The Suyapa Churches
Honduras’s patron saint, La Virgen de Suyapa, is venerated in a simple, white-plaster chapel set on a small square on the eastern outskirts of Tegucigalpa, near the National University (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras, or UNAH). The Iglesia de Suyapa, built in 1749, houses the six-centimeter-tall statue of the virgin in a wooden case behind the altar (bring your binoculars if you really want a good look). The church sees a constant flow of worshippers from across the country praying to the diminutive virgin.
Far larger than the cathedral downtown is the Basílica de Suyapa, a mammoth white- and blue-trimmed church on the eastern edge of town — a rather large home for a six-centimeter saint.
Although the basílica is new, the image it was built to venerate dates from 1747, when a humble laborer, Alejandro Colines, was heading home to the village of Suyapa after a day working the corn fields in the town of El Piligüín. Night fell before he could reach home, and he lay down on the ground to sleep. Alejandro felt what he thought must be a stone under his back, but found instead a wood statue. It is said that the Virgin Mary became catracha (Honduran), in the form of the tiny, dark-complexioned cedar statue Alejandro found.
Alejandro lived with his mother, Isabel María, who upon seeing the statue promptly built a small altar in their home. The suyapenses would visit her over the next 20 years, asking for comfort, health, and help with all problems. In 1768 it came to Isabel María’s attention that an important military captain, José de Zelaya y Midence, was suffering terribly from kidney stones, and no doctor had been able to help. The statue was loaned to Zelaya, who prayed fervently for healing. Three days later, he passed three kidney stones and was healed. This is considered the virgin’s first miracle, and a chapel was built for her in Suyapa shortly thereafter.
An estimated two million pilgrims come to pay homage to the diminutive saint during her festival, and the large church was built in 1958 to accommodate the worshippers. Originally intended to be her permanent home, the tiny statue disappeared shortly after being placed in the church, only to reappear in the small chapel in Suyapa a block away. (She disappeared a second time in 1986, stolen from the chapel, and reappeared in the men’s restroom of a downtown restaurant a few days later — presumably stolen for the valuable gemstones that adorned her dress.) Apparently, she understands the problems of crowd control, however, and consents to be on display in the basilica during the festival.
The celebrations primarily consist of hourly masses, and there’s unbelievable traffic to reach the church, but a few small performances (a folklore dance group, the national police’s marimba band) are sprinkled throughout, for which the schedule can be found on the chapel’s website, www.virgendesuyapa.hn.
© Chris Humphrey and Amy E. Robertson from Moon Honduras, 5th Edition