January 21 - Altagracia Day in the Dominican Republic

Posted on January 21, 2018

"Bring me a painting of Our Lady of Altagracia," a young woman asked her father, according to legend.

Altagracia means "high grace" in Spanish. The legend goes on that the father, a wealthy merchant, complained to his friend that nobody knew anybody that went by that title. This occurred as the two sat outdoors after dinner, in the town of Higuey on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

"This is what you are looking for," a passing stranger said. And he handed the merchant a painting of Mary and Jesus.

The merchant placed it on their mantle, but the painting magically disappeared - and reappeared outside. The puzzled merchant brought it inside again - and once again, the story goes, it went "poof!" and reappeared outside. So the merchant donated the clearly miraculous painting to the Catholic Church, and a suitable shrine was built on the spot where the painting wished to reside.

This really old drawing of the first European
settlement in the New World, Santo Domingo,
is still almost 200 years after its founding in 1496.
All of that was supposed to have happened a really long time ago - and, actually, the painting is really old! It was apparently painted in Spain around 1500, and by 1502 it had been taken to Santo Domingo, the first European settlement on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola - actually, the first European settlement in the entire "New World" - in other words, the first permanent European settlement in the Americas! 

Two of the earliest European settlers were the brothers Alfonso and Antonio Trejo, and they were the ones who owned the painting. At some point, they donated the painting to the Church, and a shrine was built to house it. The shrine was completed back in 1572, and at some point Our Lady of Altagracia was adopted as the patron saint of the settlement - and later the colony and nation of the Dominican Republic.

After 500 years or so, the painting was moved to a more modern church, where it still resides. It was old enough that candle smoke and oils from human hands had made it very dark and dull - almost unrecognizable - so in 1978 it was carefully restored.
The old home of the painting, above.
The new home, below.

Not just the painting was moved - the feast day of Altagracia was also moved. It used to be every August 15, but it was moved to January 21 to celebrate a victory over French forces in 1690. 

Now the day is a public holiday in the Dominican Republic.

The Dominican Republic is a nation of contrasts. For one thing, it is a major tourist mecca, with popular resorts and beautiful beaches. Also, there are a lot of rich people living there, with modern cities and every comfort.

On the other hand, there is also a lot of poverty, child labor, and a huge gap between the rich and poor.

(Third Sunday in January)

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