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The basilica of Nossa Senhora Aparecida dominates the town of Aparecida in Sao Paulo state, Brazil. Tom and I hadn’t expected such a magnificent edifice, thinking it would be a small-town cathedral.

The basilica is the largest sanctuary space in the world dedicated to Our Lady. In fact, daily Mass can see some 5,000 people in attendance! During the weekend Masses, often times, more than 150,000 people attend.

Because we were there on Thursday before the feast day, the basilica wasn’t crowded (though hundreds would arrive as we were leaving, and many more were en route for the weekend festivities).

Mass

The basilica houses the 18th-century clay statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that gives the city its name.

According to local tradition, the group was attempting to catch a large amount of fish in the Paraiba River for a banquet honoring the visit of Sao Paulo Governor Pedro de Almeida in 1717. Despite their prayers, their attempts were fruitless until late in the day, one of the fishermen cast his net and pulled it back to find the headless statue of the Virgin Mary. Upon his next cast, he found the head of the statue. The group cleaned the statue, wrapped it in cloth, and returned to their task to find their fortunes had changed and they were able to obtain all the fish they needed. The statue is believed to be the work of Frei Agostino de Jesus, a monk residing in São Paulo.

After cleaning the statue, they found that it was a black version of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Legend has it that when the fishermen recovered the body, then the head, the slender 3-ft-tall figure of the Aparecida Virgin became so heavy that they couldn’t budge it.

The image is dark brown in color and today is covered by a stiff dark blue robe of richly embroidered thick cloth with golden clasps. The statue wears an imperial crown which was added in 1904. Only her face and hands can be seen.

Our Lady Aparecida image

The first chapel dedicated to housing the statue was built in 1745.

Work on the present basilica began in 1955. Architect Benedito Calixto designed a building in the form of a Greek cross, 173 meters long and 168 meters wide. The tower is 100 meter high, and the dome is 70 meters high, covering a surface area of around 18,000 square meters. It can hold up to 45,000 people. The 272,000 square meters of parking hold 4,000 buses and 6,000 cars.

It is currently the largest Marian temple and the second largest Basilica in the world, second only to St. Peter’s in Vatican City.

On July 4, 1980, while still under construction, Pope John Paul II consecrated the new church gave it the title of Minor Basilica.

Popes

Since then, the two basilicas in the city of Aparecida have been known as the “Old Basilica” and the “New Basilica”. Upon its completion, the Brazilian Conference of Catholic Bishops declared the new Basilica a National Shrine.

Pope Benedict XVI visited the Basilica of the Shrine of Aparecida on May 12, 2007. During his visit, the pope awarded the shrine a Golden Rose, a gold ornament that popes of the Catholic Church have traditionally blessed annual. It is occasionally conferred as a token of reverence or affection.

During World Youth Day 2013 activities, Pope Francis visited the basilica on July 24, 2013, venerating the image of Our Lady of Aparecida and celebrating Mass there.

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The feast day of Our Lady of Aparecida is October 12.