Nuestra Señora de las Gracias de Torcoroma, Ocaña, Norte de Santander, Colombia
On this day in the highlands of northeastern Colombia, the people of Ocaña celebrate Our Lady of Graces, whose image appeared over 300 years ago beneath the bark of a tree. The earliest documentation of the story is in Floresta de la Santa iglesia catedral de la ciudad y provincia de Santa Marta, written by infantry lieutenant José Nicolás de la Rosa around 1739 and published in several editions in Spain, the first in 1742. Here's his version of the events.
"There lived in that city a mestizo, a man of good life, named Cristóbal Melo. This man maintained nearby a sugar mill and small farm, which he worked personally with a grown son … in 1709 he went, accompanied by his son, each with his ax, to look in the mountains for a log appropriate to carve into a mill trough; and climbing up the hill called Torcoroma, which is in sight of the city, he found one that seemed to meet his needs. They put their axes to it, and when it fell to earth, they measured it, and seeing that it wasn't large enough, left it and continued looking for another in those mountains. In this effort he passed an entire year, and the need for the trough increased as the time of cane processing neared, and not having found a tree that suited him he resolved to make do with the one he'd cut on Torcoroma. He returned there in 1710 in the company of his son, who would help him carve it. He cut it to its greatest length, and then told his son to take the bark off the top. He did this, and having lifted that rough bark, Cristóbal saw formed in low relief in the sapwood an image of Our Lady, in the form and dress of the Immaculate Conception … in the detached bark the same image was engraved where the other was embossed, and with great silence they brought both pieces to their mill, and from there to their house in the city, where they revered them until the following year, 1711, when the miracles worked by the Virgin of Melo (as she was still called) were publicized, and the vicar and curate Morinelli came, with the other clerics ..."
In a devotional history published in 1788 (Presbiter Gómez Farelo's "Historical relation of the apparition of Our Lady of the Conception in the mountain of Torcoroma in Ocaña") Melo sends two sons to look for a usable tree. Deep in the forest, they're drawn to one with a profusion of scented crimson blossoms out of season. They chop it down but, unable to work it from the cliff edge where it fell, come back later with their father and find the Virgin's image, which radiates light and fragrance.
As word of the find spread and miracles began to occur, the curate of Ocaña investigated and authorized private veneration. Around 1716 the bishop conducted his own favorable investigation, naming Pascuala Rodríguez, Melo's wife, as caretaker of the treasure and altar linens. He gave permission for a chapel at the apparition site, but when none materialized, he had the wooden image moved to the main church in Ocaña, where it still occupies a chapel in what is now St. Anne's Cathedral. Cristóbal Melo kept the mirror image of bark. When at last the chapel was built on Torcoroma, in 1882, the bark image moved there. The mountain sanctuary (left) is known for its "Agua de la Virgen," spring waters with curative powers.
The Virgin's title here was originally Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, is still a major celebration at the church of Our Lady of Torcoroma in Ocaña. But in 1906, Pope St. Pius X authorized a mass proper to "Our Lady of Graces of Torcoroma," her title ever since.
August 16, 1711 has traditionally been commemorated as the day when the Melos found the relief in the tree, although historians now agree, based on de la Rosa's narrative, that it was more likely the date when the image was enshrined in Ocaña. The tricentennial was celebrated in 2011.
Our Lady of Torcoroma is an acheiropoieta image, not made with hands — like the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe, but more deteriorated. Whether naturally or supernaturally created, such images have inspired awe and devotion in many places where they have appeared. In this case, the place being a forest and the object a piece of wood, the devotion also partakes of the deep human traditions of sacred groves and holy trees. Here, the red flowers suggest the sacred tree could have been a ceibo, cockspur coral tree, and for the tricentennial, a local artist carved a replica of the Virgin of Torcoroma on the stump of a hundred-year-old cockspur coral tree in a park in Ocaña.
Reverence for trees on Torcoroma has helped preserve species. In 2005, ornithologists discovered a population of the endangered recurve-billed bushbird in the remnant forest around the Torcoroma Holy Sanctuary, protected by the Church since the 1700s. The following year the Colombian conservation group ProAves bought 250 acres of adjacent land to establish the Torcoroma Bird Reserve.
In 1961, the first stone was laid of a basilica to honor Our Lady of Torcoroma, but lack of funds and opposition from historic and environmental preservationists have kept the project at bay.
The annual fiesta, which attracts pilgrims from a wide area, features masses, music, and a procession. During the tricentennial celebration August 16, 2011, there were also a shower of flowers and pontifical crowning of Our Lady's image.
Also commemorated this date: