When I was younger, I used to be confused with all the different Mother Marys (plural) there were. I didn’t understand that Mary was one, and she just appeared in different manners to different groups of people, dressed in a way that is associated with their culture. A Marian advocation that was prominent in my culture and parochial community was Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia, or Our Lady of High Grace. Every year on January 21st, the red, blue, and white colors glow so beautifully throughout my parish, emphasizing her as patroness to the nation of the Dominican Republic. The music and dance shown through the culture of the people displayed the joy they have for a mother that they love so much, and who in turn loves them so deeply.
I had limited knowledge of Our Lady of High Grace until I went to the Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia, where I learned of her story. It begins with Ponce de Leon, who was a Spanish settler who had a daughter who they called La Nina. He would ask her what she wanted him to bring back from his work trips, and he would succeed in returning with what was requested. One day, La Nina had a dream of Our Lady, who asked her to request a painting from her father—a painting of Our Lady of High Grace, which would be distinguishable by a white scapular that would be laid on her chest. Ponce de Leon was determined to obtain this requested painting when he left, asking everyone he encountered if they knew about the painting or had a copy of it. People had told him the painting did not exist and that they had never heard of that name. Disappointedly, de Leon shared his situation with some others at an inn where a man overheard the conversation and possessed the request he desired. In his bag he had the painting: the exact painting Ponce de Leon sought for his daughter. After that moment, de Leon never saw the old man again.
When he returned home with Our Lady of la Altagracia, La Nina joyfully brought it inside. But the next day, when they woke up, the painting was gone, and was later found under an orange tree. This happened three more times, so they decided to build a church in the spot the painting continued to appear. Unlike the apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes, or Our Lady of Fatima, which are more concrete stories, the story of Our Lady of la Altagracia may be told differently by some people. Some people tell this story about the teenage girl who had the vision of Mary and asked her father for the painting, while others say there was no man but instead two brothers who brought the painting from Spain. The latter seems less mysterious. Either way, Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia has become a special sign of hope for the people of Dominican Republic. With her patriotic colors that interconnect with the Dominican flag, people are reminded of her patroness to this small Caribbean country. Each year more than 800,000 people enter the basilica, the architecture of which takes the shape of Our Lady of High Grace, with a high peak in the center and two lower peaks on either side, demonstrating the magnitude of her grace and love. On January 25, 1979, Pope John Paul II crowned Our Lady with a gold and silver crown, depicting her as the Queen of Heaven and Earth.
Some people may find that crowning Mary, or even venerating her as Our Lady of Highest Grace is controversial, seeing as Jesus was the One who saved the world-not His mother. However, one must look closely at Mary’s special role and how she herself recognizes the omnipotent power of God. She becomes the handmaid of the Lord and allows for His will to be done. Looking closely at the painting of La Altagracia, her adoration fixates on Jesus present in front of her. The way her hands are positioned in prayer, and how her head is tilted as in love towards Baby Jesus, clearly displays her recognition of the One who came to save. Her crown represents her great responsibility as a mother to bring her children closer to her Son, Jesus. Just as the queen of a nation has a duty to leading their people toward goodness, Our Lady carries the duty of guiding the way toward God. As a mother, she knows her Son’s heart best, which means she knows how to bring us closer to His Divine Heart. The painting exhibits this so clearly and deeply in her humble gaze toward Jesus. She is a reminder to look at Jesus and to adore Him.
As a consistent image in my life, La Altagracia reminds me of joy and love. Seeing how the people at my parish and all around the world celebrate her feast day in unison with their culture—their singing, dancing, how they share in laughter and food— exhilarates me and reminds me of where my family came from.
“Virgen de la Altagracia arropa con tu manto al mundo entero.” Virgin of High Grace, clothe, with your mantle, the whole world. Que Viva la Virgen de La Altagracia!