Our Lady of Bonaria: Buenos Aires

December 24, 2013

Although not a well-known name for the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Bonaria has a special connection to Pope Francis’ native city of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

When the Catalans conquered Cagliari, Sardinia, in 1324, they established their headquarters on top of a hill that overlooked the city. The hill was known to them as Bon Ayre (or “Bon aria” in the local language). The name meant “good air” or “fair wind,” as it was free of the foul smell prevalent in the city, which was adjacent to swampland. 

During the siege of Cagliari in 1324, the Catalans built a sanctuary to the Virgin Mary on top of the hill. In 1335, King Alfonso the Gentle donated the church to the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy, also known as the Mercedarian Friars.

In March 25, 1370, a sailing ship from Spain was caught in the middle of a violent storm. The crew jettisoned the entire cargo, including a heavy chest, into the ocean. As soon as the chest touched the water, the storm calmed miraculously.

The chest ran aground on the beach at the foot of the hill of Bonaria. However, no one was able to lift the chest out of the shallow water on the shore. The townspeople hurried up the hill to get the Mercedarian Friars to assist them. The friars easily lifted the chest out of the waters and took it to their church. 

Upon opening the chest, all were amazed because it contained a wonderful statue of the Blessed Mother holding the infant Jesus in her left hand and a lit candle in her right one. The candle stands on a model of a ship held in Mary’s hand. The statue was placed in the abbey.

Soon, devotion for the Blessed Mother spread both in the island and in the world, particularly among sailors who invoked her to be their patroness. 

At the time, Sardinia was under the control of Catalonia in Spain. Spanish sailors brought the devotion back to Spain and to other territories they conquered, venerating the image and invoking the “Fair Winds” to aid them in their navigation and prevent shipwrecks.

Pope Francis gave a brief explanation of the origin of the name of the city of his birth, saying that when the Spanish explorers landed in Argentina in 1536, Pedro de Mendoza wanted to name the coastal location, “City of the Most Holy Trinity.”

However, the sailors who brought de Mendoza there were from Sardinia. They wanted the place to be called “City of Our Lady of Bonaria.”

“There was a dispute among them and in the end they found a compromise,” the pope said; they called it “City of the Most Holy Trinity and Port of Our Lady of Bonaria.”

But since the name was “so long, the last two words are what stuck: Bonaria - Buenos Aires.”

Today, the Shrine stands next to the Basilica of Our Lady of Bonaria, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Bonaria and the monastery which houses the friars, who have overseen the care of the shrine continuously for almost 700 years.

On Sept. 13, 1907, Our Lady of Bonaria was proclaimed patroness of Sardinia by Pope Pius X, and the church was later raised to the rank of minor basilica by Pius XI. 

On April 24, 1970, Pope Paul VI visited this famous shrine and celebrated an open-air Mass addressing the pilgrims on the need of veneration of the Mother of God. 

Now-Blessed Pope John Paul II and now-Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI visited the shrine in 1985 and 2008, respectively.

Most recently, Pope Francis traveled to Sardinia and visited the shrine on Sept. 22, where he celebrated Sunday Mass in a square outside the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Bonaria. 

In his homily, Pope Francis called for solidarity with the neediest in society, urging his listeners to “see our brothers and sisters with the gaze of the Madonna, she who invites us to be true brothers.”