Our Lady of Bethlehem
Our Lady of Bethlehem - Part I
Her Roots & Her Adventure in America

Taken from here [slightly adapted].

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Nuestra Señora de Belén San Carlos Borromeo Mission

Recently, this interesting letter came from a reader in California:

Quote:Is the statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem in the Carmel Mission connected to the devotion of Our Lady of Good Success? I read on your site that the original statue of Our Lady of Good Success was in Spain and that the devotion to that image spread quickly throughout Europe. I ask because the two statues look so similar.

As you probably know, the statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem was brought to Carmel by Fr. Serra to stop the Russian invasion that was threatening the Pacific Coast. Do you have any more information on that historic statue? It is difficult to find anything on this topic.

All the best to you and thank you for your wonderful site!


✠ ✠ ✠

The story of the beautiful statue of Nuestra Señora de Belén [Our Lady of Bethlehem] is one of the buried histories of our Catholic past. Like the Missions themselves that were abandoned and left to decay and then fortunately restored in the 19th century, historic facts like those related to this devotion should be resurrected and given a place of prominence in Catholic textbooks. It is to encourage this initiative that I write this article.

First let us look at the Portuguese roots of this devotion, and then follow Our Lady of Bethlehem’s journey to the Mission of Carmel in Upper California.

Portuguese Roots

The title Our Lady of Bethlehem honors Our Lady at the birth of Christ. The Marian calendar celebrates the feast the Virgin of Bethlehem at Christmas, the Nativity of Our Lord. This devotion became popular in the 15th century in Portugal and Spain during the Age of Discovery because of the Portuguese Chapel to the Virgin of Belén, or Virgin of Restelo, in the Belem Tower close to Lisbon, the point of departure for ships seeking the route to India.

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Virgin Belem, Belen Tower, Lisbon - A copy of the Chapel's statue was placed outside Belen Tower

In the Tower a small chapel was built by the Infante Don Henry the Navigator and dedicated to Our Lady of Bethlehem. The sailors would go to pray before the stone statue of Our Lady seated on a throne and holding the Christ Child on her lap before every voyage, asking her protection. On their return home, they would come back to thank her for saving them from harm. She was also invoked as Virgin of the Star, (Virgem da Estrela) as the Star of the East who guided the Magi to Christ, Our Lady of Help (Nossa Senhora da Ajuda), who gave her constant succor to the sailors at sea, and Our Lady of Good Success, because the sailors invoked her for successful voyages.

It also became a custom for captains of the ship to spend the night in prayer in her chapel before the day their ship departed. Vasco de Gama and all his men made their vigil at the shrine of Our Lady of Bethlehem before his successful voyage to the Indies in 1497. On his return a year later, his first visit was to Our Lady of Bethlehem to thank her for the good success. On March 8, 1500, the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral knelt before the statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem. She rewarded his journey with the discovery of Brazil.

In 1495 the chapel was given to the Order of St. Jerome and, in thanksgiving for the discovery of the Indies, King Don Manuel built a monumental church, the Monastery of Santa Maria de Belém. The statue was transferred to it, and the navigators and sailors continued to visit Our Lady of Bethlehem there before and after every voyage.

It was only natural that the devotion should spread throughout the New World. The Franciscans, always dedicated to the Nativity, accompanied the discoverers and were eager to honor Our Lady under this beautiful title. Churches, seminaries, schools and cities in Brazil and New Spain were named after her. Even in our country, we find the city of Belén, New Mexico, originally called Nuestra Señora de Belén when it was founded by a royal grant in 1741.

The oldest statue on the West Coast is the life-sized Our Lady of Bethlehem at Mission San Carlos Borromeo. How she came to reign at the Carmel Mission is part of the adventure of establishing the first missions in Upper California. Here is her story.

Why Spain found the California Missions

For a century and a half, Franciscan friars had been pleading with the Spanish Crown to send missionaries to the realm of California. Charles III wanted to do this, but funds were always short and there were more pressing affairs. In 1768, Spain’s furthest post north on the Pacific Coast was Santa Maria Mission, 300 miles south of the present Mexican-U.S. border.

Then the Schismatic Russian Empire began to growl and threaten. Rumors were spreading that Catherine the Great had decided to occupy Monterey, discovered by 1603 by Sebastian Vizcaíno and claimed for the Spain but never colonized. Faced with this threat, the King commissioned a remarkable man, Don José de Galvez, General Visitor of New Spain, to send an expedition to Upper California and secure Spain’s hold on that large 500-mile coastal stretch extending from the port of San Diego (33rd parallel) to the port of Monterey (37th parallel).

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José de Galvez, Visitor General of New Spain. Below, an authentic portrait of Junipero Serra, drawn in 1773

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From his headquarters in Santa Ana in Mexico, Galvez, a brilliant organizer, stern disciplinarian and pious Catholic, had the insight to summon another remarkable man who ultimately secured the success of the plan. That man was the Franciscan Friar Junipero Serra, a small man, 5'2", 56 years of age, and plagued by a chronic leg infection. This unlikely pair – the tall, rigorous military man and miniscule limping friar – have been called the last great conquistadores in the annals of Spain.

