Saint Anthony and John the Baptist: June festivals at Lake Chapala

articles Living, Working, Retiring

Judy King

Christianizing their way around Lake Chapala in the early 1500s, taking the path of least resistance, Franciscan missionaries left each well-established settlement of Indians with their centuries-old community name.

As the Franciscans were moving from village to village, they were selecting a Patron Saint for each new congregation, then adding the Saint’s name to the original Indian name. Thus Cosala became San Juan Cosala and Ajijic was known as San Andres Ajijic, a quick and easily accepted addition.

In each community the indigenous quickly formed a common bond with their special protector, as each lakeside village was given one of the Biblical heroes and Franciscan saints who protect boats, fishermen and bodies of water.

Because the little fishing settlements were established so near to one another along the shore of Lake Chapala. the clever padres were consulting the church calendar and positioning the saints so that the celebration of each saint’s day would not cause competition with a neighboring village and their fiesta.

This article is the first of several featuring the Patron Saints of the communities around Lake Chapala, beginning with the North shore villages which attract the most foreign interest. During the next months we will look at San Nicholas de Ibarra, San Francisco de Assisi (Chapala), and San Andres (Ajijic), and their fiestas.

During June, we are investigating the history, lore and lives of Saint Anthony of Padua, the beloved Patron saint of San Antonio Tlayacapan and San Juan Cosala’s Saint John the Baptist as those communities focus for nine days on processions, masses, sky rockets and the devotions with which they annually honor their Patron Saint.

Each community will begin each of the nine days preceding their Saint’s Day with early morning skyrockets to awaken the village for the morning pilgrimage to mass. Masses will also be held at 12:00 noon some days, and an evening mass will follow the second procession of each day. Each evening, the plazas in the centers of San Antonio Tlayacapan and San Juan Cosala will be bursting with people: the local townspeople; visitors from other villages; and returnees – those who have moved away and return to visit and enjoy the summer evenings. The excitement, size of the processions, numbers of flowers adorning the churches and frequencies of late night bands and castillos will increase as the days of the fiesta continue, building to a climax for the last two or three nights.

The last night, June 13th, in San Antonio will feature huge crowds, a very large carnival and wonderful fireworks.

The village of San Juan Cosala is a little smaller, and the events of the fiesta are based more on the church and tradition than in some of the other villages. The afternoon procession on June 24th, usually includes more than 1,000 pilgrims. Often in addition to the town band there will be two or three groups of mariachis, allegorical floats, several groups of indigenous dancers, penitents walking blindfolded and barefoot, dozens of little girls in first communion finery, and an amazing number of toddlers. The little boys are dressed in tiny muslin suits representing Juan Diego and the tiny girls in peasant skirts and blouses, with shawls, and little straw hats, with bird cages tied on their backs. This procession is filled with devotion and emotion, and is a very special time to visit San Juan Cosala.

Another huge celebration in nearby San Pedro Tlaquepaque where the annual two week National Fair of Ceramics is scheduled to coincide with the June 29th Saint’s day of San Pedro, and the ensuing celebration.

San Antonio

Saint Anthony of Padua

Church dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua in San Antonio Tlayacapan on the shores of Lake Chapala, Mexico © Taner Sirin, 2011
Church dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua in San Antonio Tlayacapan on the shores of Lake Chapala, Mexico © Taner Sirin, 2011

“Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please come around.
Something is lost and needs to be found.”

San Antonio is one of the most beloved Saints in church history, and was the finest preacher and teacher of the Middle Ages, but he is still most remembered for his ability to find of lost trinkets, and to give promise of husbands to hopeless spinsters.

All around the world, and in many Mexican churches, statues of Saint Anthony are banked with vigil lights, and the searchers and faithful begin novena devotions, and leave prayers and petitions on small pieces of paper on Tuesdays, Anthony’s special day. These petitions ask for assistance in finding employment, safely delivering a new baby, safe passage on a trip, finding a lost item, the reconciliation with a family member, and more.

A story recounting the disappearance and return of Antonio’s prized book of psalms has prompted thousands to ask him to intercede with God for the return of things lost or stolen. A young novice who had grown tired of religious life, departed the community with San Antonio’s very valuable book of psalms, into which had been added teaching notes. After Antonio’s prayers, the young man returned the book to Antonio, and returned to the Order, devoting his life to God in penance for his theft, with Antonio as his tutor. While this book is preserved in Bologna, giving credence to the tale, the legend has been embroidered over the years to include an appearance of a horrible devil threatening the terrified novice with a horrible end if he did not return the book immediately.

