For the past 227 years, thousands of Costa Ricans have made an annual pilgrimage to the Basilica of Cartago, where they visit the statue of the Virgin of the Angels (Virgen de los Angeles), popularly known as “La Negrita.” This image of the Virgin is said to heal the sick. Suppliants approach her for cures, and the healed visit her in gratitude. The pilgrimage takes place August 2, the feast day of the Virgin of the Angels, but this year marked a radical change in the pilgrimage to La Negrita.

On July 21 of this year, the Catholic Church and the Costa Rican Health Minister (Ministra de Salud), María Luisa Avila, cancelled the 2009 pilgrimage to Cartago because of fears about the H1N1 virus. During normal pilgrimage years, thousands of Costa Ricans spend several days in close proximity to one another—taking buses and other forms of collective transportation from outlying provinces to the Basilica in Cartago, jostling one another in the streets during the miles-long walk to the Basilica, crowding together in restaurants and cafés during rest stops, sharing food and drinks along the pilgrimage route, and packing into the Basilica and its courtyard during the religious ceremonies. The Church and Ms. Avila worried that the virus could easily spread among these thousands of pilgrims.

Thus, for the first time in over two centuries, the Catholic faithful would not be allowed to make their way to Cartago and to La Negrita. The pilgrimage is one of the most important religious rites among Costa Rican Catholics, and some have walked to Cartago for dozens of years in a row. Outraged by the cancellation, many vowed to do the pilgrimage on their own, even though the government said there would be no official traffic closures or police escorts to protect them along the way.

The faithful need not have worried. Over the first weekend in August 2009, the pilgrimage did, in fact, take place, although in altered form to accommodate modern health demands. La Negrita herself made the cross-country journey to visit her own worshippers. In a pick-up truck and a helicopter donated by Costa Rica’s Channel 7 (Teletica Canal 7), the Virgin flew to crowds of adoring Catholics who greeted her with applause, prayer and tears. La Negrita began her journey in a new white dress, after her annual dressing ceremony at the Cartago Basilica on Friday, August 1. The following day, church officials loaded the statue into the pick-up truck, in which she toured the Central Valley provinces of San José, Heredia and Alajuela. A motorcycle brigade accompanied the Virgin on her stops to various churches in the Central Valley. The Virgin then returned to Cartago for Sunday’s journey. Near dawn on Sunday, the Virgin left the Basilica in her pick-up truck, which transported her to a nearby field. From there, church officials put the statue into the Channel 7 helicopter, where she joined the Bishop of Cartago, the priest of the Cartago Basilica and a member of the Costa Rican air services (Fuerza de Vigilancia Aérea). On Sunday, the Virgin visited the provinces of Limón and Puntarenas.

During both Saturday and Sunday’s journeys, the Virgin stopped at various arenas and stadiums, all of which were filled to capacity. At each stadium, the faithful processed with the statue to and from a nearby church. Once back in the helicopter, the Virgin proceeded to the next stadium. At every stop, the faithful waved white handkerchiefs and held aloft objects to be blessed.

Because the Virgin’s land-and-air journey began at the Basilica in Cartago, some worshippers did, in fact, make the pilgrimage to Cartago. However, their numbers were smaller than usual, and those who made the pilgrimage were unable to see the Virgin in her usual place on the altar. The statue was being readied for the cross-country journey, so a replica stood on a temporary altar outside the Basilica. Traffic police, on hand despite earlier government threats to the contrary, had an easy job of controlling the minuscule crowds and reported no traffic problems.

Although the Virgin’s 2009 voyage was unusual, her official historian, Carlos Oreamuno, says that La Negrita has traveled across the country several times in the past. According to Oreamuno, the Virgin has traversed all parts of Costa Rica but Cocos Island (la Isla del Coco). However, the 2009 journey was surely the first in which a GPS signaled the Virgin’s exact location throughout her trip. The faithful followed La Negrita’s every move online at santuarionacional.org.

[Please read our upcoming post about the history of the basilica in Cartago.]

Read more about La Negrita’s Sunday journey.

Read more about the dressing of la Virgen de los Angeles.

Read more about the cancellation of the pilgrimage to the Basilica in Cartago.

Read more about the Virgen de los Angeles and the GPS.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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