In the person of the General Visitor, Fr. Serra found a worthy collaborator; both had rigid determination and a genius for planning and adjustment. From their headquarters in Santa Ana in Baja California, they spent two months preparing for the journey, which they named the Sacred Expedition. The plan of Galvez was to establish garrisons at San Diego and Monterey. Fr. Serra would plant 10 missions under military protection, one every 50 miles, to convert and civilize the natives, starting with the ones at San Diego and Monterey.

Galvez was well aware that to conquer that hinterland, he needed the missionaries to convert the natives so that a new Catholic kingdom – a region half as large as Spain – would take root in the soil. For such an adventure, he also counted on the help of Heaven. At this point in our story, the statue of Nuestra Señora de Belén enters the picture.

In 1769, the Archbishop of Mexico City, Antonio de Lorenzana y Butrón, gave the 5’2” statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem to General Galvez to accompany that first expedition to Alta California.(1) Galvez entrusted this treasure to Fr. Serra, exacting from the friar the promise that she would be returned to him in Mexico City after the cross was planted in Monterey. From the start, she bore a double title, Our Lady of Bethlehem and also La Conquistadora, as the conqueror of the souls of the Indians of Upper California.

Two expeditions were planned, one by sea commanded by Don Gaspar de Portolá, governor of the Peninsula of California, and another by land, to which Fr. Serra attached himself, despite one of his legs being badly ulcerated. Galvez placed the expedition under the patronage of St. Joseph, promising to have a Mass sung in his honor on the 19th of every month in all the future missions. Into the helm of the San Antonio, one of three ships to depart for San Diego Bay, the bells, altars, and liturgical equipment for the future church missions were packed. Here also is where Nuestra Señora de Belén began her voyage.

On January 6, Fr. Serra blessed the ship and flags, sang Mass and all the crew and passengers received Communion. Galvez had already ordered that every seaman and soldier should make his confession. On January 9, 1769 the first ship departed. Galvez wrote that his heart had gone with the expedition even though he could not. (2)

Galvez was being called mad for embarking on such great undertaking with such slight means. At the bottom of one of his numerous decrees, he audaciously signed, “José de Galvez, mad in this world. Pray God he may be happy in the world to come."(3) Fr. Serra was considered his fit companion, also “mad” to be setting out with running sores on his leg on a long trek by land into uncharted territory with only 25 soldiers on horseback, three muleteers and 42 unpredictable Indians armed with bows and arrows.

What the naysayers did not take into account was the determination of the General, the zeal of the Friar and constant assistance of the indomitable Conquistadora.


1. Edna Kimbro, Julia Costello, Tevvy Ball, The California missions: history, art, and preservation, Getty Publications, 2009, p. 121.
2. Martin Morgado, Junipero Serra's Legacy, Pacific Grove, CA: Mount Carmel, 1987, p. 23.
3. Omer Englebert, The Last of the Conquistadors, Junipero Serra 1713-1784, New York: Harcourt, Brace. Place of Publication, 1956, p. 67Nancy Lusignan Schultz
"So let us be confident, let us not be unprepared, let us not be outflanked, let us be wise, vigilant, fighting against those who are trying to tear the faith out of our souls and morality out of our hearts, so that we may remain Catholics, remain united to the Blessed Virgin Mary, remain united to the Roman Catholic Church, remain faithful children of the Church."- Abp. Lefebvre
Our Lady of Bethlehem - Part II
She Begins to Conquer California

Taken from here [slightly adapted].

Packed in the cargo of the San Antonio, the life-size statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem left the port of La Paz in Mexico to begin her journey north to San Diego, where the Presidio-Mission would be established in Alta California. Fr. Junipero Serra left by land to meet them there; then the Holy Expedition would continue up to Monterey to establish Mission San Carlos.

On March 28, 1769, accompanied only by two guards and a Spanish attendant, Fr. Serra set out from La Paz to begin the 95-day, 750 mile journey north to San Diego. They moved “at a pack train pace,” averaging only four hours travel per day due to the friar’s inflamed leg, which was swollen to the middle of the calf and covered with abcesses. (1)

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The land route followed by Fr. Serra to San Diego

On May 7, they met the main body of the expedition led by Governor Portolá at Mission Santa Maria, still in Baja California (see map). He writes, “We were as happy as possible to see each other, all eager to start on our new venture across the desert.”

Fifty miles north of Santa Maria Mission, the contingency stopped at the frontier outpost of San Fernando at Velicatá. That Pentecost Sunday, May 14, was a day of great joy for Fr. Serra, for here he blessed and erected the cross to establish the first Indian mission of the expedition.

As the group prepared to travel north for San Diego, Fr. Serra found he could hardly stand, so inflamed was his leg. As a last alternative to being carried on a stretcher, Serra asked the muleteer to prepare the same poultice he used for his animals and apply it to his leg. The next morning, his leg was so improved he could say Mass and continue the journey walking. Although Fr. Serra considered it “a matter of little moment,” the group considered it nothing short of a miracle.(2)

The first Mission of California is founded

As they traveled, the terrain changed. The naked hills and stony deserts were replaced with grassy valleys and verdant vegetable life. Fr. Serra describes the Indians they met along the way as talented in the craft of pottery and gentle. He considered it a good sign that the savages loved dress goods, and “would jump in the fire to get a piece.” (3)

On Saturday, July 1, 1769, the land expedition reached San Diego and faced a gloomy situation. The San José, the last ship of the expedition to sail from La Paz, was shipwrecked; the San Carlos had been struck by pestilence and all of two of its sailors were dead. The third, the San Antonio – which carried the statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem – had been the first to arrive and was sound, but now its men were falling ill from the scurvy as well.

