In the 1400s the Franciscans and the Dominicans were the first orders to arrive in Colombia. Filled with great zeal they brought the gospel to a people who were hungry for the Word of God. The seeds from their preaching fell on good ground, produced abundant fruit, and put forth roots deep and strong enough to withstand the struggles of the following centuries. It is to their credit that Colombia currently maintains a high (75%) Catholic population and is known as one of the most conservative countries in South America.
In 1525, Spain began its conquest of the country and established the city of Santa Fe de Bogotá in 1538. The Spanish were able to help the local Indians in many ways that benefited the population and the Catholic Church began to flourish. However, there were politicos involved who vied for position and power and were cruel to the native Indians. Eventually the Religious Orders were successful in persuading the Spanish Monarchy to enact laws to prevent local officials from abusing and taking advantage of the native Indians. When it was discovered that the natives were not strong, the African slave trade replaced the Indian labor force. The slave trade reached a fever pitch in the mid 1500s as an estimated one million Africans were transported to Cartagena, a major slave port on the Caribbean side of the country. The slaves were forced to achieve strenuous work on the Colombian plantations. The Friars labored unceasingly to bring comfort to the slaves who were cruelly treated and they went to great lengths to engage the politicos to have pity on their slave charges.
Canonized saints were among the religious who worked fervently to evangelize the natives. In 1562, St. Louis Bertrand arrived in South America, responding to the command of Jesus to go to all nations and baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit converting many to Catholicism. Continuing the evangelization, in 1610 St. Peter Claver arrived and, witnessing the horror of the African slave trade, he tirelessly labored on their behalf for forty-four years – calling himself the “slave of the negroes forever”. Every month he met the boat filled with African slaves, often many were dead on arrival. The slaves were afraid, brutalized and hungry after being cooped up in the hold. He met with each one, bringing them food and delicacies, thus winning their favor and therefore he was able to instruct them in the faith with the help of catechists of various nationalities. His magnanimous charity caused him severe trials. The slave traders were furious, the locals accused him of indiscreet zeal, fashionable women refused to enter the church where St. Peter assembled the Africans and even his superiors in Spain were influenced by the criticisms. With heroic virtue he endured the calumnies and continued his work among the maltreated slaves, accepting relentless humiliations and difficulties and also adding rigorous penances to his hardships. Alone in his task, Our Heavenly Father gifted him with great strength, love and zeal. It has been recorded that he baptized and instructed 300,000 slaves in the Catholic faith.
It is to this country that one hundred years after the death of St. Peter the Blessed Virgin manifested her tender love for her Columbian children in a striking manner. As if to solidify the evangelization efforts of the Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits and other orders, she wished to leave a special sign of the love and truth of the Catholic faith and her love for her children. In the southern part of the country near the town of Ipiales, known as the city of the three volcanoes, and close to the Ecuador border, stands a magnificent gothic basilica perched 150 feet above the Guaitara River. Since the 18th century, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have come here to this cathedral to pay homage to their Heavenly Queen.
In 1754, a native woman from Potosi, Maria Meneses de Quinones, was on her way back to her home from Ipiales. Nestled in the area of the Andes Mountains, the six-mile trek is strenuous and exhausting. As she neared the bridge that spanned the Guáitara, a fierce storm suddenly erupted and she hurried to the nearest cave for protection. Alone and scared, she beseeched Our Lady of the Rosary to help her. Devotion to Our Lady of the Rosary had become popular in the area due to the teaching efforts of the Dominicans, she prayed the rosary in earnest. Suddenly, someone touched her back and called her name but she didn’t see anyone when she turned around. Frightened, she fled quickly to her home.
A few days later, she had to travel the same way but this time she carried her deaf and mute eight-year-old daughter on her back. When they reached the same cave, they sat to rest. The girl, Rosa, climbed off her back and started to play on the rocks of the cave. Unexpectedly, she cried out, “Mommy! Mommy! Here is a lady in white with a child in her arms!”
Maria was stunned because she never heard her daughter speak and she couldn’t see the Lady with the Child that Rosa was pointing to. Not knowing what to do, She nervously picked up Rosa and hastened to her home. She told some friends and relatives about what happened, and even though Rosa could now speak, they remained suspicious. The location of the cave was well known because it was very close to a road across the mountains that many people traveled. Soon other people began to hear of Maria’s story.
Some days later, Maria could not find her daughter anywhere. In great anguish, she searched everywhere and must have turned once again to Our Lady of the Rosary in her great need. The thought came to her that perhaps her daughter went to the cave since Rosa used to tell her that the Lady was calling her. She hurried to the Cave Guaitara and rejoiced for she had found her daughter. Rosa was kneeling in front of a Lady dressed in white and was joyfully playing with a little child. Maria was overwhelmed for she had unmistakably seen the Blessed Virgin and she knelt down with great devotion.
