The Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles, the Church of Our Lady of the Angels, a few hundred meters east of the city center, remains the religious heart of Costa Rica. It is the home of the country’s holiest relic, La Negrita, or the “Little Negress.” The blue-white Byzantine church with its cupola is famous throughout the country, not only for its architecture but also for its impressive interior. The basilica is decorated with intricate wood carving, leaded-glass windows and painted flower motifs that cover its walls and columns. Hundreds of votive candles flicker, sending up wisps of smoke, and incense wafts through the immense interior, making a visit to the Basilica a special experience. Every year on August 2 thousands of worshipers from all over Costa Rica and neighboring countries gather at the basilica for a procession, sometimes lasting days, in honor of the Negrita of Cartago. On the saint’s feast day many believers crawl the last kilometer to the church on their knees, fervently praying all the way. The object of so much piety is the 15-centimeterhigh black statuette that sits on a jeweled throne of gold above the main altar.
The reason for the continued popularity of La Negrita is buried in legend. According to legend, in 1634 a young mulatto woman named Juana Pereira found a small stone statue of the Virgin with the infant Jesus in her arms. She took the statue home and placed it in a box. Then the miracle occurred: the statue mysteriously returned to the place where it had been found. This happened twice. Church elders were consulted and concluded that the Virgin Mary wanted a church to be built on the spot where the statue was found, and so the cathedral was built a short time later. When it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1926, the basilica in the Neo-Byzantine style of the 19th century replaced it. Reportedly, the Virgin reappeared in 1950, which the faithful took to be a sign of her gratitude for the new church.
If you follow the steps behind the gilded altar down into the Cripta de Piedra, you can observe firsthand the stone upon which Juana Pereira is believed to have found the miracle-working statue. In an adjacent room are the offerings from petitioners whose prayers have been answered and promises fulfilled, giving silent testimony to the miracles worked by the statue. Countless people have left symbols of miraculous cures worked by the Negrita on various parts of their bodies. The room even contains sports trophies for games and tournaments won with the help of the Negrita.
A small spring near the basilica is said to have healing powers. The miracleworking water, bottled and blessed, is on sale, along with other devotional items, in the small shop across the street.
The basilica does not, however, symbolize Cartago. That honor goes to the ruins of the large church known as La Parroquia.
The residents of Cartago dedicated the church to the Apostle John the Baptist in 1575. Not long afterwards, it was destroyed by an earthquake. In 1910 it was rebuilt, only to be destroyed by yet another powerful earthquake. This was taken to be a sign not to try to rebuild the parish church again. That is why only the massive granite-block ruins of the church’s outer walls remain on the Plaza Central. The statue that stands in front of the ruin represents the “immortal” tenor, Manuel Salazar Zunigas, much beloved by Costa Rican opera fans.