Every year on July 16, the coast of Colombia heartily celebrates La Virgen del Carmen, known in English as Our Lady of Mount Carmel. With so much fanfare for this one specific representation of the Virgin Mary, I had to satisfy my curiosity and find out who she was and why she was so important to the people where I live.
Who is this virgin anyway? – fellow CII-8 volunteer, Alyssa G.
The Carmelites’ origins potentially trace back to an order of hermits living on Mount Carmel, a historic holy site in Israel, in the Old Testament times. They prayed in expectation of fulfillment of the prophecy that one day a Virgin Mother would bring salvation to the people (by giving birth to the Son of God). Fast forward to post-Christ, when a group of faithful Christians returned to the holy Mount Carmel and there established the first church dedicated to Mary in Christian times. This history, which I have greatly abbreviated, is contested. So we’ll fast forward even more to the 13th century when the Carmelite Order was officially formed and approved. On July 16, 1251, the Virgin Mary appeared to the English priest St. Simon Stock. In one hand she carried the baby Jesus, and in the other she offered up a brown scapular (a religious vestment that goes over the shoulders), saying “This shall be the privilege for you and for all the Carmelites, that anyone dying in this habit shall be saved.” The brown scapular became the official habit of Carmelites, and July 16 became the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
In artistic renderings and representations, this Virgin Mary also wears a brown scapular. And, of course, she always has a baby Jesus in one arm.
It was in this form that the Virgin Mary appeared to Saint Lucia and two other children on several occasions in 1917 in Fatima, Portugal. Incidentally, she then became Our Lady of Fatima, because the Catholic church likes to confuse the heck out of people (all these Our Ladys are the only and only Virgin Mary).
And just why is she so important to the people of Coastal Colombia?
Mariners back in the day would speak metaphorically of Mary as a star that guided them through difficult waters to the certain port (Jesus Christ). Because of this, she became the patron of mariners. When Colombians moved from the coast more inward, and transportation moved from sea to land, those who worked in transportation continued their devotion of la Virgen del Carmen and adopted her as their patron as well. It’s extremely common in buses, taxis, mototaxis, etc. to see la Virgen del Carmen and/or a rosary.
La Virgen del Carmen is also the patron of my port town. The story goes that in the early 1900’s, a box washed up on shore at the port, containing the statue of the Virgin Mary. From that moment on, the tiny town, which did not yet have a church, began their fervent devotion to La Virgen del Carmen. It turned out, based on port manifests, that the box had been sent on a ship from Spain a few years prior as part of an evangelical campaign. Regardless, when the town’s cute lil’ salmon colored church was constructed, it was named the Marian Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Santuario Mariano Nuestra Señora del Carmen), and statuettes are scattered all about the town (off the top of my head, I could tell you where to find 6 of them).
What the feast day looks like in my town
It’s not just a feast day, it’s a feast week. Novenas are observed – nine consecutive days of special prayers. They are done all around town, and often the neighborhood or part of the neighborhood observing is all decked out in blue and white. Often the bus companies make a mini-procession to kick them off. One of the Virgin Mary statues is carried as part of the processional. Plus, I can’t forget to mention the tiros – like fireworks but with only the loud part. Shots all week. Our poor pup was hiding under my bed almost the entire time.
Then the town has special events; I don’t know to what extent this normally happens, but since July 16 fell on a Sunday this year, there were events Friday-Sunday nights.
On Friday, it was a bolero concert in the plaza – slow, orchestral Latin music.
On Saturday, it was a picó duel – giant sound systems in pimped out cars fighting to be the loudest. I don’t actually know if this even happened because the night was stormy and rainy. I do know that people still partied all night; it was around 4 am that we heard the marching band and all the buses make their processional. Probably drunk.
Finally on Sunday was the final processional, and a concert in the central soccer field. In this processional the Virgin, freshly redone after being sent to Spain for restoration, was carried throughout the town. Surrounding her were people of faith, walking with their candles; those walking in front of her were moving backwards so that their faces were always towards the statue.
Meanwhile, in typical fashion, the drinks are flying. Beer vendors make bank, and most people come prepared with a bottle of liquor to share among friends. Even among those processing, you’ll see mini-shots being poured.
Monday, the town seemed dead. Calm. Quiet. A breath of fresh air.