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Statue brought by conquistadors still inspires Catholics
Noel Fletcher
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Thursday, April 2, 2009
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SANTA FE, N.M. (CNS)—Little did the Spanish conquistadors and Franciscans who came to what is now New Mexico in 1625 realize that the same wooden statue of Mary they brought with them to help instill the Catholic faith would still be a symbol of love and devotion today.
Originally called the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the statue is little more than 3 feet high, made of wood and hollow in the middle—so it might fit atop a staff when displayed on horseback—but it continues to inspire the faithful as La Conquistadora.
Her history is interwoven with the Catholic faith in Santa Fe, particularly among the Spanish settlers' descendants who have lived in the area for generations.
Every year, pilgrims carry the statue in a procession from the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, where it resides, to Rosario Chapel several blocks away for "Fiesta de Santa Fe." At the end of the festivities, which include a Mass, it is returned in a procession to the cathedral.
The chapel was built on the spot where Don Diego de Vargas prayed to an image of La Conquistadora that Santa Fe be peacefully resettled following the 1680 Pueblo Indian revolt against the Spanish settlers.
"It's the story of a promise made by de Vargas and a promise kept. In 1692, de Vargas and his soldiers prayed to La Conquistadora that if they successfully resettled Santa Fe, he would honor her with vespers, Mass and a sermon," said Bob Martinez, assistant major-domo of Rosario Chapel.
De Vargas died in New Mexico in 1704, but one of his captains began the annual celebration.
In 1712, the city of Santa Fe issued a proclamation to officially recognize the devotion and commemorate the event with a re-enactment as well as a reading of the proclamation. The chapel was built in 1807.
Martinez, born and raised a Catholic, said his life changed a year after he became part of an honorary court of men called "de Vargas and his 'cuadrilla,'" which means band or team. They re-enact the return to Santa Fe of de Vargas and his company in a ceremony called "La Entrada" ("The Entrance").
Martinez also was taken with La Conquistadora when he participated for the first time in an honor guard called "Los Caballeros de Vargas," a group that protects the statue during celebrations.
He said he was "a successful realtor who looked on life" as being between partying or being faith-oriented—that is, until he got involved with the annual celebration.
"Although I attended Mass on Sundays, it wasn't until I attended the novena leading up to the fiesta and saw the depth of faith of the people praying the rosary that my life changed," he said.
Martinez also belongs to a local confraternity whose members care for La Conquistadora; another member is Teresita "Terry" Garcia, a sacristan who dresses the statue in outfits to mark special occasions.
"It is so incredible for me to play a role as sacristan in the history represented by the mother of God. My faith has grown," she said. "We have to realize that through her grace we come to know Father, Son and Holy Spirit. How can something like this not change your life?"
Except for special occasions, La Conquistadora rarely leaves the Santa Fe cathedral.
The statue, hailed as one of the oldest representations of Mary in the United States, has a wardrobe of more than 200 outfits, several crowns and many veils; jewelry boxes hold earrings and rosaries for every occasion.
The statue wears a wig made long ago from hair cut from young girl who entered the Carmelite order. A tiny doll-size infant Jesus sits in the statue's arms. Though fewer in number, there are special outfits for Jesus, too.
"I keep in mind the season of the liturgical year and special occasions," Garcia said about dressing the statue. Before selecting an outfit each month, she prays for inspiration from Mary.
"What you see in her dress is someone's devotion, petition or prayer," she said. For example, in September the outfit placed on the statue was made by a family to be worn during that month to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of a young man who died during the Santa Fe fiesta.
Garcia showed different outfits and related stories of those who donated the apparel. One was given by a family in thanksgiving for a relative's ordination to the priesthood, and another was donated by actress Ali MacGraw, a non-Catholic who has a home in Santa Fe.
"What makes it so special to me is being able to participate in the same devotion to her as my ancestors did almost 400 years ago. We are very, very fortunate," Garcia said.

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