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The First Marian Apparition in Church History: Our Lady of the Pillar

Oct 12, 2016 By Gretchen Filz

October 12th, in addition to being Columbus Day, is also the feast day of Our Lady of the Pillar, patroness of all Hispanic peoples. While not one of the most widely known titles of Our Lady, it is the oldest, and has a most fascinating story that you will be delighted to read.

Tradition has it that the Blessed Virgin Mary, sometime before  her bodily Assumption into heaven, appeared to the Apostle St. James the Elder while he was living and preaching in Spain.

The Story of Our Lady of the Pillar

After Pentecost, the 12 Apostles dispersed to preach the Gospel all over the world. St. James the Greater, on one of his apostolic journeys, preached in the Iberian Peninsula in modern-day Spain.

St. James was discouraged that the pagans of that land were not responding to the Gospel and converting to Christianity. He had only a handful of converts to show for his labors. In the face of what he thought was failure in his mission, he prayed with his disciples by the Ebro river in modern day Zaragoza.

To bring him consolation, while she was still alive and living in Jerusalem, Our Lady appeared to him and his disciples atop a pillar of jasper stone carried by angels, while holding a smaller wooden statue of herself holding the Christ Child. The date was October 12 in the year 40 AD.

According to one account, Our Lady had previously promised St. James that she would come to his aid when he needed it the most. In fact, it was she who sent James into that region of the Roman Empire to tell the people of Hispania about her Son, Jesus. And then, in his most desolate hour, when he was considering leaving his mission field, she comes to his rescue.

Read the history of the apparition of Our Lady of the Pillar to St. James the Greater in Spain in 40 AD, while she was still living in Jerusalem

The Mother of God told St. James not to worry, that the people to whom he preached would not only be converted, but they would one day have faith as strong as the pillar on which she stood.

She gave the pillar and the statue to St. James and asked that a church be built on the spot in her honor, using the two items for the altar.

"This place is to be my house, and this image and column shall be the title and altar of the temple that you shall build... and the people of this land will honor greatly my Son Jesus."

After asking for her church to be built, she gave another promise that,

“It will stand from that moment until the end of time in order that God may work miracles and wonders through my intercession for all those who place themselves under my patronage.”

St. James built a small chapel as Our Lady requested, by the Ebro river in Zaragoza, Spain, the first known Marian shrine in history. It became known as Our Lady of the Pillar, or Nuestra Senora del Pilar.  The chapel was replaced by larger churches over the centuries, the present stunning basilica being erected in the 17th century.

Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar in Zaragoza, Spain, the first church in history dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Original chapel built in 40 A.D. Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar in Zaragoza, Spain

The statue and pillar have been preserved in the basilica just as they were given to St. James almost 2000 years ago (see below photo). Amazing! The pillar is now covered in an embossed metal covering, but behind the altar a portion of the pillar is exposed for veneration. Click the image below to view a pilgrim's visit to this Marian shrine.

Our Lady of the Pillar: Both the pillar and the statue given to St. James the Greater by Our Lady, in 40 A.D., still kept in her Basilica in Spain. The original pillar and statue miraculously given by the Virgin Mary to St. James for the first shrine built in her honor.

In the same vision Our Lady also recalled St. James to Jerusalem, where he met his martyrdom in 44 AD. His remains were taken by his followers back to Compostela, Spain, where a chapel was built in his honor. The chapel was later replaced by the famous Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, the most visited Catholic pilgrimage destination outside of Rome and the Holy Land.

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain, burial place of St. James the Greater Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain, burial place of St. James the Greater.

Have you been to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar in Spain? If so, please comment below and tell us about your pilgrimage!

 See also Way of St. James Rosaries Honoring 1200-Year-Old Pilgrimage Route

Connection to Columbus Day

Christopher Columbus, the Italian Catholic explorer, sailed the Atlantic under the banner of the Catholic King and Queen of Spain on his three ships, the Nina ("Little Girl"), the Pinta ("Painted One"), and the Santa Maria ("Holy Mary"), which in hindsight can be seen as a foreshadowing of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Interestingly, the flagship of Christopher Columbus, the Santa Maria, had a full name of Santa Maria de la Inmaculada Concepcion (Holy Mary of the Immaculate Conception). The U.S. bishops declared Mary under her title of the Immaculate Conception as the patroness of America in 1846.

After going a long time without seeing land, Columbus promised his anxious crewman that if they did not have landfall in their sight by the October 12th feast of Our Lady of the Pillar, so dear to the Spanish people, they would turn course and sail back to Spain.

On October 12th they sighted land, and claimed the New World first for Jesus Christ, and next for the Spanish crown. Read The Catholic Venture of Christopher Columbus. Yes, America belongs to Our Lady!

 

Our Lady of the Pillar Fast Facts

 

  • Our Lay of the Pillar is the first known apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

  • It is also the only known apparition of Our Lady prior to her Assumption into heaven.

