The Virgin Mary as Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia (Our Lady of Highest Grace) is the patron saint of the Dominican Republic. She is the icon of the Dominican people.
Her feast is celebrated on January 21 with a pilgrimage to the Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia where the image is kept in Salvaleón, Higüey, Dominican Republic.
Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia
The spiritual mother of Dominican Catholics is a small painting of the Virgin mother and child in a nativity scene. You can recognize her by the white scapular (devotional cloak) covering her chest. The eight-pointed star represents the Star of Bethlehem. The twelve stars around the Virgin’s head represent the twelve apostles.
The Story of Our Lady of Highest Grace
Her story is often richly embellished, but basically a Dominican child asked her merchant father for an image she dreamed of. He couldn’t find the image and while complaining about it, an old wanderer pulled an image from a bag, gave it to him and disappeared.
The merchant’s daughter claimed that it was the exact image of her dream. But the image kept disappearing from the girl’s room and was found each time under an orange tree. The cathedral was built on the spot. Oranges originate in Asia, but came to the Americas from Spain. Spaniards planted them so their sailors could avoid scurvy by eating the fruit. Anyway, that is why people offer the image oranges.
The Feast and Pilgrimage
Her feast was originally in August, but was moved to January 21 to commemorate a victory over French forces in the Battle of Sabana Real in 1691. The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti which was founded from the horrific French sugar colony Saint Domingue (1659-1804). There is still tension between Dominicans and Haitians, although we think it’s better pointed at the French, Spanish and British colonizers who divided the island and the people on it. It’s not the people’s fault.
Today there is a pilgrimage of almost a million people to the cathedral every year starting on the eve of January 21st.
Dominicans in New York City are in diaspora. That makes devotion to the old country and traditions even more intense. This feast marks the start of Dominican Heritage Month in New York City (January 21 – February 20).
Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia represents the spirit of the Dominican Republic.