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Spain established its first mission-presidio in Alta California atop this hill

Undaunted, Portolá continued with the plan. On July 9 the San Carlos with its diminished force of crew and soldiers set out on a scouting mission to find Monterey Bay. A few days later, the San Antonio, having unloaded its precious treasure of the statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem to preside over the new Mission on Presidio Hill, hoisted sail for San Blas to obtain more seamen and supplies, leaving only eight soldiers behind with Fr. Serra.

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The life size statues of Our Lady and the Infant captured the hearts of the Indians

On July 16, 1769, Fr. Junipero Serra planted the traditional great cross on a hillock overlooking the harbor and said Mass under a canopy of twigs. Spain thus established its presence in present-day California atop Presidio Hill with the official founding of Mission San Diego de Alcalá. Our history books tell us that this Mission, called the Mother of the Missions, is the first of the State’s 21 missions. What they fail to report, however, is that Our Lady of Bethlehem was there from the outset. Into that first humble chapel of Mission San Diego her statue was placed, and here she would reign for one year.

From the start, this Mission was the most difficult. The Kumeyaay Indians of the San Diego region were aggressive, thievish and arrogant, different from the other mild-mannered tribes of Alta California. Aware of the weakened condition of the camp, a group of about 30 Indians attacked the Mission on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption.

The savages thought it would be an easy matter to dispose of few soldiers and friars, but did not reckon with either the determination of that small group or the protection of Our Lady. In the fight, only one Spaniard was killed and three wounded; the Indians lost five with many wounded.

A few days later, the Indians came to sue for peace and asked care for their wounded. The expedition doctor, himself still recovering from scurvy, cured them all. Thenceforth, they presented themselves at the Mission unarmed. The Indian women in particular were eager to visit the Mission.

Fr. Serra reports that they were taken with the life-size Our Lady of Bethlehem and the Infant Child. Thinking the mother very pale and emaciated, they would bring food for her and the Infant; in their simplicity, some of the women even clamored to suckle the Christ Child. (4) The work of Our Lady in California had begun.

A threat to end the Holy Expedition

Although there were no more Indian attacks, the fledging Mission was in a dire situation. After six months, supplies were low and there was no sign of either the packet ship San Antonio or of Governor Portolá. The Indians showed no interest in conversion.

On January 24, 1770, Portolá finally returned, bearing his own bad news. Monterey Bay, described so precisely in the annals of Sebastian Vizcaíno in 1603, had eluded the quest. The only good news was that further north another very beautiful bay had been discovered and christened San Francisco.

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Fr. Serra rejoices at the sight of the San Antonio entering San Diego Bay on March 19, 1770

Fr. Serra, certain that the Monterey harbor existed, wanted the Holy Expedition to continue as planned. Governor Portolá was not so sure. With food to last only until the end of April, he decided that if a supply ship arrived at San Diego before March 14, he would immediately set out for Monterey. If not, they would all leave for Baja California on the 15th. Serra asked that the date of withdrawal be postponed until March 19, the feast of St. Joseph - patron of the Expedition. Portolá granted the extra days, postponing departure until the 20th.

Fearing that decades would pass before more friars were sent to convert the Indians, Fr. Serra had already decided to remain there even if the settlement was abandoned. A novena to St. Joseph was begun, and many hours were spent before Our Lady of Bethlehem, beseeching her help to save the Holy Expedition.

That help came, but only at the last hour. Just before sunset on the 19th, Fr. Serra, who continued to watch the ocean, caught sight of a ship and the San Antonio entered the harbor. When the ship landed and the circumstances of its landing were learned, all recognized the hand of Providence. The ship had not planned to put into port at San Diego. It was bound for Monterey, since it was believed that Portolá was already there awaiting supplies. It had already passed the San Diego harbor when it lost one of its anchors and was forced to turn around and make port there for repairs.

The Expedition was saved. For the rest of his life, Fr. Serra celebrated a High Mass of Thanksgiving on the 19th of each month. The two ships were outfitted and in Easter week of April 1770, they set out for Monterey. This time the San Antonio carried Fr. Junipero Serra and Our Lady of Bethlehem.

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The Presidio-Mission San Diego in 1848, before the United States cavalry
took over California and used the church for barracks and a stable


1. Martin Morgado, Junípero Serra’s Legacy, Pacific Grove, CA: Mount Carmel, 1987, p. 23.
2. Ibid., p. 39.
3. Ibid., p. 31-32.
4. Omer Englebert, The Last of the Conquistadors, Junipero Serra 1713-1784, New York: Harcourt, Brace. Place of Publication, 1956, p. 82.
"So let us be confident, let us not be unprepared, let us not be outflanked, let us be wise, vigilant, fighting against those who are trying to tear the faith out of our souls and morality out of our hearts, so that we may remain Catholics, remain united to the Blessed Virgin Mary, remain united to the Roman Catholic Church, remain faithful children of the Church."- Abp. Lefebvre
Our Lady of Bethlehem - Part III
Carmel Mission, Her Final Home &  Fr. Junipero Serra

Taken from here [slightly adapted]

The ship San Antonio, whose passengers included Our Lady of Bethlehem and Fr. Junipero Serra, left San Diego on April 16, 1770 and reached the harbor of Monterey on May 31. Why the Bay had eluded the first scouting expedition of Captain Portolá was a mystery. “The great thing is that we are here,” wrote Fr. Junipero in a letter dated June 13, 1770. (1)

Three days after their arrival, on June 3, the Feast of the Pentecost, the second of the 21 missions founded on the Alta California coastline was founded. In honor of the King’s name saint, it was called the Presidio-Mission San Carlos Borromeo.

