Our Lady Aparecida - The Most Visited Marian Shrine in the World

Not Lourdes, nor Fatima, neither Medjugorje. Little known outside the country, the basilica shrine of Our Lady of Conception Aparecida, located in the city of Aparecida, Brazil, is the most visited Marian shrine in the world, receiving between 12 and 13 million visitors annually. It is, in fact, among the most visited tourist sites in the world: between the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco (USA), with 13 million visitors, and Disneyland Paris (11.2 million visitors), or the Sacré-Coeur basilica (France), with 10.5 million visitors. Compared still to other cities, the small Aparecida, with 40,000 inhabitants, would receive more visitors than Istanbul (11.8 million), and slightly less than Dubai, with 13.2 million visitors (2016-2017 data).

Inside the basilica (photo: state of Sao Paulo)

An Area of Over One Million Square Meters

Located between São Paulo ( at 170 km.) and Rio de Janeiro (at 264 km.), it receives, on October 12 alone, the day dedicated to the feast of Our Lady Aparecida, between 150,000 and 200,000 pilgrims. With an area of 12,000 m2 (the temple alone), it is the third largest church in the world, and larger than the cathedrals of Milan (11,700 m2) or Seville (11,520 m2). The shrine can accommodate 45,000 people seated, or 70,000 in total, counting the surrounding areas; and 300,000 in open air masses.

The shrine complex has an area of over 1.3 million square meters, housing a shopping center with 380 stores and restaurants, 900 bathrooms, a 15-story hotel with 330 rooms, a heliport, stables for pilgrims' horses and the largest parking area in Latin America (285,000 square meters), which can hold up to 2,000 buses and 3,000 cars. This structure is maintained by 2,000 employees, not counting the volunteers who help out during peak periods.

A Devotion Begun 300 Years Ago

Brazil, until 1822, was a colony of Portugal. With the discovery of gold in the Minas Gerais region (southeastern Brazil) in the early 18th century, fights, sometimes bloody, agitated the explorers of the precious metal of that region.

In June 1717, Pedro de Almeida e Portugal, Count of Assumar, arrived in Brazil to govern the Captaincy of São Paulo and Minas, which totaled an area of more than 2,500,000 km² (larger than the territory of Mexico or Saudi Arabia).

Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrament

In view of the riots in Minas due to the gold mines, Pedro de Almeida e Portugal decided to travel to the site of the disorders. On his way, he would pass through the region of Guaratinguetá (where Aparecida is today) on October 11 or 12, 1717. The town council then ordered the fishermen to bring all the fish they could get to offer a banquet in honor of the governor.

Among many, Domingos Martins Garcia, João Alves, and Felipe Pedroso went fishing in their canoes, covering a long stretch of the river without catching any fish. At a certain point, João Alves cast his net, taking out the body of a statue of Our Lady, without the head, and, casting the net lower again, he took out the head of the same Lady. The image found was 38 cm high and, because it had been submerged in the waters of the river for a long time, was brown. No one ever found out who had thrown it into the river.

The statue of Our Lady Aparecida

As the fishing continued, from then on the catch was so abundant that, fearful of being shipwrecked because of the many fish they had in the canoes, the three fishermen returned home, amazed at this success. They cleaned the image with great care, and found that it represented Our Lady of Conception, whom people quickly began to call "Aparecida" (which in Portuguese means “appeared”), because she had appeared in the waters. Felipe Pedroso kept the image in his house for several years; finally, he decided to give it to his son Athanasius, who, moved by his faith, erected a small oratory, where he placed the venerable effigy; there the people of the neighborhood began to gather on Saturday nights, to pray the holy rosary and practice their devotions.

Once, during one of these devotions, it happened that, although the night was very calm, the candles that illuminated the image of the Lady suddenly went out. The faithful, wishing to re-light them, were surprised to find that they lit up by themselves, without anyone's intervention.

Candles chapel (photo: Marcio Chagas)

The same event was repeated on other occasions, and the parish priest of Guaratinguetá, Father José Alves Vilela, heard about it. The priest then decided to build a larger chapel for the statue, capable of satisfying the growing number of devotees of the Virgin, who was multiplying graces and benefits on the faithful.

Among the miracles that provoked much fervor among the people, there is the one of a runaway slave, which occurred around 1790, who was being taken back to the farm by his master. As he passed by the chapel, he asked to pray before the image. While the slave was praying, the chain suddenly fell off, leaving the necklace that held his neck intact. The chain still hangs on the wall of the same Shrine today as a testimony and reminder that Mary Most Holy has supreme authority to loosen the bonds of repentant sinners. That gentleman, touched by the miracle, freed the slave and welcomed him into his home.

The slave's chain exposed at the museum of the sanctuary

Pontifical Recognition

The old basilica

The little chapel, having become too small given the influx of devotees and pilgrims, gave way, in 1743, to a sanctuary located on the highest point of the region, which would later become the town of Aparecida. It was succeeded by a much larger temple, consecrated on December 8, 1888 by the bishop of São Paulo. In 1895, Pope Leo XIII authorized the celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Aparecida on the first Sunday in May. On March 2, 1906, Pope Pius X granted the celebration of mass and office dedicated to Our Lady of Aparecida, and on April 29, 1908, the shrine received the title of Minor Basilica.

On July 16, 1930, Pope Pius XI proclaimed Our Lady of Aparecida as the main Patroness of Brazil. The following year, on May 31, the image of the Virgin was taken from Aparecida to Rio de Janeiro (then the capital of Brazil), where it traveled in procession through the center of the city. Finally, in the presence of the President of the Republic, civil and military authorities, the Brazilian bishops, and a huge crowd of faithful, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro pronounced the act of consecration of all Brazil to Our Lady of Aparecida.

In 1980 a new basilica was inaugurated in the lower part of the city, close to the river where the image was found, and connected to the old basilica (in the upper part) by a walkway, 389 meters long and 35 meters high. This is the current basilica, around which the whole complex already described in the beginning of this article was built.

Walkway connecting the two basilicas (photo: Ana Paula Prada)

Devotion to the Virgin Aparecida continues to grow. Even today miracles and physical favors obtained through the intercession of Our Lady of Aparecida in her Sanctuary are reported. The Room of the Promises, also known as "Miracles Room", receives approximately 19 thousand ex-votos per month, and in the month of October this number reaches 30 thousand. But more than physical healings, what matters most there are the numerous cases of spiritual conversion and inner healing achieved through the patronage of Mary Most Holy.

The "Miracles Room"

Video: walking tour of the shrine

This is a series of articles about lesser-known Marian shrines around the world. These are the other articles in the series:
Kuravilangad, Oldest Marian Sanctuary in the World