She decided to keep the matter quiet, confident that her relatives would not believe her about this since they wouldn’t believe her before, even though there was proof with Rosa speaking. Filled with love of the Virgin, Maria and Rosa secretly visited the cave often, bringing flowers and candles as signs of their devotion. One day Rosa fell gravely ill and died. Turning to Our Lady of the Rosary once again, the distraught mother carried Rosa to the cave and begged the Blessed Virgin to raise her daughter to life. Pleading and crying, she reminded Our Lady of all the candles and flowers that they had lovingly placed in the cave in Her honor. The Heavenly mother interceded for the young girl before Her Most compassionate Son and obtained from Him an extraordinary grace – she was brought back to life! Oh what wonder! O what joy did Maria feel when she saw her daughter rise and come to her?! Once again, Maria hurried back to her house filled with tremendous happiness and relief. She arrived home at 10:00 p.m. and, unable to restrain her phenomenal news, she told all her relatives, including those who had already retired to their beds for the night.
At the astonishing reports, they had the church bell rung and a vast throng flocked in front of the church. The first lights of dawn burst forth and the crowd hiked to the cave. They arrived at 6:00 in the morning of September 16, 1754 and were astonished to see lights shining from the cave. When they entered, they found a beautiful image on the back wall of the cave of the Virgin Mary holding the Child Jesus. Our Lady, seeming to be Indian, has long black hair that flows onto her shoulder, almost like a veil. The image and the colors, still vivid, show Our Lady wearing a red dress under a blue mantle speckled with stars. Golden rays emanate from the Madonna and Child who also wears a red garment. She stands on a moon with two kneeling figures, whose hands are folded, flanked on each side: on the right side kneels St. Francis and on the left kneels St. Dominic. Our Lady holds out a rosary to St. Dominic and the child Jesus holds out a cord to St. Francis. In order to give thanks for such a miraculous manifestation from heaven, Fray Gabriel offered Holy Mass a few hours later at noon with the people who had flocked to the scene in attendance.
The acheiropoieton is impressed on the stone itself, but when German geologists bored through several places in the rock, they discovered that the variety of vibrant colors are embedded perfectly into the stone itself up to several feet deep. They proved that there is no paint, no dye nor any other pigment on the surface. The colors, still vivid, are the colors of the rock itself - humanly impossible to fabricate.
The news of the miraculous image spread quickly throughout the land and in 1754 Fray Gabriel Villafuerte built the first rustic church topped with a thatched roof. A blind priest, Fray Juan was so taken with the miracle, that he received permission to travel from town to town to beg for money to help build a bigger, more respectable church. When he finally returned with the donations he had collected, Our Lady granted another miracle and restored sight to the blind priest. As a memorial of this marvel, a statue of him in a patched suit with his hand held out in a gesture for alms is displayed at the Shrine. In 1769 enough money was thus collected from various sources to build a second, bigger church. The third church was Built by Father José María Burbano and directed by Ecuadorian architects. Fr. Henry Collins commanded drilling a tunnel to the beautiful artificial waterfall.
The majestic fourth church, considered to be one of the most beautiful architectural works in the world, began construction on January 1, 1916 and was completed 33 years later in 1949. Constructed in Neo-Gothic Style, sparkling white spires soar atop the cathedral, which rises 328 feet from the bottom of the canyon and is connected to the other side of the canyon with a 160-foot high bridge. Life size white angel statues are situated around the outside of the church and also line the walk over the bridge. The gurgling Guaitara River below murmurs continuously as mists alight from time to time amid the grandeur, adding to the mystery of the holy ground. The magnificent cathedral appears to be dangling over the chasm and is built in such a way that the gorge cliff with the image of the Virgin Mary forms the back wall of the sanctuary. The stained glass windows depict different apparitions of Our Lady including: Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Chiquinquirá (another miraculous image in Bogotá, Colombia), Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima, Our Lady of La Salette and Our Lady of Lourdes. Tall white columns soar to the ceiling furnished with gorgeous chandeliers as gold-leaf paint accents the arches at the top. In 1952, Pius XII granted a canonical crowning of Our Lady of Las Lajas, and in the Marian year of 1954, the cathedral was dedicated as a minor basilica, in the presence of the entire Colombian Episcopate.
The Shrine receives thousands and thousands of pilgrims and many have been cured. On the hill before the shrine there are approximately 7,000 plaques in honor of Our Lady in memorial of miracles and cures received. At one time there were thousands of wheel chairs and crutches, but because of rust and erosion they had to be removed. There are so many miraculous cures that this Shrine is called the Lourdes of South America. The Basilica is active with nine Sunday Masses and six daily Masses and confession for seven hours every day. The Assumption of Mary is celebrated with great pomp for fifteen days. Processions include llamas with crowns perched on their heads, dressed with tassels and embroidered garments and ornate saddles. The great feast day of September 16th, in memory of the miracle of the image, is also celebrated with grandeur by thousands with processions, the rosary and Holy Mass.
With great trust, Her children turn to her image, embedded forever in the rock, and surrender their cares to the tender Mother. The official anthem of the Virgin of Lajas recalls the rosary, pleads for her help and begs for her blessing. May all her children unite in singing:
Hail, full of grace,
Mother of God Himself
Oh Virgin de las Lajas,
Give us your blessing.
 It is noteworthy that St. Francis and St. Dominic had met and were friends while on earth and harbored a deep respect for each other. These two saints are the founding fathers of the first two religious orders that brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to the country. St. Dominic, famous for propagating the rosary, at one time aspired to join St. Francis’ order but St. Francis counseled him to continue with his teaching way of life. St. Francis then gave St. Dominic a Franciscan cord. To this day, each of the orders celebrates the other founder father’s feast days.
 Byzantine Greek – icon made without hands