Postcard from Merida, Mexico: Home of the first cathedral finished in the Americas

santiago church merida yucatan mexico

Above, Bells at the Top of the Facade of the Santiago Church in Merida

Under supervision of Spanish architects, Mayan laborers began building the Cathedral of Merida in 1562 with stones pillaged from one of their own temples. The cathedral was finished before the close of the 16th century and dedicated to the new outpost’s patron saint, San Ildefonso of Toledo (607-667).

As Ildefonso was conducting Mass in his role of Bishop of Toledo, Spain, brilliant light suddenly illuminated the entire church. Many of the celebrants fled in fear, but those who remained witnessed the Virgin Mary herself descend and enthrone herself at the altar. Grateful for his devotion and defense of her purity, she even gifted him with a splendid vestment, a chasuble, from her own son’s wardrobe. His association with the miraculous illumination must provide Merida with extra excuses to set off fireworks on his feast day, January 23.

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Postcard from Sorrento, Italy: An Amalfi town overwhelmed by people like us

Our Lady of “Please Save Us and the Entire Amalfi Coast from this Latest Wave of Invaders”

Mythologically speaking, Sorrento was founded by a grandson of Ulysses and Circe, but the geographical features making it a natural fortress – a deep gorge and steep cliffs fronting the coast – placed it in high demand by all powers interested in staking out turf in the neighborhood for thousands of years.

And now the invaders are tourists. Obviously, we are among them. But visitors slipping in two by two is a far cry from the hoards cruise ships docking in nearby Naples deliver to Sorrento, viewed as the stepping stone for exploring the beauty of Italy’s Amalfi Coast. The pedestrian streets of Sorrento are lined with shoppes, as opposed to stores that would offer anything of interest to the city’s less than 17,000 residents.

The small-town streets are clean and orderly compared to the scene in Naples, but are swarming with, well, people like us. Sorrento is a place where we could enjoy a morning cappuccino in a small café for three times the price we would pay in Naples. The setting is dramatic, and the views of the Isle of Capri and Naples are beautiful. But wait, we had a wonderful view of the Isle of Capri from our apartment in Naples.

Sorrento is blessed with several handsome baroque churches, and my favorite part of the jaunt by boat over there from Naples was a visit to the Basilica Sant’Antonino. Little Saint Anthony of Sorrento (555-625) was a Benedictine monk who became a hermit. The citizens of Sorrento coaxed him into serving as abbot of their Saint Agrippinus Monastery. Saint Michael appeared to persuade him to take up their offer.

The most miraculous deed credited to Antonino during his lifetime involved a whale. A mother arrived pleading to him for help, as her son had been swallowed by a leviathan. Antonino was able to reach deep inside the creature’s mouth and pluck the boy out, safe and sound.

After his death, the grateful people of Sorrento built a crypt to house his remains and then erected a basilica above in his honor. His work was not yet done though. The saint is credited with protecting the city from a Moorish naval invasion, the bubonic plague and cholera. The walls of the crypt are lined with cases of silver milagros left by those requesting his intervention in healing various parts of the body and reliquaries of bones of other saints to multiply the potency found within. Retablos depicting some of Saint Antonino’s dramatic rescues of endangered sailors at sea are abundant.

Sorrento takes great pride in its limoncello, ceramics and lacework. We strongly recommend the perfect panini produced in the little kitchen at A’Marenna.

Oh, and the city appears taken with Sophia Loren, particularly after her mambo scene in Scandal in Sorrento.

Sophia Loren and Vittorio de Sica mambo in 1955 film Scandal in Sorrento

We enjoyed dipping our toes into the Amalfi scene at Sorrento, but by late afternoon found ourselves eager to return to the bustling chaos of Naples.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Putting that saintly fashion foot forward

Away from San Antonio during Fiesta… when duchesses were bowing, weighed down by their glittering trains and flashing their fancy footwear, sometimes chanclas, from atop flowery floats… we encountered a rich array of elegant gowns in a fashion show in an unanticipated setting.

Chapels lining one side aisle of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli hosted mannequins wearing some of the Virgin Mary’s most formal attire. Numerous outfits were complete with compatible cloaks and shoes and, of course, matching attire for Baby Jesus.

The basilica’s own Baby Jesus, Santo Bambino of Aracoeli, needed no additional clothes. Carved from olive wood from the Gethsemane Garden in Jerusalem, Santo Bambino always is cloaked in a much-bejeweled golden garment.

The original statue created by a Franciscan dated from the 15th century and was credited for numerous miraculous healings. At one point, Santo Bambino was carted around on house-calls to aid those too ill to visit personally.

An icon of such value attracts much interest. The French hijacked it in 1797, but it was later recovered. Thieves robbed the baby of numerous jewels in 1838, but the worst theft occurred in 1994. Santo Bambino vanished. Even thieves in prison penned public letters requesting their fellow tradesmen return the beloved Santo Bambino. Fresh olive wood was obtained from Jerusalem for the replacement now on display.

The original Santo Bambino might be missing, but, for the faithful, his powerful spirit remains with the reproduction in the basilica. Letters from around the world arrive addressed to Santo Bambino requesting mail-order miracles and are placed beside him to “read” at will. As newer ones arrive, the older requests are burned with incense.

As for the setting itself? No San Antonio ballroom can compare with the shimmering chandeliers and ornate décor found in the basilica.

Somewhere at the foundation of the enormous Basilica of Santa Maria of Aracoeli lies a Byzantine church dating from the 500s. The papacy took over the property in the 9th century, placing it under the control of Benedictines. Immense columns supporting the central nave were harvested from ancient Roman ruins. Franciscans provided much Romanesque and Gothic remodeling and expansion in the 1200s. Heavy gilding of the ceiling was completed in 1575 to thank the Virgin for her assistance in defeating the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Lepanto.

A monumental stairway, 124 steps, was added in 1348 for those praying for an end to the Black Plaque or seeking penance on their way up to the church (Okay, I confess. We took an easier approach through a side door.). In the Middle Ages, criminals were executed at the base of the stairway. In the 17th century, one of the royal princes who lived above took offense to international pilgrims sleeping on the steps and periodically rolled stone-filled barrels downward to chase them off.

Contemporary superstition claims the faithful who crawl up the stairway on their knees enhance their possibilities to win the national lottery. No point for us. We will never win any lottery. You have to pay to play.