A Forgotten Nook
At San Juan de Ulua

Our Lady of the Staircase
And Other Mysteries about
The Forgotten Saints who Protected the Early Sailors

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

Weekend Visits to San Juan de Ulua and New Mysteries
On Sundays, I enjoy visiting the old Fort of San Juan de Ulua because the admission is free. Sometimes I take some friends along to explore the nooks and crannies of this undeveloped 400 year old fort that dates from around the 1550´s. You never know what you will find.

Awhile back, I was contacted by Carmen Boone Canovas, an independent historian who lives in Mexico City. She was preparing a presentation on some different aspects of life in old Veracruz and wanted to see it for herself. I had the time, so I spent a fascinating week showing her around the Veracruz that I know, and listening to her stories.

She has dedicated her professional life to documenting many of the people, places, and things in Mexico, and she brought a lot of new information with her and shared it with me.

1. The Mysterious Chapel at San Juan de Ulua

Carmen Boone at San Juan de Ulua
People Were Different in those Days
During our discussions, I found that in the 1500's and 1600's, people were a lot more religious than they are today.

Perhaps because of the primitive navigation systems and unpredictible weather forecasting, to be a sailor must have been a risky and fearful business, even without the threat of pirates eager to grab the treasures carried aboard their sometimes inadequately protected ships.

People in those days had to depend on faith in a higher power to keep them going during difficult times.

Perhaps because of local politics or technical developments in the 20th century or the fact that it was no longer necessary to have so much faith, these religious symbols are no longer in use today, and are now forgotten by most of the local people.

This is the story of how I discovered the forgotten "Virgen de la Escalera", and the "Virgen de la Vera Cruz", which uncover some new mysteries about old Veracruz and provides a glimpse of the way that people once lived.

The Layout with the Tower
A Quiet Forgotten Nook
Walking through the old fort of San Juan de Ulua, sometimes I wonder what life must have been like during those early years for the people who lived and worked here.

On the southwest side of the fort, next to what was probably the gateway for the common crew members of the Spanish galleons, is a structure that looks like an old chapel.

In spite of the passing of the years and political changes that have attempted to erase the presence of formal spirituality, it is not easy to change the basic structural architecture of an old chapel into something else. It still looks like a chapel.
Location of the Chapel
A Little Shrine
On my weekend explorations of the fort, I had always been intrigued by this little nook tucked away in a forgotten corner.

Maybe it had been a little shrine.

In this quiet nook, where few tourists venture, you can see a staircase, and underneath it is perhaps what looks like a structure that might have been designed as a little chapel a long time ago.

It is closed to the public, and there are no signs or explanations of what it was, so you have to guess why it may have been built there.

One day, I was looking at a diagram of the fort and found where it was located.
An Obscure Staircase
Our Lady of the Staircase
You can sense that this was once a place of strong devotion, because the people still come here to look inside. Somehow, they sense something special is inside.

It's easy to realize that many lifetimes have passed through the same area where we are walking.

For four centuries, there was always urgent business at hand along these same walkways and staircases.

On later visits to the fort, I was told that the little chapel was dedicated to "Our Lady of the Staircase", but nobody was really sure. Now the origins have been forgotten.

Not much is remembered about devotion to this appearance of the Virgin Mary by the early Spanish mariners.

I wasn't sure the name was correct, and asked some of the tour guides if they knew more about it, but they weren't able to tell me much. It had all been forgotten and was now left out of the history books.
The Mysterious Shrine
Property of the Navy
An interesting fact is that I was told that the whole corner of the building is property of the Navy because it is still the official benchmark for ocean going navigation for the port of Veracruz.

At the top of the stairway, is a doorway and inside the room, some of the old artillery shells and mobile cannons used by the Navy are on display.

Later, independent historian Carmen Boone Canovas sent me some new information from a book that is now out of print.
People Looking at the Font
The Miraculous Image
It seems that originally there was a statue to the "Concepción of Our Lady", also called "Nuestra Señora de La Escalera", or the "Our Lady of Stairway".