Soon after Antonio’s death, a contemporary friar, Julia of Spires wrote,
“The sea obeys and fetters break
And Lifeless limbs thou dost restore
While treasures lost are found again
When young or old thine aid implore.”

The history and gifts of San Antonio go far beyond locating rings and sweethearts.

Although he repeatedly sought the humble monk’s life of sacrifice and humble devotion, he became famous as a gifted speaker and his life’s work was traveling though Europe teaching and preaching.

Monk or Knight?

At fifteen years, Ferdinand de Bulhom, the only son of an influential family of knights and crusaders, astonished family and friends by becoming an Augustine monk rather than to join his father at the court of King Alfonso II in Lisbon, as the prominent family position decreed. The next surprise came when the humble and devout young man moved from the local order to a more secluded house farther from Lisbon to escape the distraction of the frequent visits of his family and friends. Ferdinand then managed to live quietly for eight years at Coimbra studying scripture and theology with masters from Lisbon, Toulouse and Paris, and achieving his ordination.

Augustinian Ferdinand becomes Anthony, the Franciscan

Ferdinand threw aside his contemplative life as an Augustine soon after the burial of the remains of the Franciscan’s first five martyrs, all former friends of Ferdinand. Filled with missionary zeal, he quickly transferred to the evangelizing Franciscan order at Olivares in 1221, once they promised to send him to Morocco immediately so he could begin overcoming Islam and perhaps die in Africa as had his friends, a Holy martyr for God.

A Shipwreck Changes the Course

Ferdinand changed his name to Anthony, and fate changed the course of his life as a missionary with first illness and then a shipwreck During the voyage to Africa, the young monk became so ill that immediately upon arrival, he was placed on another ship to return home. This ship was driven by a storm into the coast of Sicily and wrecked at Messina. From there, the weakened Anthony made his way to Assisi just in time to attend the last gathering of all members of the Franciscan order which was being held with St. Francis himself in attendance.

Inspired, Anthony sought to stay in Italy, but due to his poor health, he was refused admission into many of the monasteries, and was finally accepted into a small rural hospice outside Bologna, where he lived quietly as a hermit in a nearby cave, and worked with the uneducated brothers in the kitchen.

The Humble Hermit Speaks

Never mentioning his education and abilities, Antonio relished this time and practice of humility until the day there was no one prepared to speak to a visiting group of Dominicans. The head of the hermitage, suspecting Antonio was the best educated of the group, instructed the young man to speak, assuring him that the Holy Spirit would place the right words in his mouth. His natural charisma, pleasant voice and early education served him well and this talk amazed the gathering.

When St. Francis heard Antonio’s teaching, he reassigned him to travel among the Franciscan houses, preaching and teaching theology to the Brothers of the order.

Crowds and Bodyguards for the “Hammer of Heretics”

Antonio was at last the evangelizer and martyr he had sought to be, for all the rest of his life, he was a martyr of the Word, the road, and of the people, making more than 400 trips from Italy and France and back, writing, speaking, preaching and teaching. His speaking ability in several languages attracted ever larger crowds with sometimes up to 30,000 persons waiting all night to see and hear him.

When Anthony was scheduled to speak, shops were closed, and churches and courtyards crowded, people waited all night to hear the “hammer of heretics” as he was known. Bodyguards would often be needed to keep the crowds from cutting pieces from his habit to keep as relics and good luck charms.

The Papal Commission

By 1226, he was envoy to the papal court of Pope Gregory IX, where his preaching was hailed as “jewel case of the Bible” and he was commissioned by the Pope to produce Sermons for Feast Days. Two hundred twenty years later, Antonio again drew the attention of a Pope, when Pius XII citing the power and effectiveness with which Anthony had taught the scripture, proclaimed him a Doctor of the Universal Church, and Doctor of the Gospel.

Antonio’s last years were in residence at the monastery of Santa Maria in Padua, where he died of dropsy at the age of 36. His body was enshrined in Our Lady’s Church at Padua, where a great basilica was begun the year after his death to honor him when he was canonized as a Saint by his good friend Pope Gregory.

Identifying San Antonio

The statues of San Antonio are easy to identify from the many others in Mexican Churches. He is always shown as an attractive, friendly young man, wearing the brown robes of the Franciscan brothers, and most often holds the Christ child, frequently with a lily or the Bible to represent his devotion to Jesus, his purity, and his knowledge of the scriptures.

