APARECIDA, Brazil (Reuters) - The Basilica of Our Lady of Aparecida, Latin America’s most popular shrine and one of the world’s largest cathedrals, will be the main backdrop for Pope Benedict’s visit to Brazil this week.
Every year millions of Brazilian and foreign pilgrims visit the shrine, in the city of Aparecida about 100 miles east of Brazil’s biggest city Sao Paulo.
Its story dates back to 1717 when three fishermen having a run of bad luck cast their nets in the River Paraiba and dragged up a headless statue of the Virgin Mary. They also salvaged the head and, according to the legend, then netted plenty of fish.
Neighbors began to venerate the statue, which came to be known as Our Lady of Aparecida, and a cult grew. The first chapel was built in 1745.
A larger church was built between 1834 and 1888 and is now known as the Old Basilica following the construction of a gigantic new cathedral.
Work on the new structure began in 1955 and was inaugurated by Pope John Paul in 1980. Shaped like a Greek Cross, the red-brick building is the world’s second-biggest basilica after St. Peter’s in Vatican City.
The dome reaches 230 feet in height and the basilica’s total area is 193,800 square feet (18,000 square meters). It can hold 45,000 worshipers.
Over the years a town sprang up around the religious sites. It now relies heavily on tourism.
One of the most popular attractions is the Sala das Promessas (Hall of Promises), where people leave objects ranging from motorcycle helmets to guns to wax body parts either to ask or give thanks for the saint’s help in overcoming illness, accidents or other hardships.
Sections of the parking lot, which can hold 10,000 cars and buses, are named after Jesus’s disciples.
There is also a Pilgrims’ Shopping Mall within its grounds with 700 shops selling religious souvenirs and trinkets. The food court includes a McDonald’s and a Sanctuary of the Apostles Barbecue and Beer.
Our Lady of Aparecida was named Brazil’s national saint in 1930. About 100,000 people usually attend services in Aparecida commemorating her every October 12.