  • The Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar in Zaragosa, Spain, is the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

  • Our Lady of the Pillar is the patroness of Spain and all Hispanic People.

  • The first known apparition of Our Lady, and her first church, were entrusted to the Spanish people.

  • The church has remained in the same location after fires, wars, and disasters over the centuries. Three bombs were dropped on the basilica during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939; miraculously, none of them exploded.

  • A nine-day festival, Fiestas del Pilar, is celebrated in Zaragoza every year in her honor. It is a national holiday in Spain that coincides with the commemoration of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas in 1492, i.e. Columbus Day.

  • Christopher Columbus found and claimed the New World for Spain on October 12, 1492, the feast of Our Lady of the Pillar.

 

Read the Fascinating Story of Our Lady of the Pillar, the first Marian apparition in Church history, while she was still alive!

This article has been updated and was first published in October 2015. © The Catholic Company. All rights reserved.

Comments

Raymundo L. Ciocon says
Dec 25 2018 11:54PM
Thank you, Gretchen, for the informative write up on Our Lady of the Pillar, who is also the Patroness of the Diocese of Imus in the Province of Cavite, Philippines. It makes my stay in St. Augustine Parish, Mendez, upland Cavite even more meaningful now.
Jorge Wong says
Dec 25 2018 6:05PM
Please help me understand the following: "while she was still alive and living in Jerusalem, Our Lady appeared to him and his disciples atop a pillar of jasper stone carried by angels, while holding a smaller wooden statue of herself holding the Christ Child. The date was October 12 in the year 40 AD." Does this mean that the Virgin Mary was physically in both places in Jerusalem and in Spain at the same time (Was She able to replicate herself simultaneously in both places)? Or that the Virgin traveled or teleported from Jerusalem to Spain to meet and appear to St. James in today's Zaragoza? Or was it possible that Virigin stayed in Jerusalem in body and our Lady of the Pillar was a spiritual image in a parallel universe? I greatly appreciate your clarification so I can teach my children well.
Hello Jorge - We're not exactly sure; regardless of what particular method Our Lord chose, it was a miraculous appearance.
Felix says
Nov 25 2018 9:03PM
Gretchen, I believe this is a very strong tradition that needs to be respected; however, it is based on very little historical facts and more on legend. The first mention of St. James in Compostela comes in the IX century and that of La Virgen del Pilar in the XIII century. The Catholic Encyclopedia has also documented a number of "difficulties" with this legend, but mentions that the strong tradition needs to be respected. For a number of historical reasons, and because of the fervent believes in the Virgin Mary and Christianity by the people of Hispania, both legends became ingrained in the traditions of Hispania (as Spain was known in Roman and Medieval Christian times). Keep in mind that since Jerusalem was under Muslim rule in the IX century, the possibilities of having pilgrimages to another location became a very important spiritual journey pilgrims could undertake. It became so important as a popular pilgrimage in medieval times, that the Knights Templar would protect pilgrims going through the Way of Santiago (Camino de Santiago). For that reason, we should respect the tradition, but have to be very careful when making absolute statements about this being the first Marian Apparition. That said, I wholeheartedly agree that we should celebrate this feast-day in remembrance of the many miraculous apparitions by the Virgin Mary.
Angel Chua says
Sep 22 2018 8:04AM
All of my 3 males & 1 female children, were baptized with the lady name "MARY". She really intercedes in times of troubles, health problems. My eldest son since birth was diagnosed with hernia & will be operated on after 1 year old. On March 7, 1994 he was 5 months old when we had him baptized. Following day, March 8 we took a boat for Davao City. March 9 the boat dropped by Zamboanga City , the birth place of my mother. We ,my wife and my brother visited the shrine de Nuestra Señora del Pilar (Fort Pilar). I cradled my son on my left hand. With my right hand I touched the altar & silently prayed for healing then touched his ailing body part. March 11, in Davao , my sister noticed the ailment because it was abnormally big. Told me to see a doctor. On MARCH 12, the 3rd day after the visit to the shrine, the ailment is GONE. Our grandparents are from Paso Nangka, Zamboanga City and they all served in the shrine all day selling candles for the devotees. To this days the grandchildren of tiya Antay are candle vendors. Humility is the foremost criteria if we wish to serve God & to be blessed .