Some representations show St. Anthony holding an open Bible in his hands, on which the Christ Child is standing. It is curious that next to the Virgin Mary, St. Anthony of Padua is the saint most often depicted with the Christ Child. One event in his life is used to explain the strong connection between the Child and Anthony. While Antonio was a guest in a castle near Padua, a brilliant light was seen coming from Antonio’s room. Count Tiso investigated and saw the Franciscan holding and communicating with the Christ Child.

Some very old prayer cards and images show Anthony preaching to the fish at Rimini, recalling the legend of a day the heretics there refused to listen until they noticed the fish rise from the water in order to hear Anthony’s words. Another popular story recounts Antonio’s experience with a starving mule. The hungry animal refused hay until it had knelt to honor the Holy Sacrament when Antonio held both the grain and the host in the animal’s view. In some of the older images, Antonio is shown in a blue robe as was the custom of the Spanish Franciscans until 1897.

Antonio, Patron of…

From these and other miracles and legends, San Antonio has come to be known as the patron saint of lost things, lonely spinsters, fish, mules, other animals, trees, and harvests. During his lifetime, Anthony worked to abolish debtor’s prisons and usury. He was strong and fearless, merciless towards oppressors of the defenseless, and because of this is the Patron Saint of the poor, oppressed and starving, barren or expectant mothers and the elderly. His intense travel experience and his own shipwreck makes him a favorite protector of fishermen, boatmen, sailors and shipwrecks.

Celebrations of San Antonio

The Feast day of San Antonio is celebrated on June 13, the date of his death in 1231. In Mexico there are more than 60 communities hosting 9-day fiestas to honor San Antonio each June. At Lake Chapala, local legend ensures that the annual rains will surely begin by the Day of San Antonio, June 13.

Prayer to Saint Anthony of Padua

Dear Saint Anthony, you are the patron of the poor and the helper of all who seek lost articles. Help me to find the object I have lost so that I will be able to make better use of the time I will gain for God’s greater honor and glory. Grant your gracious aid to all people who seek what they have lost – especially those who seek to regain God’s grace. Amen.

John the Baptist

San Juan Bautista

The Catholic Church calendar records hundreds of Feast Days for the faithful to remember and honor saints on the anniversaries of their death or other memorable days of their lives. Of all these special occasions, there are only three that celebrate the births of Jesus, his mother Mary, and the June 24th nativity of his cousin, John the Baptist.

A Biblical Life

From passages of the New Testament of the Bible and other historical documents of the time, we know that John was the son of the elderly parents. His father, Zachary, was a priest in the temple, whose job was to burn incense and mother Elizabeth was a cousin of the Virgin Mary,

It was at the temple that the Angel Gabriel told Zachary that Elizabeth was pregnant and would give birth to a son who would be filled with the Holy Spirit. Because of the advanced age of Elizabeth, Zachary doubted the angel and was struck dumb in punishment for his lack of faith until after the birth of the child. Biblical accounts tell us that when Mary ran to tell Elizabeth about her own angelic visit and pending birth, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb “leaped with joy.”

John the Forerunner

John was raised by his aged parents as a Nazarite, dedicated from birth to God’s service, with lifelong obligations to not shave, drink wine or indulge in human pleasures. Thus, as a rugged young man, John prepared for his ministry with years of self-discipline, living in the desert sustaining himself by eating the locusts and wild honey he was able to find there.

John is often called the Forerunner, as he went into the country around the Jordan River preaching penance to prepare for the imminent coming of the Messiah. John’s magnetic personality, and hypnotic power held crowds as he fiercely lashed out with bitter warnings to “Repent, the coming of the Messiah is Near.” John is a symbol of the transition between the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. He was the last prophet, the last hard echo of Moses and Elijah, the final roar of the fire and thunder of the God of the ancients, who came to prepare the way for Jesus.

John the Baptist

John baptized penitents with water, to symbolize the washing away of their sins in the River Jordan. When John saw Jesus waiting with the others on the banks of the river for baptism, he refused, saying he was unworthy, and that Jesus was without sin, therefore had no need for repentance or cleansing.

Finally, he obeyed his cousin’s wish, and as Jesus rose from the water John said, “Behold, this is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” The heavens then opened and as the Holy Spirit descended, a voice said, “You are my beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased.”

While John continued his ministry in the area of the Jordan for a short time more, he had completed his role as precursor of the Messiah and also fulfilled the ancient prophecy of Isaiah. He stepped aside, instructing his own disciples to follow Jesus, saying, humbly: “This is the Son of God, ” and with sacrifice of ego and self, he said, ” I must decrease that he must increase.”

