Brazil is the largest Roman Catholic country in the world. In October of 1717, Dom Pedro de Almedida, Count of Assumar, was on his way to the state of Minas Gerais from Sao Paulo. He would have to pass by Guarantinqueta, a small city in the Paraiba river valley.
The people of Guarantinqueta decided to hold a great feast to honor the Count, and a lot of fish would be needed. Among the fishermen were three men who always prayed to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception — Domingos Garcia, Joco Alves, and Felipe Pedroso. Before going out to fish, they asked God to help then in this difficult task, to find enough fish at this time when no fish were available. Felipe knelt and prayed, along with his companions, “Mother of God and our Mother, we need to find fish!” After many hours of catching nothing, the fishermen were very depressed. Joco cast his net once more near the Port of Itaguagu, but instead of fish, he hauled in the body of a statue. The three cast their net again, and brought up the statue’s head. After cleaning the statue they found that it was Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Naming their find Our Lady Aparecida, they wrapped it in cloth and continued to fish; now their nets were full.
They very carefully washed the statue and saw that it was Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. They wrapped her in some cloths and continued to fish. Domingo commented, “We worked all night and have found no fish!” Felipe had a proposition: “Let’s continue to fish with faith in the Virgin Aparecida (who appeared).” From this moment on, the net became very full with fish. This was the first miracle of Our Lady of Aparecida. Felipe Pedroso, partner of Joao Alves, took the statue to his house and started the veneration of Our Lady with his family and neighbours. In 1732, he moved to Porto Itaguassu and took the statue to its first shrine, which was built by his son Atanasio. Travelers spread out the fame of Our Lady Aparecida and the pilgrims started to come. The people decided to build a bigger church in the top of a hill near Porto Itaguassu to shelter the statue. The church was opened in 1745 when the statue was brought in from its former site and the village of Aparecida was born, as a district of Guaratingueta.
It is not known how the statue came to rest at the bottom of the river, but its artist is known, Frei Agostino de Jesus, a carioca monk from Sao Paulo known for his sculpture. The image was less than three feet tall, was made around 1650, and must have stayed submerged in the river for many years because it lost its original polychromy. The image is now a brilliant dark brown color, and is covered by a stiff mantle of richly embroidered thick cloth, allowing only her face and hands to be seen. She wears on her head the imperial crown with precious stones with which she was crowned in 1904. In 1930 Pope Pius XII proclaimed her principal patroness of Brazil.
Her feast on October 12 is a national holiday. Pope John Paul II himself blessed the shrine in 1980. A few days before the visit someone got hold of the statue and threw it forcibly on the floor. Although the frail image was broken into many pieces, the loving and careful work of several artists put it together again and the Virgin, “Aparecida” returned to her niche in the Basilica. Now Aparecida is yearly visited by more than 5 million pilgrims. Our Lady Aparecida is in the heart of every Brazilian. Many people are named Aparecida or Aparecido, alone or combined with Maria, Jose and other names. The name is also part of the Brazilian colloquial vocabulary, as an exclamation of surprise.