A small chapel and altar was erected in the valley and under the landmark oak tree close to the beach, where Vizcaíno’s Carmelites had said Mass 167 years earlier, Fr. Serra officially established the mission. He described the scene:

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Monterey is founded on Pentecost Sunday June 3, 1770

"Everyone arrived singing, while the bells hung from the old oak tree were ringing at full peal. … With all the men kneeling before the altar, we sang the Veni Creator. A large cross had been laid out on the ground; we lifted it together and planted it upright in the earth. I said the prayers for its blessing, and everyone knelt to venerate it. Then I sprinkled holy water over the ground around the cross. At each new act, the bells would ring, the soldiers would fire their guns, and the San Antonio would discharge a volley from its cannon.

“After raising aloft the standard of the King of Heaven, we unfurled the flag of our Catholic Monarch. As we raised each of them we shouted, 'Long live the Faith! Long live the King!' …

“After that ceremony, I began the High Mass, with a sermon after the Gospel, and as long as the Mass lasted, it was accompanied with many salvos of cannon. The Mass ended, I took off my chasuble, and all together we sang in Spanish the Salve Regina in front of the wonderful statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem, which was on the altar. The Most Illustrious Inspector General [Galvez] had given us the statue for this celebration, but with the obligation of returning it to him afterwards, as I will do when the boat sails [to return to Mexico with news of the success].

“At the conclusion of the ceremony, standing up I intoned the Te Deum laudámus. We sang it slowly and solemnly right to the end, with the responses and prayers to the Most Holy Trinity, to Our Lady, to the Holy Saint Joseph, patron of the expedition, to San Carlos, patron of this port, presidio and mission, and finally the prayer of thanksgiving. May God be thanked for all things!” (2)

Our Lady leaves Monterey

One part of Our Lady’s story almost forgotten today is how she left the newly established Monterey Mission, only to return to re-occupy this land she claimed as hers. The statue belonged to Inspector General José de Galvez, on loan to the friars to protect the Sacred Expedition and insure the successful founding of the Monterey Presidio-Mission. She was present when the first mission of San Diego was established; afterward for almost a year she was there on its altar for all the Masses and daily prayers. Now she had entered Monterey triumphantly as La Conquistadora – the one who conquers.

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The Serra Monument overlooking the Pacific commemorates the landing in 1770

She presided at one more ceremony before her departure. In their first rough church, the Monterey group – consisting of approximately 40 persons – celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi on June 14. The silver candelabras donated by Galvez were carried in a procession with Captain Portolá marching at its head and the soldiers following in two ranks. Hymns were sung and the cannons thundered anew. The beautiful statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem occupied the space directly above the monstrance of her Most Holy Son, standing guard over the church.

“Everything was carried out with such splendor that it might have been gazed upon with delight even in Mexico,” wrote Fr. Serra to Galvez. (3)

“And now that she has occupied Monterey with us,” he continued, “I am going to send you back your Madonna, as I promised you at La Paz. Tomorrow we shall bid her farewell by singing the Mass before her for the last time.” (4)

On July 3, 1770, the statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem sailed on the departing San Antonio to be returned to Inspector General Gálvez in Mexico City.

The Virgin returns to stay at Carmel Mission

Shortly Galvéz was announcing to the world that the Franciscans were holding religious processions north of the 36th parallel and that these new provinces were annexed to the Spanish Empire. Enthusiasm ran high – New Spain was larger by a 750-mile coast, a feat accomplished by a small troupe of soldiers and a handful of friars. The cannons of Mexico City thundered and the Cathedral bells rang out, answered by bells of monasteries and churches over the city. The hero of the day was Galvez.

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Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel-by-the-Sea, restored in the last century

Report of the Monterey expedition circulated throughout Europe, reaching the courts of Catherine the Great and the King of England, who were notified as quickly as possible that Spain was now solidly established in Alta California.

Two years later, Gálvez returned in triumph to Spain, where King Charles III made him Marqués de Sonora and appointed him Minister of the Indies. But before he left the New World, he determined to send the statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem back to Mission San Carlos, which had been moved to Carmel, about five miles south of Monterey.

To remove the Indians from the bad influence of the soldiers and to avoid a hostile new Commander, Fr. Serra judged it opportune to separate the Mission from the Presidio. In December 1771 the whole Mission establishment was set up on the banks of the Carmel River and in view of the sea. After the move to Carmel, the Indians began to frequent the Mission, and by the end of 1773 Fr. Serra reported more converts there than any mission.

To this “truly delightful spot,” as Fr. Serra described it, Our Lady returned to Alta California to continue her work of conversion and protection. Henceforth, the Carmel Mission became the home and headquarters of both the Virgin of Bethlehem and Fr. Serra.