In the very early days, the Blessed Virgin protected not only the Castle of San Juan de Ulua, but the surrounding Bay, and as well as the local population of Veracruz who lived on the mainland.

Her statue was located at the very top of the tower on the southwest corner of the fort where she had full view of the city and all the ships arriving and anchored in Veracruz Bay.

From her high place on the tower, she greeted the annual fleets of treasure ships that arrived and departed for Spain.

It is said that when they arrived, her statue was brought down the stairs in a solemn procession for each member of the crew to greet and give personal thanks to for their safe arrival.
Entrance to the Chapel and Nook for a Statue
Miracles of the Virgin of San Juan de Ulua
In the year 1600, the fort of San Juan de Ulua became the official repository for all the treasures of the Spanish Empire from the Philippines, South America, and Mexico, and Antigua, Veracruz was pretty much abandoned.

It was here that the treasure was stored and loaded to await the departure of the Royal Annual Gold Fleets each year.

The book said that when the fleet of 1652 left Veracruz for Cuba and then to Spain, they fired a salvo in honor of the statue asking for a successful trip back to Europe.

Normally it was a 24 to 30 day trip to Havana, but this time they were delayed by a side trip to Apalache, which today is the Apalachicola Peninsula in the Florida Panhandle.

This time it was fortunate that they got lost.
The Mysterious Font
Safe Passage
Unknown to the sailors, the pirate Cornelio Blas and his powerful armada had been waiting for the gold fleet at the mouth of the Morro just outside the harbor at Havana.

Because of the delay in the arrival of the fleet, Blas gave up and sailed away, thus saving the poorly armed Spanish fleet.

The same thing happened in the year 1668 when the fleet took 52 days to make the trip from Veracruz to Havana.

These events were considered to be the Providence of God, and perhaps thanks to the intervention of the Holy Mother the Fleet was delayed.

A Pirate Raid on Veracruz
In the year 1683, there was a devastating pirate raid on the little town of Veracruz.

Dutch pirates Laurenz de Graaf, also known as "Lorencillo", and Nicolas Agramont from their base in the Laguna de Terminos, near the present day town of Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche, had assembled a force of 900 cut-throats that fell upon the defenseless town of Veracruz like rabid dogs.

Many people were killed as the pirates completely sacked the town.
The Tower in the Distance
The Birth of the Song "La Bamba"
This devastating event shook the confidence of the whole Spanish Empire, and most of the Spaniards wanted to go back home to the mother country of Spain.

Later the King authorized a series of walls to be built around the main Spanish sea ports such as Veracruz to protect them against pirate raids.

Later in Veracruz, a popular song began to circulate through the streets of the small town. It was called "La Bamba".

More about the Pirate Raid and "La Bamba" here:

For many people in those days, this pirate raid was seen as punishment for the recent growth of ways of the people that were offensive in the eyes of God.

The town of Veracruz had lost it's protection of the Blessed Virgin.
The Tower Walk
The Fort was Protected
Others observed that although the fort was not extensively enough armed to defend itself from a massive pirate force like that of Lorencillo's attack, San Juan de Ulua was left unscathed.

Somehow, it had remained protected perhaps by the Divine Guidance of the statue of "La Escalera", and her special chapel.

Over centuries the sacred statue has been lost and the former chapel has been converted to other uses, and even it has been forgotten by most people.
The Majestic Tower
Also called The Caballero Alto
El Caballero Alto
For many centuries, the sailors needed to feel protected from the dangers on the long voyages to America.

The Caballero Alto must have been the highest vantage point in the port of Veracruz.

It was probably the first thing sighted by the sailors of so long ago.

You can see where the statue of Our Lady of the Staircase watched the ships leaving and returning to Veracruz.
The Majestic Tower,
Also called The Caballero Alto
The Mystery of the Lost Shrine Continues
Later I recieved this note from Carmen Boone:

"At present, least known and scarce tourist guide for Victorian Gringos: Campbell’s New Revised Complete Guide and Descriptive Book of Mexico, by Reau Campbell. Sonora News Co., 1909. Pp. 260-261 briefly refers to the city port of Veracruz.

