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Near the Honduran border in southeastern Guatemala is the small market town of Esquipulas, an unlikely location for one of the finest colonial churches in America. The basilica houses a black Christ carved by Quirio Catano in 1594. The wooden statue miraculously survived a huge fire that destroyed the parish church, and devotion to the statue spread when prayers directed to Esquipulas were answered. Every January 15th, the town fills with pilgrims from all over Latin America, there to honor the Black Christ of Esquipulas on its feast day.

Devotion to the Black Christ unites Central America, and President Oscar Arias chose Esquipulas for the meeting of the 5 Central American presidents which began the peace process to end all the civil wars in our region. The Arias Peace Plan, signed in August of 1987, is also known as Esquipulas II (or the Guatemala accords).

Devotion to the Black Christ of Esquipulas also unites the canton of Santa Cruz. The biggest fiesta of the year takes place the week of January 15th. Dr. Leal Arrieta’s book, Santa Cruz: el Paraje de Diriá includes an account of how the Holy Christ of Esquipulas became the patron saint of Santa Cruz. (This account first appeared in La Tribuna on February 3, 1935): “It was in 1804, in the month of October during a rigorous rainy season. One morning a strange man with a long beard, ugly and dirty and dressed in rags, appeared in the hamlet. He was carrying the image of the Holy Christ of Esquipulas in a sack, and he expounded at length in every house he visited, exploiting the fervor of the people and obtaining alms that the stranger wasted on vices, scandalizing the faithful. Then as now, this type of immoral exploitation was forbidden, and the stranger was taken to Nicoya where neighborhood cases were heard by the magistrate. The stranger hid the statue of Christ between two coyol bushes on the property of Bernabela Ramos. While the stranger was being held in Nicoya, the neighbors of Santa Cruz were given the task of searching for the image.

“A country servant found the Christ image and brought it to doña Bernabela, who placed it for safe-keeping under seven locks until the stranger returned and she could arrange for its purchase. The next morning the stranger presented himself and doña Bernabela entered into negotiations for the statue. After they fixed a price and doña Bernabela went to find the saint in the place where it was hidden. She was surprised to find that it was no longer there. Its disappearance frightened the town and that afternoon they heard the news that the statue had been found in its original hiding place. This they took to be a miracle, and doña Bernabela called upon the religious sentiment of her neighbors, indicating that as a spiritual necessity and an expression of their faith, a church had to be built on the spot where Christ of Esquipulas had appeared. This they did, and it was the first House of God in Santa Cruz.”

Edited from articles that first appeared in the original Tamarindo News.

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