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The silver crown, an ex voto offering of a Captain saved at sea by Our Lady

As Father General of Alta California, Fr. Serra often traveled the Camino Real that led from San Diego to the San Francisco area, a distance of 700 miles. He personally founded nine of the 21 missions that were eventually established. But he always returned to Carmel and his beloved Virgin. This was the place dearest to his heart, with its twisted cypress and rocks jutting up from the sea, recalling memories of the Island of Mallorca in Spain where he was born.

Having recourse to Nuestra Señora de Belen became a custom of the captains and sailors who sailed the waters of California. In letters dated May 1774, June 1774, October 1775, and July 1779, Fr. Serra makes mention of special Masses he said to fulfill the promises of sailors who had asked the protection of Nuestra Senora de Belén in times of peril. (5) In December 1802, the Commander of the frigate Most Pure Conception would give Our Lady a silver crown in thanksgiving for saving his ship on a dangerous voyage, showing this tradition continued into the 19th century.

Fr. Serra’s death

On August 27, 1784, Fr. Serra asked to be taken to chapel where his beloved statue of the Virgin of Bethlehem presided. He was very weak and knew he was dying, but he insisted on reciting prayers with the neophyte Indians, concluding with the hymn that Ven. Fray Margil had composed in honor of the Assumption of Our Lady. Then he received Holy Communion and took his leave of the Virgin who had conquered the land.

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Fr. Serra' Viaticum - He is kneeling at right, wearing a stole

The next day, he died in his cell holding the crucifix that he had received in his novitiate and had carried on all his travels. He was 70 years old.

Shortly after Fr. Serra's death, Fr. Francisco Palóu, the new Father General of the Missions, wrote to the Franciscan College in Mexico City asking that Fr. Serra be memorialized in a painting commemorating his last Viaticum. He should be “kneeling and before the altar of Our Lady of Bethlehem with the Child in her arms,” Fr. Palou specified. It is the memorial Fr. Serra would have desired, he added.

The Guardian approved the idea, and the painting titled Fr. Serra’s Viaticum was made. As you can see above right, the priest giving him the viaticum – Fr. Palou – is vested in a cope, stole and surplice over his habit, holding the Host and ciborium. Fr. Serra kneels to the right wearing a stole over his Franciscan habit, holding the Communion veil to catch any particles that might fall from the Host. Around him are soldiers, sailors and Indians holding lighted candles.

Over the open tabernacle with the crucifix on top is the statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem, who was with him when he established his first Mission in Alta California and remained with him to the end.


1. Omer Englebert, The Last of the Conquistadors, Junipero Serra 1713-1784, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1956, p.88
2. Martin Morgado, Junípero Serra’s Legacy, Pacific Grove, CA: Mount Carmel, 1987, pp. 41-42
3. Ibid., p. 44
4. Englebert, The Last of the Conquistadors, pp. 89-90
5. Morgado, Junipero Serra’s Legacy, pp. 45-46
6. “ Blessed Serra’s Devotion to Our Holy Mother,” Siempre Adelante, Spring Summer 2003.
7. Morgado, Junipero Serra’s Legacy,
p. 47 8. Ibid., pp. 93-95
"So let us be confident, let us not be unprepared, let us not be outflanked, let us be wise, vigilant, fighting against those who are trying to tear the faith out of our souls and morality out of our hearts, so that we may remain Catholics, remain united to the Blessed Virgin Mary, remain united to the Roman Catholic Church, remain faithful children of the Church."- Abp. Lefebvre
Our Lady of Bethlehem - Part IV
Secularization, Abandonment & Restoration of Her Statue

Taken from here [slightly adapted]

After Fr. Serra's death, Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel grew and prospered, and Our Lady of Bethlehem continued to be held in esteem and veneration. But the old adobe chapel that housed her was deteriorating. In 1793, the first sandstone block was laid in position for Mission Carmel's new church. A gilded wood retablo altarpiece was installed over the altar, and Our Lady of Bethlehem, also known as La Conquistadora, held the center niche of honor.

The Mission provided religious instruction and the Sacraments for the neighboring Indian people as a part of its function. With extensive acres for pasture, crops and orchards, it was a large self-sufficient community that provided sustenance and work for many Indians. There they learned a wide variety of trades and skills. From bakers, tanners and weaver to musicians, farmers, vaqueros (cowboys) - all emerged as the healthy fruit of that early California Mission.

By 1794, the Indian population at the Mission had reached 927. That year, Carmel Mission could show 1,000 Baptism recorded in their church annals. More than 4,000 Indians officially became Catholics before the Carmel mission was secularized and abandoned.


The mission period began to decline after Mexico declared its independence from Spain and the Mexican flag replaced the royal standard in the California Missions. The new Mexican government, Masonic in its roots, soon decided to close the Missions and sell their buildings and lands. In 1834 the Mexican government passed a decree of secularization authorizing civil confiscation of all the California Missions properties. On paper the Indians who lived in the Missions were supposed to be given first priority in purchasing the land. In fact, however, most was sold to new settlers and Mexicans who had fostered the Revolution.

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The abandoned Mission Carmel in 1876; below, the stripped interior and collapsed roof

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Today the Revolution spreads the myth that the Indians suffered under the rule of the Church and Padres. The opposite is true. Before secularization, the Missions were extremely productive and the prosperous self-sufficient communities were flourishing. Daily life was active and ordered, divided between regular prayer time, work hours, rest and recreation. While discipline was strict, the Indians trusted the Friars who lived and labored among them, and knew they always worked for their best interests - both material and spiritual.

