Day 3 of our Mexico trip was my birthday! (It was also a national holiday in Mexico, which meant that lots of people in the city had the day off.) We had to wake up early because we were taking a bus trip out to Puebla. People sang me happy birthday many times throughout the day, beginning as early as breakfast.
We loaded up the buses and were introduced to our new tour guide, Jaime. Jaime was very enthusiastic about his job and had a million things to tell us, and he was definitely a character…he was easily distracted and didn’t have any kind of organized narrative to his stories, or really any sense of time management/planning. He also didn’t realize that we already knew the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe—he wasn’t Catholic, and really, we knew more about the apparitions than he did, but he retold the story to us anyway. It certainly made for an interesting bus experience. While he talked, I scribbled out music for a flute part to “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” which I ended up playing at Mass the next day.
En route to Puebla, we stopped at a gas station out in the countryside. We all got off the bus for a few minutes to walk around and use the bathroom. While I was walking outside, a man who worked there asked if I wanted a cookie (he was selling them). I politely declined, and he said no, he was offering me one for free. I protested at first, but he insisted on giving me a free cookie, so I accepted it. He was clearly thrilled to have visitors at the gas station and wanted to make conversation, so I practiced my Spanish by talking with him for a minute. I thanked him for the cookie and told him that it was actually my birthday.
“Oh, it’s your birthday today? How old are you?” he asked.
“Twenty-eight,” I told him.
“Are you married?”
“Do you want to marry me?”
After some polite laughter and a “no thanks,” I walked back over to where my friends were standing and told them what happened:
“That guy just offered me a cookie. Then he asked me to marry him.”
“Really? What did you say?”
“…What do you think I said? It was a good cookie. Yes, I’m going to live here now—this gas station is pretty nice.”
When we arrived in Puebla, the weather was beautiful—sunny and warm. Everyone said it must have been for my birthday! We went straight to the Church of Santo Domingo for Mass. Our Mass was held in the Rosary Chapel, which is decorated with ornate Baroque detailing and was considered in its time to be the eighth wonder of the world.
From where I was sitting near the altar, I looked up and could see statues of St. Anne, my Confirmation saint, along with St. Gertrude, whose feast is on my birthday! Kelly and I played music for Mass, and Father Gabriel offered it for me since it was my birthday, which was a pretty great gift.
After Mass we enjoyed the sunshine in the courtyard for a little while, and then we began a leisurely walking tour of Puebla.
During lunch, I was serenaded by a mariachi band singing “Feliz Cumpleaños.”
We held our holy hour in the Puebla Cathedral.
After the holy hour, we returned to the bus and heard some more rambling stories from Jaime as we rode to Ocotlán. Before we arrived, Brother Pius told us the story of Our Lady of Ocotlán:
Ocotlán is a lesser-known Marian apparition site about eighty miles from Mexico City. The story is that in 1541, ten years after the miracle at Guadalupe, a man named Juan Diego Bernardino (not the same Juan Diego as in the Guadalupe apparitions) was taking water from a river that was believed to have healing qualities. Juan Diego Bernardino was an Aztec native who had converted to Catholicism and demonstrated great piety. A smallpox epidemic had broken out in his village, and he intended to bring water to the sick. When he reached a hilltop, he met a beautiful lady who asked him where he was going. He told her he was bringing medicinal water to the sick. She responded, “Follow me closely. I will give you another water with which will extinguish the contagion and cure not only your family but all who drink of it, for my heart is always inclined toward the lowly and will not suffer to see such things without remedying them.”
The woman led Juan Diego Bernardino to the bottom of the hill toward a spring of water. She told him that anyone who drank a drop of water from this spring would be restored to perfect health. She also told him that he would find an image of her in the pine grove there, which he should advise the Franciscan missionaries to place in the church atop the hill.
Juan Diego Bernardino drew water from the spring and brought it to the sick, and they were healed completely and instantly upon drinking it. Word spread of this miraculous water. Juan Diego Bernardino told the Franciscan fathers his story, and they believed him. They went out with him to the pine grove in the light of sunset, where the trees appeared to burn without being consumed. They were drawn toward one tree in particular, which was surrounded by many flames; when they got close, it was not burned at all, and they noticed that it looked particularly fat. They cut it open to find a wooden statue of Mary inside, five feet tall and beautifully detailed. They brought it back to the Church of San Lorenzo, where it remains today in a shrine.
Before arriving in Ocotlán, we called ahead to ask the hours of the shrine to make sure it would be open. When we got there, we first went to the Church of San Lorenzo, which has a beautiful exterior.
Unfortunately, the door of the church was blocked off with caution tape, and when we found someone in the office next door they explained that it was being fumigated. Sooo…they informed us of the shrine hours when we called ahead, but they’d forgotten to mention we couldn’t go inside. We asked about the healing spring as well, and they told us that we could walk downhill to find it and it would still be open for just a little while longer. (We joked that we should enter the fumigated church first and then immediately head straight to the healing spring—then we’d be fine, right? No need to worry about breathing in harmful fumes when you have an instant remedy…)
We began walking in the direction of the spring, but we came to a fork and weren’t sure which road to take. There was a young boy dressed in a suit standing at the street corner, so I asked him for directions. Somehow I managed to remember the Spanish word for “well” to ask him which way the well was. He pointed us downhill, and then as we began to walk, he noticed our confused faces and said, “Wait, I’ll just come with you.” He was probably about twelve years old, and his name was Juan Emanuel.
The sun was setting as we walked downhill, and the views were stunning.
On the way down, a woman stepped outside to sell us plastic containers to hold the water.
At the bottom of the hill, there was a chapel containing the well. The doors were locked. For a few minutes we stood there, unable to believe we’d come so far just to be locked out—twice! But then Juan Emanuel found a man who worked there, and he opened the door for us.
Inside, there were murals of the story of Our Lady of Ocotlán on all the walls. The sun beamed in through the windows.
We lined up to receive the healing water, and we all sang Marian hymns together. It was probably the most peaceful moment of the entire trip, and it came about in such an unexpected way. The setting, too, was surreal; we were bathed in the light of sunset. Before we arrived, almost everyone said they weren’t going to actually drink the water (this was Mexico, after all)—they would just touch it. Particularly for those with sensitive immune systems who weren’t used to Mexican water, we trusted that this would be healing enough. But in that peaceful moment in the chapel, each of us ended up taking a sip anyway. And no one got sick :)
We took a bunch of pictures outside before we left.
Our “guide” Juan Emanuel seemed to love all the attention we gave him, and he genuinely seemed happy to help us. He recited prayers for us in Spanish and sang hymns. He especially loved talking with the friars—Father Gabriel said afterward that he thought Juan Emanuel wanted to be a priest.
We trekked back uphill.
The drive back to Mexico City took much longer than expected—there was a lot of holiday traffic. But we were all in good spirits setting out, and we prayed evening prayer together on the bus. Also, in Mexico, there’s a law that says everyone has to exit the bus while the gas tank is being filled, so we spent some time dancing on the pavement outside a gas station. I tried to teach people how to do a marching band trot.
When we (finally) got back to our hotel, Kelly and I quickly ran through the next day’s songs, and then a small group of us went out for a late dinner to celebrate my birthday. We went to the same local place from the night before—the flan was that delicious, and Liz needed to try it, too. (Her verdict was that it was as good as the flan her family makes.) I ended the night in Liz and Jennifer’s room, talking until it was well past bedtime.
Overall, it was a very memorable birthday. Someone asked me, “Did you ever think you’d spend your birthday drinking holy water from a healing spring at a Marian apparition site?” The answer is no; no, I did not. It was a wonderful day that I won’t soon forget!