PUEBLA AND TLAXCALA, MEXICO — For more than a day, the bells of Our Lady of Ocotl√°n shrine in Ocotl√°n rang forlornly to commemorate the life of the parish priest who had recently died.
On the morning of Dec. 1, the day of the priest’s funeral Mass, there was not an empty pew to be found. There was barely enough room to even enter the church, which was constructed in 1541 of stone and bricks covered with limestone paint. The church is located on the site where the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Bernardino, who saw her image in a pine tree that refused to burn.
As parishioners began singing the entrance hymn, the local bishop and several other priests stood at the altar in front of the priest’s casket, and their voices intoned in a grief that was moving and powerful.
“I will stand before the Father,” they sang.
Witnessing such raw displays of emotion was happenstance for a group of Catholic journalists visiting Mexico and served as yet another illustration of the deep roots and connections the people here have to the Catholic Church.
Many of the ornately baroque churches the group visited in the states of Puebla and Tlaxcala were the sites of Marian apparitions or other miracles, and people continue to ask Mary and other saints to intervene on their behalf to help them with their ailments or illnesses. Tour guide Raul Gonzalez Cadena recounted the story of a miracle said to have taken place at Puebla’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, when angels lifted the enormous stone bells from the plaza to the bell tower when workers could not find a way to do so.
The Chapel of the Rosary in the Iglesia de Santo Domingo in Puebla is a dazzling example of the gilded stamp of the Spanish baroque style, with an interior that features 22-carat gold-laminate-covered stucco. It is hailed on tourist Web sites as one of the wonders of the world. Gonzalez Cadena added that Puebla’s Iglesia de Santa Maria de Tonantzintla is where baroque blends with indigenous preferences of decoration, with its dizzying display of darker-skinned and feathered cherubs and statues, and paintings that cover almost every single inch of every wall and column in the church.
Natives of Cholula, Puebla, love to boast that their town is home to more than 300 churches, “one for each day,” Alfredo Torres Cuautli, a tour guide who is a Cholula native, proudly explained. And most of these churches also feature exteriors covered with colorful tiles, one of Puebla’s most famous products.
Cholula also represents the pre-Hispanic world with a pyramid believed to be larger than the biggest one in Egypt, added Gonzalez Cadena. Archaeologists, he said, have constructed six miles of tunnels through this pyramid, which was built in honor of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent whom the pre-Hispanic natives believed sacrificed his life to create humankind for a fifth time. Quetzalcoatl is symbolized by a bird and serpent, which represent heaven and earth and life and death, he added. Another important god of the pre-Hispanic people was the war god Huitzilopochtli, who was born of the most important goddess, Coatlicoe, who is said to have become pregnant by a feather.
Gonzalez Cadena said the Spaniards, in their attempts to convert the native tribes to Catholicism, made correlations between Michael the Archangel and Huitzilopochtli, Mary and Coatlicoe, and Jesus and Quetzacoatl.
“When you see the crucifix, the (native) people also are looking at Quetzalcoatl as well as Jesus,” he said. “It made people believe.”
According to Gonzalez Cadena, Tlaxcala is home to the oldest convent on the continent. The building, which is no longer used as a convent, is now called El Catedral de San Francisco de Nuestra Se√±ora de la Asuncion and was built by Franciscan missionaries between 1537 and 1540. Tlaxcala played an important role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Gonzalez Cadena noted, as it was the Tolteca people who helped Hernando Cortez overtake the Aztecs in 1521.
“The new religion started here,” said Gonzalez Cadena as he sat in the front pew of the Franciscan church, with the original, wooden ceiling planks looming overhead. The original baptismal font, which was the site of thousands of conversions, stands in a side chapel.
The Franciscan missionaries that survived the voyage to Mexico “were the apostles of the new world,” Gonzalez Cadena said. “It wasn’t a coincidence that they built this convent.”
San Andres Church in Cholula stands out for its 16th-century baroque construction. But on Dec. 1 the beauty of its architecture was nearly overshadowed by the sensory explosion of fragrance and brilliant color created by the thousands of flowers — mainly lilies — that filled the church as part of the annual celebration to honor its patron saint.
In addition to the tall lily arrangements filling the church, which was built in 1585, a carpet of flowers covered the entire aisle. These flowers — along with sawdust, rice, kernels of corn, beans and glitter — formed the faces of Mary and Jesus.
“It’s a special day for the people,” said Torres Cuautli, adding that the celebration extends for several days past the Nov. 30 feast day.
Torres Cuautli added that each family donates about 100 pesos to help pay for the flowers.
“We have Mass, we have dance, we have la abundancia (abundance),” he said. “I love my town. I love my people.”