Wardrobe of well-loved, and well-dressed, statue on display in museum

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

SANTA FE, N.M. (CNS) — A 384-year-old local tradition of reverence and devotion to a 30-inch wooden statue of Mary has crossed over into New Mexico?s museum culture with the opening of ?Threads of Devotion: The Wardrobe of La Conquistadora,? displaying a sample of the hundreds of garments in the statue?s wardrobe.

The exhibit at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art will run through Dec. 31, offering a rare chance to see costumes, jewelry and crowns bestowed upon the statue. The image has been revered by the people of Santa Fe since it arrived in 1626, on a wagon train from Mexico with Franciscan friar Alonso de Benavides, the new custodian of the region?s Spanish missions.

The extensive collection of gowns, capes and other garments has been forming since soon after the statue came to Santa Fe. Church records from 1686 reflect an inventory of dresses made of silk and satin, some with trim of gold coins, as well as strings of pearls, gold and silver earrings and a filigree cross, noted the program from the Sept. 10 opening of the exhibit.

The care of the costumes and how they are used is managed by Terry Garcia, a member of the Cofriada of La Conquistadora, a confraternity devoted to the care of the statue, among other roles supporting the local church. Garcia has been sacristan for the statue and the collection for five years.

The day after the museum opening, Garcia was locking away a cross encrusted with diamonds, sapphires and pearls, which would be used the next day for the procession of the statue around the historic center of town during Santa Fe?s annual fiesta.

?It?s hard for some people to understand it,? Garcia acknowledged. ?But the devotion and love for the mother of God is what has captured my heart.?

Her job as sacristan includes periodically changing how the statue is dressed, caring for the garments and accessories and working with people who wish to donate an item to help in its creation and ensure it?s appropriate.

?There is always a devotion attached to the gift,? she said, ?whether it?s a plea for intervention with an illness or with discerning a vocation, or to keep someone safe.?

The fabrics and styles used vary widely. Those on display at the museum include elaborately brocaded silks, Navajo woven wool and ermine, made from the skins from animals captured by villagers of Holy Cross, Alaska. One blue gown donated by a Santa Fe parish was constructed of fabrics from a deacon?s stole and an altar cloth.

Another garment was fashioned from a ceremonial cape worn by Santa Fe?s first bishop and archbishop, Jean Baptiste Lamy, in the mid-19th century. Yet another in simple khaki was made from a military uniform donated by Franciscan Father Angelico Chavez, who served as a chaplain during World War II and the Korean War. Father Chavez later became archivist for the Santa Fe Archdiocese and wrote a book telling the statue?s history as an autobiography.

Many are the offering of individuals or a family, like the first gown that Garcia helped see to completion.

That outfit in royal blue was contributed by a family whose son was suffering from colon cancer. After helping the family pick out the fabric with an eye toward something suitable for Advent, Garcia invited them when the day came for La Conquistadora to wear it.

?We always pray before we start,? she explained. ?The son stood in front of the statue and prayed quietly at first and then out loud, asking for peace.?

Garcia said she thought the young man immediately seemed more relaxed. ?He passed away about a year later, but I?m convinced he was at peace because he trusted Our Lady.?

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