1 February 2020

Las Lajas Sanctuary: The South American Church that Looks Like a European Castle

If you take the immediate exterior of the Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia it doesn’t look too much like an atypical South American Catholic church. Yet it retains many of their qualities: it is ornate, richly elaborate and, to many eyes, beautiful.  Just another minor basilica church in a country dotted with them, you might think.  Yet take a few steps back from the door of the church and look down. You are in for a surprise.

As surprise, of course, if you have never seen Las Lajas before – yet even for those who have seen it a thousand times this sight must stagger the senses on each occasion.  Standing on a stone slab in the middle of the Guáitara river canyon, the height from tower to base is over 100 meters. Even the bridge which connects the church to the other side of the canyon is over 50 meters in length. It looks like some fairy-tale European castle transplanted a continent or two.

This amazing church is, perplexingly, ignored by many tourists - in a rush no doubt to get to nearby Ecuador. Yet why build a church over such a precipitous level?  You could be forgiven for thinking that it was built there as a form of defense but you would be mistaken.  There is a legend surrounding the area and it goes back to 1754.

An Amerindian woman and her daughter were caught in a sudden, violent storm.  They could not cry for help, such was the noise generated by the elements. The daughter had never been able to hear or to speak so for her, at least, that would not have been an option on even the sunniest of days.

Image Credit Flickr User David Hold London
The pair took what refuge they could in the gorge and there they discerned a force within them, urging them to look upwards. This they did and saw, in wonder, the Virgin Mary appear to them on the rocks above.  Immediately the daughter gained the ability to speak and hear – the affliction with which she was born cured.

If you are not of a religious nature you might put down this apparition as something akin to a Brocken specter but wait, there’s more.  The news of this miracle spread around the valleys and an old blind man was inspired to travel from village to village to collect money with which to build a chapel at the point where the Virgin Mary had appeared.

Needless to say when he had collected enough money you don’t have to guess what happened to his eyesight.  A chapel was duly built in the late eighteenth century.  In the early twentieth it was decided that funds should be raised in order to erect a much larger monument in which the increasing numbers of pilgrims could pray.

The construction of such a huge structure cost a fortune and took decades.  Work was started in 1916 and was building was completed in 1949.  Its gothic revival style looks as if it could have been built centuries before but it is somewhat surprising to consider that the church as it is now is only just over sixty years old.

As you can imagine the church is incredibly popular with the local people. Yet many tourists miss it altogether, using the immediate town of Ipiales as nothing more than a point at which they can enter nearby Ecuador. It reminds me of something that Bentham once said: stretching his hand out to catch the stars, he forgets the flowers at his feet.

Image Credit Flickr User onourownpath
Image Credit Flickr User Houston Marsh

First Image Credit Flickr User Sarah and Ian