The Italian hill town of Assisi might be overrun by tourists and pilgrims, but the stories of the miracles of Saint Francis manage to bubble up through the clutter. The saint’s holy cards often depict him surrounded by fluttering brown sparrows, but they fail to convey some of the richer stories.
I mean stories such as how Saint Francis threw himself naked upon a rose-bush as punishment for impure thoughts only to have the thorns miraculously fall off the bush so as not to prick him. Bet he was thankful for that one. But I understand a naked man hugging a rose-bush might not be deemed appropriate for a holy card. My favorite Saint Francis miracle was his taming of the fierce killer wolf terrifying the residents of neighboring Gubbio.
On the holy card that is part of a digital collage (“¡Qué milagro! Four bullets in the back and alive to give thanks 25 years later.”) I donated for SAY Si’s annual Small Scale art sale, I felt compelled to add a few extra birds to better illustrate the claim that birds would stop mid-chirp to listen to Saint Francis’ sermons and, of course, to add a tame-looking wolf.
But what sent me digging up this holy card was a photograph from the side chapel in the Parroquia Purisima Concepcion in Real de Catorce, a former ghost town now a mecca drawing both tourists and pilgrims, in much the same way as Assisi. The walls of the entire chapel are covered with retablos, pictures and stories often painted on sheets of tin, left in gratitude by the beneficiaries of miraculous interventions by Saint Francis, affectionately known as Panchito. One retablo that caught my attention was left by Jesus Espinosa Diaz de Leon in 2006 to express his gratitude to Sr. San Francisco de Asis for saving him from bullets fired into his back on the streets of San Luis Potosi in 1981.
The rich interior of the Parroquia in Real de Catorce reflects the origins of the town itself; the workers mining the veins of silver running through the mountains signed a commitment in 1779 to donate silver toward its construction on a weekly basis. Real was so wealthy, it not only had a palenque for cock fights but an opera house. There was such an abundance of silver, the town had its own mint coining reales. To make the town and its silver more accessible, an engineering marvel of a tunnel almost 1 1/2 miles long was carved through one of the surrounding formidable mountains in 1901.
With the silver seemingly played out, the town died. Colonial buildings began to fall into ruin, and it probably would have become a complete ghost town were it not for Panchito. Some time after the Mexican Revolution, word spread throughout the country about miraculous cures of humans and animals believed to have been granted following prayers to St. Francis of Assisi. The statue in the parish church began to attract pilgrims. Particularly on his Feast Day, October 4, they jam the tunnel and overwhelm the town to pay tribute to the patron saint of merchants, animals and ecology.
While the town has undergone a revival caused by curious travelers, there is another revival many are eyeing with distrust. New technologies now make it possible to extract more metal from the surrounding mines, and in a wonderful series of posts on Huffington Post, Tracy Barnett reveals in words and photos that the Huichols are displeased. She describes a February 6 all-night ceremony involving the sacrifice of a calf:
Soon the maraka’ate assembled and the plaintive wail of the Wixarika fiddles began to ring out in the darkness. The chants of the maraka’te rose on the wind; the ceremony had begun.
All throughout the long night these priests of ecology, as Liffman called them, sang their entreaties to the spirits that inhabit this place, an improvisation of melodies from different villages and different eras in time. They conducted their ancestral dialog with Grandfather Fire, an intermediary between the maraka’te and their deities. The sacramental peyote they had hunted in the desert the day before was working its magic.
Maybe, if the Huichols combined their dialogues with Grandfather Fire with prayers to Saint Francis of Assisi in his role as the patron saint of ecology, the potent powers would unite to spare the land from more intrusive mining.
This is an absurdly long-winded approach to suggest you take advantage of SAY Si Small Scale art sale to build your collection. More than 200 artists have contributed works to the silent auction. It will be impossible to view them all before they start disappearing off the walls during the final party on Friday, March 23. So consider going online quickly and purchasing tickets to the preview party on Thursday, March 1, or stop by SAY Si between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday or 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday until March 23. And then it will be too late.
Added on March 9, 2012: This post needed a soundtrack – Gretchen Peters’ “Saint Francis.”