Faith Matters

J. Anthony Gaughan: How the Virgin Mary came to Tenerife

Fr J. Anthony Gaughan shares the story of Tenerife's Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Candelaria, a national shrine with strange beginnings

The Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Candelaria in Tenerife is a centre of devotion to the Virgin Mary

MOST countries have national shrines. Few of those shrines have had a beginning as unique and a history as chequered as the one in Candelaria in Tenerife in the Canary Islands.

Named the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Candelaria, it is a centre of devotion to the Virgin Mary.

The origin of that devotion reaches back for more than 600 years.

According to a legend, two shepherds, members of the Guanches, the inhabitants of the islands for more than 2,000 years, discovered a wooden image of a woman on the shore after a storm.

The woman was depicted with blonde hair and a brightly coloured dress. She was carrying a child in one hand and a candle in the other.

After a number of unusual incidents associated with the image, the shepherds became convinced that it had miraculous powers.

The chief of the tribe, to whom they delivered it, also arrived at that conviction.

The image was placed in a basilica-shaped cave and was an object of veneration. And after many years it became one of the major goddesses of the Guanche pantheon.

Adventurers from the Kingdom of Castile, which was later to be a province of Spain, conquered the Canary Islands in the 1470s.

They were accompanied by Franciscan and Dominican friars and the missionaries converted the native population to Christianity.

They Christianised the religious devotions and practises which were popular before their arrival, including that to the image of the woman carrying the candle - and in due course that devotion morphed into devotion to the Virgin Mary.

The image was installed in a chapel and shrine built by the governor of the islands in 1497.

The Dominican friars were placed in charge of it and built their convent next to it.

The Marian devotion associated with it was enhanced when Pope Clement VIII declared the Virgin Mary to be patroness of the Canary Islands in 1559.

The sanctuary and the Dominican convent were destroyed in a fire in 1789. The image was saved but was lost in a subsequent flood; a new image was commissioned and was consecrated in 1830.

After the inauguration of an anti-clerical administration in Madrid in 1836 the Dominicans were expelled from their convent and the sanctuary.

They returned in 1922 and immediately set about the construction of a basilica on the site of the original church and sanctuary. It was completed in 1959.

Surrounding the basilica is a large square on which on one side is a line of more-than life-sized figures of the nine Guanche chiefs who were ruling various parts of the islands when the Castilian adventurers arrived.

An imposing building, the basilica is one of the major Marian and pilgrimage shrines in Spain and is a prime attraction for the thousands of tourists who visit Tenerife each year.

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