Campbell goes on: “On the island of San Juan de Ulúa is a little chapel dedicated to NUESTRA SEÑORA DE LA ESCALERA, in which offerings are made [in 1909] for the safety of sailors.”"

It's interesting that nobody in today’s Veracruz has ever heard of the patroness of her sailors!

I'm eager to go back down to Veracruz and find out all about Her.

Maybe we can can find out more about what happened to the long lost devotion of veracruzanos military and sailors in/out Veracruz!

Somehow, this new information makes the search for information about the lost chapel more interesting.

Maybe one day, more information will emerge.

Nuestra Señora de la Escalera
in Nasugbu, Philippines
The Mystery Continues
The other day, I received this letter about the mystery of the Virgen de la Escalera. Could she have been moved to the Philippines?

Dear John,
Upon researching online about my parish patron's origins, I came upon an article you published awhile back.

It concerns a missing image/statue of Nuestra Senora de la Escalera.

You also mentioned links to the galleon trade between that fort and the Philippines.

It is common knowledge that the Philippines was for a long time a part of Mexico.

Many of our saints are the same ones revered in Spain and Latin America.
Nuestra Señora de la Escalera
in Nasugbu, Philippines
Origins in Veracruz, Mexico?
My question is, being that you are a historian/expert, could it be possible that the centuries old image/statue that my parish owns of the Nuestra Señora Virgen de la Escalera originated from Veracruz/Mexico?

The parish itself is unsure of the origins of the statue.

Some say it appeared on the stairs of the landowner hence its name?

That to me is quite uncertain. Was there a Jesuit connection because our parish was owned originally by Jesuit friars in the Philippines.

Our primary patron saint of the parish is Saint Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary.

La Nuestra Senora de la Escalera is only our secondary patroness.
Nuestra Senora de la Paz y Buen Viaje
in Nasugbu, Philippines
Could there also be a connection between the statue and the fact that the Roxas/Zobel family from Spain up to this day are the major plantation owners in Nasugbu, Batangas, Philippines?

The image/statue supposedly came from their family over a century ago.

Could they have brought the statue from Mexico via the galleon trade?

Their plantation is sugar cane and they are among the largest sugar cane refiners in the Philippines. Was sugar traded with Mexico?

Did their family have a connection with the galleon trade? There are so many irregularities about the origin of our parish church's statue.

Maybe you can shed some light into it. Do you happen to have any sources of what the virgin's statue may have appeared.
Procession of the People
in Nasugbu, Philippines

The Mystery Continues
That´s the mystery.

Could this statue now in the Philippines be from the forgotten chapel of San Juan de Ulua in Veracruz?

If you know anything else, let me know.

My thanks to Dr. Miguel Viernes of Nasugbu, Batangas, Philippines for his nice letter and the wonderful photos!
The Arrival of the Railroads
To the Port of Veracruz
A Possible Connection
When I was looking into the establishment of the railroads, I came across the name of Ramón Zangróniz, the tireless promotor of the Interoceanic Railroad that was to eventually go from Veracruz, to Xalapa, Puebla, Cuernaca, and Acapulco.

He wanted to connect Veracruz which was the window to Europe, to the Far East, and the next stop would have been the Philippines.

At the same time, I began to research some of the history of the Philippines and was amazed to come across the name of Jacobo Zobel Zangróniz, the founder of the first streetcar system in Manila. It consisted of 4 mule drawn streetcars.

So, I am still wondering if this might be the connection I am looking for?
From Terry´s Guide to Mexico
Dated 1909
Establishing a Date
I enjoy reading old guide books about Veracruz in the old days, and one day, Carmen Boone told me:

"I have something you might be interested in.It´s from a now rare book called, "Terry´s Guide to Mexico" printed in 1909."

Terry mentions the chapel of Our Lady of the Staircase:

"...lighthouse, and a military prison (presidio mayor) contains also a chapel dedicated to Nuestra Señora de la Escalera (Our Lady of the Stair), in which offerings were formerly made to ensure a safe return from sea voyages..."

At the same time, the paragraph only mentions the chapel and not the statue of the Virgen de la Escalera. It could have disappeared before then.

