspiring. El Santuario de Atotonilco is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is less than ten miles outside San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico. But it’s a world apart. The town of Atotonilco is a typical dusty Mexican village, but the shrine is one of the holiest in the country.
It was quiet and serene. No crowds. We arrived early one morning and were the only ones there for the first half hour. The outside of the shrine is rather plain — though I do love the white against the blue sky. The light in this part of the world seems to go from merely pretty to pretty awesome — deep blue to turquoise. The main entrance is a simple arch that faces east, towards Jerusalem. The inside is covered with flowers and frescoes, gilded altars and painted mirrors, and murals that cover every visible surface.
One of the most revered items in the church is the statue of Our Lord of the Column. Every year at the beginning of Holy Week celebrations the statue is carried in a midnight torchlit procession from Atotonilco to San Miguel de Allende and remains there until the end of Holy Week observances.
This sanctuary also holds an important place in political history as this is where Ignacio Allende, the native son for whom San Miguel de Allende was named, was married. He was a leader in the War of Independence from Spain, and legend has it that the simple local army didn’t even have a flag at the beginning of the independence movement and they took the banner of the Virgin of Guadelupe from the wall of this church and used it as the standard under which they fought for freedom.
The area around Atotonilco is typical dry grassland and desert studded with thistles, sweet acacia, and mesquite trees. And, of course, cacti that will grow anywhere they can find a bit of soil.
Old people sit in the shade of the church and dogs wander the dusty streets and vendors sell miracles. These tiny, metal “milagros” are religious charms carried for protection and good luck. I felt pretty lucky to be there, in that moment, when the day was just getting started.