Under secularization, the Indians suffered a harsh fate. Both the Indians and Padres were forced off the land. The Indians often suffered brutal treatment at the hands of the land-hungry ranchers and miners, who had no concern for their well-being. Largely because of this bad treatment, between 1845 and 1880, the California Indian population plummeted from 150,000 to 20,400.

Abandonment & Neglect

Under secularization, the lands of Mission San Carlos Borromeo were also partitioned and sold by the Mexican government. By 1836 the destruction of the Mission life was complete. The Mission lay abandoned and neglected; the church and the quadrangle of the presidio fell into ruin. The once fruitful land lay barren; the corrals that had herded thousands of cattle were broken down and tenantless.

In this period of neglect, the buildings were vandalized and many works of art stolen. What happened to the Virgin of Bethlehem during this time of pillage and havoc? The Statue was not listed in Mission Carmel's final post-secularization "auction" inventory in 1842. To save her from that humiliation, one of the last Mission resident Indian families, the Cantuas, had brought the Statue to their home for safekeeping. The Christ Child and crown along with other movable goods were taken to the Royal Presidio Chapel in Monterey.

Dona Maria Ignacia Dutra, a member of the Cantua family, became custodian of Our Lady of Bethlehem. When she moved to Monterey in 1876, she took the Statue with her. There were still many persons who wanted to pay homage to the Virgin, and they would visit her there, where she was enshrined wearing the wedding dress of Dona Maria.


In 1846, California won its independence from Mexico and for two years called itself the Republic of California. In 1848 it became a territory of the United States, and two years later it became the 31st State of the Union. Only then, in 1859, were the Missions returned to the Catholic Church by the US government. For many of the churches, abandoned and in ruins, it was too late to save them.

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Our Lady behind glass in the poorly lit Mortuary Chapel; below, another statue set in front of her

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A happier outcome, however, awaited Mission San Carlos Borremeo. In 1882 the grave of Fr. Serra was found, which raised public interest in restoring the Mission, and a partial rebuilding project began. In 1933, Carmel Mission became a parish church, and the grand restoration began, due largely to the work of two men. One was parish priest Fr. Michael D. O'Connell; the other was a San Francisco cabinetmaker Harry W. Downie, who led the restoration project. Through exhaustive research, Downie made every effort to duplicate the original mission buildings with as much detail as possible. His work at Carmel Mission made San Carlos Borromeo Mission one of the most authentically restored missions of California.

During this period of reconstruction, a call was made to return items that had been in safekeeping by individuals and families for so many years. Before the Statue's first custodian, Maria Dutra, died in 1925, she had requested the Virgin of Bethlehem be given to Gertrude Ambrosia, a descendant of the one of the soldiers who had accompanied Fr. Serra on the Sacred Expedition. Now, Mrs. Ambrosia returned the Statue to Mission Carmel so that La Conquistadora would be restored to her proper place in its Chapel.

The Statue had survived the years of abandonment well. Only the wooden lower torso had to be replaced. She was dressed in a silver embroidered gown, a silk and gold brocade cope, and reunited with the original Christ Child and the original silver crown, still in storage at the Presidio Chapel - now known as the San Carlos Borromeo Cathedral of Monterey.

Newly vested and adorned, Our Lady of Bethlehem returned to her place of honor on the altar, in a niche on the new retablo. But when the restoration of the side Mortuary Chapel was completed, from some inexplicable decline in devotion, she was moved to that side chapel, a secondary place of relative obscurity. That Burial Chapel has no external light and is instead lit by a single set of votive and the hanging lamps. At times museum artifacts or other sacred art objects are placed in front of the historic Virgen de Belen. For curious tourists attracted by her beauty and charm, there is no data about her historic role and importance.

Although the mission today is restored and admired, one could say Our Lady of Bethlehem is still abandoned, waiting for a grand return of the love and devotion she properly merits.

"The ideal of consecrated motherhood"

On Mother's Day in the Marian year 1954, a solemn Pontifical was offered at Mission Carmel to honor the Statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem, "the first statue of Mary to be brought into the State." For one day, Our Lady returned to the limelight, placed under a canopy in the church square. During an evening candlelight ceremony, the Blessed Virgin Mary was declared "the ideal of consecrated motherhood... symbolized by the Statue of the Virgin of Belen." Then she was crowned "Madonna of the Expedition of 1769" with the silver crown and a garland of flowers.

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Our Lady of Bethlehem, richly adorned but set aside

The Catholic papers of the time proudly record that more than 4,000 persons came to venerate her, pretending that this was a grand number of Catholics. In fact, it is a relatively small number when one considers the millions of Catholics in South America who honor their patron Virgins on feast days. In 2011 600,000 Brazilians traveled to the city of Aparecida to pay homage to Nossa Senhora Aparecida. Half a million Polish pilgrims travel to honor the Black Madonna, Queen of Poland, on each of the great Marian feast days.