This is becoming an interesting story, and I have no idea where it will lead. If you have any information, please send me an email.

Another Piece in the Puzzle
Later Dr. Viernes sent me this additional piece of information about his church in the Philippines:

"Our old Spanish bell which hangs in the belfry reads, "A la Santissima Madre de Dios, La Purissima Virgen de Escalera Ano 1864" and it has the name of the bishop who consecrated it from Spain."

"It bears the royal coat of arms of the Spanish king. But the church is older than the year 1864. This bell requires a crane to lift because it is over 4 feet tall and weighs more than one ton. So this means that the Virgen we have has to be a copy because the original was still in Veracruz in 1899."

Another Virgen who Blesses the Ships

La Virgen del Rosario
Another Virgen who Blesses the Ships
Yet, the mystery continues.

Another historian friend sent me this engraving of the Virgen Nuestra Señora del Buen Viaje. She said it was an Indulgence from Puebla dated 1761 and that this Virgen was revered by the Dominican Order.

Could this be the same as the Virgen de la Escalera?

Later someone told me it´s an adaptation of the Virgen del Rosario. The hand that holds the galleon normally is down, and holds a rosary.

A Stone in Cadiz
Lately, I´ve been working with some people from Cadiz, Spain, and they´ve told me that the Virgen del Rosario is in the Church of Santo Domingo, and that in front of the church there is a stone where sailors leave flowers before embarking on their voyages.

They´ve told me that this tradition goes back to the times of annual gold and silver fleets that left for America.

Another interesting thing is that the stone is next to an "escalera", or staircase.

I would really like to see the stone because this is where where it all started. From Cadiz to Veracruz and to the Philippines. That´s half way around the world!

Maybe one day I can to go to Cadiz to see it for myself! It´s on my wish list!

2. A Church that Began with a Child's Portrait

Towards La Iglesia de la Pastora
Another Story:
Here's another story. I don't know if it's connected with the Virgen de la Escalera.

The Small Portrait by a Little Child
The article continues on that in later years, a child was given a little picture of the Divina Pastora, or the Divine Shepherdess.

In the background of the image, there were several sheep that She was caring for.

The child made a little frame for his small picture, and asked other children of the same age to take it out into the streets where they formed their own little procession to say the rosary.

At the insistence of the little child, his father helped him to make a larger image of the Divina Pastora for the older people who were attending the procession in greater numbers.

Later it is said that they built a beautiful chapel to venerate in her honor.
Passing La Iglesia de la Pastora
La Iglesia de la Pastora
In Veracruz, there are a lot of forgotten mysteries that today apparently have no explanation.

When I heard about the tunnels in old Veracruz, and was doing some research on the old maps, I remembered La Iglesia de La Pastora on a side street in Veracruz.

On the old maps that still showed the protected wall, right next to the Puerta Mexico, or the Gate to Mexico City, was a small church called "La Pastora".

I wondered if this might be the little church from the story about the little boy.

I didn't think so since the date engraved on the church was 1879, but then that was the date of the last remodeling job. The church itself probably goes back to the times when the wall was built after the pirate raid of 1683.

The Search for la Iglesia de La Pastora
So, I decided the next time I was in the downtown area, I think I'd drive over to the Iglesia de la Pastora.
La Iglesia de la Pastora

Maybe the people if they know anything about the origins of the church.

I drove by on a quiet Sunday, and almost missed it.

Until I looked up, and saw the bell tower and the large dome behind it.

If you are driving in traffic you won't notice the Iglesia de la Pastora nestled in among the small homes and businesses and will probably drive right by it and never see it.

It doesn't take us much frontal space on the street.

I parked my car up the street and walked back to the church.

When I got there, I found the Sunday service was in progress, and it would be bad manners to go inside and start taking pictures.

So, for the moment, I took these photos outside the church.
The Date
Late 19th Century Facade
The exterior architecture looked much like the square columns popular in the late 19th Century.

In looking at the old maps of Veracruz, especially those just after the protective wall was built after the pirate raid of Lorencillo, I found that this area corresponded the area next door to the "Puerta Mexico", or the Gate to Mexico City.

