The San Miguel del Milagro Shrine

Besides seizing parishes in Indigenous communities that were formerly under mendicant administration, Palafox actively practiced the promotion and sponsoring of important Indigenous religious sites, such as the San Miguel del Milagro Shrine. The story of this site begins before Palafox arrives in New Spain. On April 25, 1631, a young Indigenous man named Diego Lazaro de San Francisco was purportedly the witness of an apparition of the Archangel Saint Michael. The extraordinary event occurred on the outskirts of a town named Santa Maria Nativitas, some 32 km (20 miles) to the northeast of the City of Puebla, and in the heart of the Puebla-Tlaxcala Diocese.97 A chronicle of the details surrounding these events was written by a Jesuit priest named Francisco de Florencia (1619-1695) in 1692.98 Florencia recounted in his chronicle that the Archangel Saint Michael appeared before Diego Lazaro.99 The archangel ordered the young man to communicate to the region’s inhabitants that in a ravine nearby, there was a fountain of miraculous water that healed anybody who drank from it.100 Diego Lazaro paid no heed to the apparition, and after recovering from the disease known as cocoliztli, a viral hemorrhagic fever that greatly afflicted people of native origin, causing epidemics throughout the viceregal period, Diego Lazaro received a second visit from the archangel, who took him to the ravine. Once there, according to legend, the archangel touched the ground with a staff of gold, thereby marking the site of the miraculous water spring.101

Shortly after the apparition, as soon as the news of the events spread, the locals began visiting the spring, crediting its water with miraculous properties. They dug a small cove out of the ravine’s slope, placed images of saints, and offered flowers and burning incense to the spring.102 The diocese, headed by Bishop Bernardo de Quiros (tenure: 1627-1638), sent a representative to investigate the situation. The envoy, Alonso de Herrera, testified to the water’s miraculous properties, the veracity and sanctity of Saint Michael’s apparitions, and declared the site as holy ground.103

From an architectural perspective, the diocese failed to adapt the site or improve it to accommodate the rapidly growing number of visitors. Florencia reports that at first, a small and modest shrine replaced the dugout cove or cave. It had a thatched roof to shelter the spring itself. When mass was celebrated at the site, the faithful had to stand around the shrine, in very sloped terrain, and the pilgrims that arrived at the place had to improvise their lodgings, many sleeping in human-made caves in the vicinity.104 Bishop Quiros died in 1638, and his successor Juan de Palafox у Mendoza first visited the site in 1643. Starting then, Palafox went to great lengths to modify the site and build a dignified architectural complex, designed to host a large retinue of pilgrims and honor the location of Saint Michael’s apparition.

It is also clear that a great degree of religious hybridity occurred at this site. Maria Rodriguez-Shadow and Robert Shadow claim this is a site where “popular religiosity” - a term they employ to represent a mixture of pre- Hispanic religious expressions and popular Spanish Catholicism - is manifested.105 It is important to note that the apparitions’ site was, before the arrival of the Spaniards, already a sacred site for the local inhabitants. Florencia noted that the ravine was “a place of demonic adoration prior to the archangel’s apparitions.”106 Contemporary archaeological evidence suggests that the area’s Indigenous peoples rendered adoration to the pre-Columbian deity Camaxtle, a warrior-hunter god, who was readily replaced by the warrior archangel in the seventeenth century.107

An essential characteristic of popular religiosity expressed by the Indigenous peoples during the viceregal period was, apparently, its pragmatic dimension.108 That is to say that the faithful carried out certain ritual practices to gain what we may consider practical benefits, such as health, work, and material or spiritual welfare. They satisfied quotidian needs, as opposed to expressing philosophical beliefs regarding the afterlife.109 Among the rituals required to gain a deity’s favor were pilgrimages, the organization of exuberant festivities, and the structuring of a system of charges or positions - a rotating system in which members of the community assumed roles to carry out specific responsibilities, such as organizing festivities, maintaining the church’s architectural and decorative fit, or managing collective monetary resources.110 This system is quite widespread and active in Indigenous communities throughout Mexico and known as mayordomtas. This is a relevant point, given that San Miguel del Milagro, as a religious sanctuary, provided every potential for the continuity of ritual needs for the native inhabitants, with the added benefit of the ecclesiastical authorities’ open and enthusiastic endorsement.

Architecturally speaking, the site’s dramatic transformation from its early- seventeenth-century state should be credited to Palafox. The site’s topography was transformed following the bishop’s instructions. A large, level platform was constructed on the hill’s side at the spring’s site, which required massive earth movements. A visit to the site today still reveals the scope of the works. A series of masonry containment walls retain the inclined natural topography, while below, a large artificial plateau contains the shrine’s site. Palafox built a proper church building and decided to keep the spring outside the temple instead of the early shrine that existed before, which contained the spring in its interior. Instead, Palafox built a small, gracious shrine to shelter the spring. It still displays an alabaster relief showing Saint Michael appearing before Lazaro, planting his staff firmly on the ground and marking the water spring. The shrine is decorated on its exterior walls with ceramic, glazed tiles, and Palafox’s diocesan shield (see Figure 4.10).

Palafox’s zeal for the San Miguel del Milagro site was remarkable. He often visited the site, consecrating the church building himself shortly before he left for Spain in 1649, pointing to how the shrine was indicative of his attitude toward the Indigenous members of his diocese. That is, architectural works such as these provided Indigenous communities with dignified temples of adoration to promote their inherent piety. Furthermore, in accommodating spiritual needs, such sites propitiated the societal roles expected from the native population, namely, a propensity and willingness to engage in labor, obedience, loyalty, and piousness, just as Palafox’s extensive writings advocate. As with Puebla Cathedral, whose goal was the sealing of a

A view of the San Miguel del Milagro Shrine, sponsored by Bishop Juan de Palafox, Nativitas, Tlaxcala, Mexico

Figure 4.10 A view of the San Miguel del Milagro Shrine, sponsored by Bishop Juan de Palafox, Nativitas, Tlaxcala, Mexico.

Source: Wikimedia Commons, Isaacvp, CC BY-SA 4.0.

sacred bond between all strata of poblano society, from the Spanish and criollo aristocracy to the Indigenous communities of the city, the establishment of the sanctuary at San Miguel del Milagro - and for that matter, all parish churches reclaimed, built, or reinvigorared by Palafox and his diocese administration - aimed to seal a pact between the Indigenous communities and the diocese that would, in parallel with their faith, propitiate the values expected of them as a community.

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