In 1954, Catholics in California numbered close to 4 million. For only 4,000 to come out to greet the State's oldest Madonna is not significant. Today, there are more than 11 million Catholics in California, but the handful of pilgrimages to Our Lady of Bethlehem - hidden away in her obscure niche in the Mortuary Chapel - rarely number even 50 devotees. It is my hope that this series of articles will encourage more Catholics to come in greater numbers to visit her and pay her homage, raising a clamor to the careless religious authorities that she should be given a place of greater prominence.

Our Lady chose California to reign under a double invocation: Our Lady of Bethlehem and La Conquistadora. Both titles are rich in meaning. Clearly she wanted to appear as the Mother of Christ Child so that the Indians of California would realize her maternal warmth and goodness and have recourse to her in all their needs. She also wanted to be known as The Conqueror, the one who conquers all for Her Son. It seems that in the first plan of Providence for California, the people and the land were to be conquered for Christ through His Holy Mother. We can imagine the prosperity and graces this would have brought the State if this first appeal had been heard.

That original plan, however, was set off course by two avowed enemies of Our Lady, Mexican Freemasonry and American Protestantism. Because of the combined action of these two enemies, the Missions - and Our Lady of Bethlehem - faded into ruin and oblivion in the rush for gold.

Today, at this crossroads in History, it is time to return to the original plan of God for this State. One step along this path would be to make the Carmel Mission a site of pilgrimage to pay Our Lady of Bethlehem the homage she deserves. There we can plead with her to return California to a good path and to establish here the Reign of Mary that she promised. Under her maternal gaze, we can ask her to make each one of us, like those first heroic Franciscan missionaries, the apostles and builders of her Reign.

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Today Carmel Mission is one of the most authentically restored Missions of California.
The fountain was returned when the call was made for the original dispersed artifacts


1. Martin Morgado, Junípero Serra's Legacy, Pacific Grove, CA: Mount Carmel, 1987, p. 47
2. Edna E. Kimbro, Julia G. Costello, Tevvy Ball, The California Missions: History, Art, and Preservation, Getty Conservation Institute, 2009, p. 121
3. Morgado, Juípero Serra's Legacy, p. 49
"So let us be confident, let us not be unprepared, let us not be outflanked, let us be wise, vigilant, fighting against those who are trying to tear the faith out of our souls and morality out of our hearts, so that we may remain Catholics, remain united to the Blessed Virgin Mary, remain united to the Roman Catholic Church, remain faithful children of the Church."- Abp. Lefebvre
A Visit to Our Lady of Belén

Taken from here [slightly adapted]

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As you enter Carmel Mission Basilica, the main altar beckons;
in a side chapel is the life-size image of Our Lady of Belén or Our Lady of Bethlehem

Recently we had an opportunity to visit the Carmel Mission, the second founded by Padre Junipero Serra in beautiful Carmel-by-the-Sea. The Mission-Basilica San Carlos Borromeo was restored in the mid 1900s and today is considered the most authentic and best preserved of the nine missions Padre Serra founded.

During his 15 years in Alta California, Carmel was the headquarters of the successful network of missions that eventually numbered 21. It was his preferred mission, set in a small bay town framed by the Pacific on the west and the Santa Lucia Mountains on the east, with a delightful weather and a complete absence of insects. In Carmel, you sleep and eat year-round with the windows open, no screens, just a sparkling crisp ocean breeze to greet and refresh you.

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The cell of Padre Serra at Carmel Mission

We found Padre Serra’s room there in the mission square, carefully restored with a facsimile of his small bed, chest, writing desk and chair: Everything bare and ascetic, Franciscan style, and very moving to see.

This is where he spent his final hours. After walking from that room to the chapel, accompanied by the commandant of the presidio, the soldiers and all the Indians of the mission, Padre Serra assisted at a final Mass and received the Viaticum. He died the next day in his cell on August 28, 1784, at the age of 71. At age 56, already infirm, he had joined the expedition of Gaspar de Portolà to begin the settlement of Alta California. In the last 15 years of his life, the full fruit of his vocation had blossomed and been harvested as he fulfilled the plan God had for him.

The Chapel of Our Lady of Bethlehem

We entered the Basilica – the church was elevated to this status in 1961 because of its beauty and historical significance – and were stirred by the air of calm and peace. A lingering aura of the Spanish Catholic spirit that aimed to conquer as many souls as possible in the New World for Heaven impregnates the atmosphere. Beckoning us to examine its many niches filled with colonial statues – St. Michael, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Bonaventure, St. Charles Borromeo among others – was the splendorous reredos, or main altarpiece, that dominates the sanctuary, a replica of the original that had come from Mexico in 1807.

It was in the left side chapel that we found the reason for our pilgrimage. We had come to see Our Lady of Belén, or Our Lady of Bethlehem, the oldest Madonna in California and the second oldest in the United States. Our readers can find her interesting history here.

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A serene and inviting countenance

We had a very pleasant surprise. This chapel used to be called the Mortuary Chapel because bodies were laid out here before burial. In it the statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem was lost in a dark glass case and other religious artifacts and pieces displayed on the mantlepiece. The life-size statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem – she stands 5'2”, the same height as Padre Serra – looked like a disregarded relic of the past, lost, dusty and forgotten in the museum atmosphere of a drab side aisle.

But this scenario - seen from a prior visit - has changed. The Mortuary Chapel is reformed, its very name changed to the Chapel of Our Lady of Bethlehem. And there, in its center, she stands, enshrined and shining under soft lights in a large glass case, presiding over the oratory with a queenly air.