Angel S. Chua
I found it extremely interesting about our Lady of the Pilar. We had a Marian Conference. But I didn't really understand the speaker.
Wiyanga lugalia says
Jan 20 2018 2:28AM
Am very much inspired by above testimonials. How I wish to have the son of our blessed Lady of the pillar to enable me one day to visit. All in all her son says 'your faith has healed you' I place my request to her to have find peace and financial break through through her intercession. Amen to our blessed lady of the pillar. From Kenya
Tolits says
Dec 23 2017 2:40PM
We visited the Nuestra Señora del Pilar Basilica in May 2016 as part of pilgrim tour. It's a magnificent church, and both me and my spouse had a chance to have mass at the church. The place is solemn and peaceful. There is also a section of the church (capilla) that shows the different treasures offered to our Lady, with the names of who left these offerings, most notable are several Spanish monarchs, European monarchs, Popes and contemporary world figures. These are precious metals, stones and rare items from all over the world gathered throughout the centuries. It's worth the small donation/admission fee! Nuestra Señora del Pilar, ora pro nobis!
Richard says
Nov 6 2017 10:41PM
I'm looking for sources and not perpetuation of some legend of this apparition. This article makes historical claims but I see no citation or reference to any source, credible or not. Can you provide any?

Please and thank you.
jong ricafort says
Oct 29 2017 10:29PM
thanks for your article, i was amaze by the story of Our Lady of the Pillar, I didn.t know it was the first Marian Apparitions plus I got to know St. James the Greater plus his mother Salome was called one of the 3 Mary's at the foot of the cross.God Bless!
Okereke Gregory Uchechukwu says
Oct 13 2017 3:29AM
I have not visited but I thought I would love to have this chance of being a pilgrim on those holy sites
Juan says
Jun 10 2017 4:42PM
It is also interesting to note that Our Lady came to Saragosse on the 2nd January of the year 40.

And taht the last remaining of the muslims in Spain, the kingdon of Granada, was re-conquered by Christian Spaniards on the same date: 2nd January 1492.

I mean, the two most significant moments of Spanish history are related to Our Lady of the Pillar: the one I have just mentioned and Colombus' arrival to America, on Our Lady's holiday of that same year.
Alessandro Acosta says
Dec 9 2016 5:16PM
Please don't take this wrong. I simply wanted to bring up the issue that some students of history, language and culture do not have Columbus as Italian or from Genova. Rather they believe he was Catalan. They bring this up with several arguments having to do with his hand writing style, education, language, expressions and manners which support him being an educated man from childhood from the area of Barcelona. Having an Iberian (hispanic) as the carrier of the name of Mary to the Americas is more in keeping with Divine plan.
Dianita says
Oct 8 2016 8:04PM
I was there in 2013 for my honeymoon and plan to go this month to ask for a special miracle. Could you email so I can share and ask for prayer?
Hi Dianita, on the top and bottom of this post are social share icons, click on the one with an envelope to email this blog post to anyone you wish.
M. Byrne says
Oct 4 2016 6:37PM
"St James the Greater, on the last leg of his apostolic journey (40 years after Jesus ascended into heaven), preached in the Iberian Peninsula in modern-day Spain."

If the apparition occurred in 40 AD, it cannot have been 40 years after Jesus ascended into heaven. It would have been 40 years after the birth of Jesus.
Thanks for catching that! It has been corrected. :)
Donald green lim says
Mar 14 2016 8:45PM
It is indeed true.amen.... Here in my hometown, zamboanga city,philippines, was colonized by the spaniards for so long. Our patron saint is Nuestra Seniora Virgen del Pilar. It was told generations from generations that Nuestra Seniora appeared and woke up one spanish soldier because the muslim tribes were on their way for attack. There were also several apparitions occured that only muslim people experienced themselves.even i have witnessed that the barracks left stable and intact when the seige happened last year and the bombings sevral years had passed. The spanish barracks before is now our shrine and would light some candles for her guidance and help. Even the descendants of the muslim families who witnessed her miraculous appritions also light candles there. She is also the One made the people here united whether you are a muslim or christian. Hail Holy Queen!!!!
Carlos Gallardo says
Oct 12 2015 11:11PM
I was stationed at Zaragoza air base from 1982-1985. My wife and I had our oldest child baptized in the cathedral. Our second daughters name is Pilar in her honor. The facts described above are accurate. Thank you.
Judy Folden says
Oct 12 2015 10:27PM
I visited Our Lady of Pilar last June while on pilgrimage. I so enjoyed learning the history and story of Mary's apparition. I was able to venerate the pillar. Our group celebrated Mass in the chapel of St. Anthony within the Basilica. Seeing the bombs that had been dropped on the basilica but did not detonate was an amazing witness of the protection given by our Blessed Mother.

It was a wonderful trip. We also visited Santiago de Compostella and the tomb of St. James. It is so amazing to have seen those holy places.

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Gretchen Filz Gretchen Filz

Gretchen is a Lay Dominican with a passion for fostering an increase in Catholic faith and devotion through content writing and journalism. She works as a digital content writer, creator, and marketer for The Catholic Company. In addition to blogging at GetFed.com, she is also editor of the MorningOffering.com daily devotional email and author at GoodCatholic.com. She holds an M.A. in Christian Apologetics and converted to the Catholic Church in 2011. She is also active in R.C.I.A., pro-life work, and various faith-based web projects.

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