That Jesus loved and revered his cousin was obvious, especially his words recorded in Matthew 11:11: “Of all those born of women, there is no other greater than John the Baptist.”

John and King Herod

From a lifetime of speaking his mind about the good and evil he saw around him, John long had problems with King Herod Agrippa. Herod Agrippa was the son of Herod the Great who 30 years before had ordered the death of all the young boys in the kingdom in an attempt to destroy the infant Jesus.

John had repeatedly denounced Herod’s incestuous and adulterous marriage to his new wife Herodias. Jewish law absolutely forbade the marriage of a man to his brother’s wife, and Herodias was not only the wife of Herod’s half brother, and but also Herod’s niece.

Herod feared John and his disciples, and knew him to be a righteous man, so although he jailed him, he certainly did not want to harm him. Herodias was determined to bring about John’s destruction. She schemed and waited until a large banquet to celebrate Herod’s birthday. Drunk and pleased by the dancing of Herodias’ daughter Salome, Herod promised her anything, even to half his kingdom. With her mother Herodias’ coaching, Salome asked for the head of John. Although he feared the outcome, rather than to lose face in front of the gathering, Herod presented to her the head of John on a platter.

Thus was the tragic end of a beloved figure. John’s disciples claimed his body and laid it in a tomb in Samaria, than broke the news to Jesus, who overcome with grief, and unable to face the crowds, retreated into the desert for a time of meditation.

Identifying John the Baptist

When searching for statues of John the Baptist in Mexican churches, look for a robust, sturdy man, with hair and beard dark and unruly, wearing a rough tunic made from skins and camel hair and leather belt. Generally in his left hand will be a staff topped with a small cross, and a lamb will be at his side. Often he carries a gourd of water for his treks in the desert.

Sometimes a scroll with the Latin words “Ecca Agnus Dei” which means “Behold the Lamb of God” will be prominently featured, in reference to John 1:29

Especially in Mexico, John is symbolized by the waning quarter moon, remembering his role as the last prophet of the waning times of the Old Testament, the promise he brought of the new way and the New Testament . This old moon (John) contrasts with the Sun (Jesus) as a symbol of fulfillment and completion.

John the Baptist, Patron of…

Baptism, housewives and grandmothers, birds, birdsellers, convulsions, epileptics, farriers, hail, Jordan, rivers, spas and lakes, lambs, monastic life, roads and highways, printers, tailors, Quebec, and spasms. Locally, John is the Patron saint of San Juan Cosala.

Celebrations of John the Baptist

Over 130 Mexican towns and communities annually celebrate John the Baptist as their Patron Saint, with fiestas ending on June 24, the day John is said to have been born about 28 B.C.

Because June 24th is also the time of the summer solstice, and has been celebrated by many peoples as the longest day of the year, it is a perfect time for lively fiestas, the lighting of St. John’s fires, and the merrymaking of midsummer’s night. The birth of John to aged parents, combined with the midsummer pagan festivals give added importance to fertility rites and dances of lovers traditional in the celebrations

The ancients divided the year into seasonal quarters marked by measuring the longest, shortest and equal days On the Church calendar, these four markers of the year are: St .Mark’s Eve in the spring, St. John’s Eve (June 23) in the summer, All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween) in the fall and Christmas (Christ’s Mass) Eve in the winter. On these four nights, it was believed that supernatural beings were allowed to wander the earth, that the uneasy souls search rest and return. Thus it was that during these times bright bonfires were built to purify the air and to keep the spirits at a distance to keep them from taking living souls with them to wander.

In times past, the church celebrated the nativity of John with much of the same liturgy they used to celebrate the nativity of Jesus. The series of masses in his honor began in the evening of St. John’s Eve to signify the time of the Law and the Prophets. The next was held during the night to celebrate the opening of the time of grace, the time of Jesus. On the following day of St. John, three more masses were held, to remember his role as the precurser, his role as the baptizer, and the last to honor his sanctity.

St. John the Baptist is honored with another Feast Day, as the faithful remember his death by beheading at the order of Herod on August 29 at Sebaste, Samaria, where he was buried in about 30 A.D.

A Prayer to John the Baptist

Oh God, You raised up St. John the Baptist to prepare a perfect people for Christ.

We call for St. John’s intercession, to properly prepare us with a true sense of repentance to receive your grace and salvation. Make us faithful to truth and justice, as you did your servant John the Baptist, herald of your Son’s birth and death and through John increase the life of grace in us. Amen.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2006 by Judy King © 2008
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