She is dressed in a rich but subtle silver embroidered dress and cape with an exquisite lace veil; she wears delicate gold acorn earrings, some of the first jewelry made in California; on one arm she tenderly holds the Infant Christ, and in her other hand are a silver rose and a rosary. On her head is a foot-high silver crown made for her by a lieutenant in 1798 in thanksgiving for her protection during a difficult sea voyage.

Above and surrounding her is a golden halo and rays, a piece that the Spanish most appropriately call an esplendor, a word that could be translated in English as halo or aureole. In the background is a large silk cloth embroidered with flowers in soft delicate colors that Fr. Serra himself ordered from China.

In her new place, Our Lady, the statue Padre Serra brought with him to win the hearts of the Indians of Alta California, seems most pleased to reign again. We encourage all who live in or come to visit California to not forget Our Lady of Bethlehem. To see her and pray before her is worth the trip to Carmel.

She is here waiting and shows herself most expressive and willing to receive the pilgrims who come to her with their troubles, their requests, their needs and their love. To each of us she seemed to speak words of consolation, encouragement, and understanding in view of the difficult times in which the Church and her children find themselves in these chaotic post Vatican II days of destruction.

The following were our impressions praying before the marvelous image of Our Lady of Bethlehem:

Impressions of Judith Mead

When I looked on the magnificent statue of Our Lady of Belen for the first time, my immediate impression was that Our Lady had temporarily stepped away from her celestial throne to visit me and reassure me that, indeed, in the end her Immaculate Heart will triumph.

She had obviously sensed my lack of confidence and wanted to reignite my trust by her presence. Her goal was accomplished without delay. How could I possibly resist that maternal gaze that beckoned me to leave aside all pettiness and to focus on my eternal salvation? I found myself pouring out my heart and its desires to my heavenly Mother. Was it my imagination or did her cheeks grow rosier and her expression softer as I begged her to grant my seemingly endless list of petitions?

I detected no impatience in her countenance, only profound understanding of my needs. What an incomprehensible mystery that the august Queen of Heaven and Earth would be interested in my paltry requests, that the Seat of Wisdom would take the time to listen to the insignificant details of my life! Our Lady seemed so regal in her gown of rich brocade, her veil of intricate lace, her crown and esplendor of brilliant gold.

At the same time, her humility and innocence were very apparent. I found myself wanting to do whatever necessary to be like her, to emulate her serenity, her joy in the midst of suffering, her submission to the Will of her Divine Son. It became very clear to me that the surest way to grow closer to Our Lord was through His Mother. Mary, Cause of our Joy, pray for us.

Impressions of Marian Horvat

This life-size statue of Our Lady of Belen is maternal and yet queenly, reminding me strongly of the image of Our Lady of Good Success. I sense the same maternal goodness in this marvelous sculpture, a goodness that draws me to her, instilling a great confidence that she is hearing my prayers and petitions and something more. She seems to say, “I know what you do not know, my daughter. I will give you what you need and do not know how to ask for. Wait and confide, for I know what I am doing.”

In that goodness, I am also aware of an incredible firmness. “This is the way things are, my child,” her expression seems to say. “I am here, your mother, but I accept no compromises.” It is the firmness of a good mother who loves her children but knows how to discipline them, to guide them with an simple look to keep them from going astray from the good path.

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The features of a good and firm Mother

In that supremely serene countenance I feel an invitation: “Be more like me, my daughter. Less agitation, more calm. Less turmoil, more confidence in my Son and my promises. There will be a triumph after much travail; face that travail, keep up the good fight, and maintain a calm spirit, like mine.” It is not an invitation to indifference or, worse, to apathy in the face of the destruction being wreaked inside the Church today. It is a solicitation to the militant position, assumed with fortitude and tranquility, confident of the final victory.

Prayer to Our Lady of Bethlehem

Dear Lady of Bethlehem, Virgin most pure, Mother of our Savior, may the memory of the cold on the night Thy Divine Child was born bring Thy powerful intercession to bear upon the world’s coldness towards the Babe of Bethlehem. Send down into the hearts of all people some warmth of the flames of love that burn in Thy Immaculate Heart.

Thou, who suffered such great loneliness when Thy Son was taken from Thee, look with pity upon the void in the hearts of those who know and love Him not. Bring Him to them and with Him, His Angels and Saints that they too may be our intimate friends.

Thou, who journeyed wearily to Bethlehem, look down with mercy upon humankind trudging along the way of evil, lost and confused. Guide us to the path of Thy Son and the habitation He prepared for us.

Look down with compassion upon us, as we commend to Thy maternal care the needs of Holy Mother Church, our beloved Country, our families. We place all at Thy blessed feet. Through Thy powerful intercession, may God grant to us and to the whole confused world the grace of the sacred Peace of Bethlehem.

Our Lady of Bethlehem, pray for us now, pray for us in every need, and be with us at the hour of our death. Amen.

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Basilica San Carlos Borromeo, home of Our Lady of Bethlehem
"So let us be confident, let us not be unprepared, let us not be outflanked, let us be wise, vigilant, fighting against those who are trying to tear the faith out of our souls and morality out of our hearts, so that we may remain Catholics, remain united to the Blessed Virgin Mary, remain united to the Roman Catholic Church, remain faithful children of the Church."- Abp. Lefebvre

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