The Puerta Mexico was located at the corner of the present Montesinos and Cinco de Mayo.

So, the date of 1887 on the church refers to the latest job it was remodeled, and not the original construction date.
The Empty Niche
The Empty Niche
Next when you take a closer look at the facade, it looks like something is missing.

Normally, the niche in front has a statue of a particular saint, and in the case of the Divina Pastora, one would expect a statue of the Virgen de la Pastora.

But, all you see is an empty niche.

At the same time, I wondered what the Virgen of the Pastora must have looked like.
La Divina Pastora
The Virgin as a Shepherdess
Several weeks later, Carmen Boone once again came to the rescue and sent me this information and this image from this Wikipedia Article about the Divina Pastora.

It appears to be a later version of the same conceptual image of the Virgen as being the Good Shepherd.

The next time I am in downtown Veracruz, I want to go back to the Church of the Divina Pastora and find out more about the origins of this church.

Maybe someone remembers what was in the empty niche.It may have been a scene that looks like this picture.

It's still another loose end in some of the many forgotten mysteries of Veracruz.

3. Our Lady of Vera Cruz

Another Lost Religious Symbol
Ever hear of the "Virgen de Vera Cruz?", Carmen asked me one day. I never did.

The other day, Carmen Boone came across another story that has been lost. It's about another saint who protected the sailors who came to Veracruz in the early years.

La Virgen de la Vera Cruz
The Next Mystery
The inconclusive mysteries had ended and there was no more mention of the statue of Our Lady of the Escalera, or the Divina Pastora.

Then one day, Carmen Boone Canovas, my historian friend, asked me if I´d ever heard of the "Santisima Virgen de la Vera Cruz?"

"No, can you tell me more?", I asked.

"I don´t know anything other than this old engraving from the 16th century".

So, she gave me this copy of the portrait of Our Lady of Vera Cruz.

Later I asked other historian friends about the picture, and showed it to them, but nobody had ever heard of it.

The mystery is so interesting, I'll share it with you.
The Legend
The print at the bottom of the page is hard to read, but this is what it says(thanks to Carmen Boone):

"Verdadero Retratode la milagrosa Virgen de la vera cruz, honrada en esta Nueba Ciudad por la ruina de la Antigua, en este nuebo puerto que es uno de los mayores de la provincia de tlaxcala se Cuentan muchos milagros de todos aquellos que con fe se encomiendan a Su intercesión ."

If you know anything about La Virgen de la Vera Cruz, please send me an email.

Note from Carmen Boone about La Virgen de la Veracruz
"The engraving is reproduced with the note that it corresponds to the latter part of the 18th-century. (I'm no expert in dating engraving techniques, so won't argue. It still could be an 18th-century copy of an earlier print).

However, the text speaks of the first half of the 17th-century. That was when the final location of the city of Veracruz (present site) was referred to as Nueva Vera Cruz, or Vera Cruz Nueva, the former settlement by the river had fallen to ruin, and it's name had become "La Antigua" since then.

The text also tells that this Virgen de la Vera Cruz had been transferred from the old city to the new "Provincia de of Tlaxcala" refers to the Bishopric which had jurisdiction over the central areas of today's Estado de Veracruz until the mid-18th century, when the diocesan territories were reorganized and this region fell under Puebla's. "

Some Tacos Hit the Spot
Time to Go
Veracruz has some really good restaurants, and by now I was beginning to get a little hungry. Some tacos al carbon might be good, and I knew just the right place where some friends hang out who know more about history than I do.

Over lunch, we talked about these discoveries, as well as the Virgin of the Staircase from the 16th Century, and the Virgen de la Vera Cruz and how they might be related.

We talked about walking over to the Church of the Pastora to ask the people if they might know about any connection or help us decipher the legend at the bottom of the portrait.

Perhaps we have just scratched the surface on several interesting stories, or maybe they could all be part of the same one. I was looking forward to continuing to search for the truth behind these forgotten mysteries.

After mangos for dessert, I realized it had been a full morning, and it was time to go home and take a siesta. My explorations would have to wait awhile longer.

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