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Our Lady of Bethlehem Discovered at Last!

Barbara Maczek

Book review of Discovering Our Lady of Bethlehem: Her Journey with Fr. Serra by Judith Fife Mead and Marian Therese Horvat, Ph.D. (Los Angeles: TIA, 2017),76 pp
our lady of bewthlehem

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Some years ago I viewed the statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem holding the Infant Jesus at the beautiful Carmel Mission San Carlos Borromeo. She had a very majestic and maternal air, but, sadly, she also looked lost behind the dark glass window she was encased in, surrounded by museum artifacts. I wondered what her history was. I asked the docent, but she could not offer any information.

Last year I returned and realized that Our Lady of Bethlehem had been, so to speak, 'discovered' and given a much better place. There she was, in her own dedicated chapel next to the main altar, in a well-lighted case.

To my great joy, her story has also been discovered and told in this small book published by Judith Fife Mead and Marian Therese Horvat. Her history is, in fact, part of the life of Fr. Junípero Serra and the first two California missions in San Diego and Monterey, which explains the full title of the book – Discovering Our Lady of Bethlehem: Her Journey with Fr. Serra.

Chapter I begins with the account of the ancient title Our Lady of Bethlehem, which honors Our Lady at the birth of Christ. This devotion was very popular in Portugal and Spain during the Age of Discovery, and so many statues with that title traveled with the Franciscan Friars who accompanied the sailors on their voyages to the New World.

It was interesting to learn that the Virgin of Bethlehem was also invoked as the Virgin of the Star, Our Lady of Good Success and the Virgin of the Safe Homecoming (p. 18). This gives our California statue a special link with the famous Our Lady of Good Success in Quito.

There is one point I will make here, leaving you to enjoy the rest of the story, which is a quite easy and enjoyable read. It is the amazing story of how Our Lady of Bethlehem crossed the ocean to come to California not once, but twice. It seems she was quite determined to be in that State.

mission san carlos Borremeo

The restored San Carlos Borromeo chapel, today a Basilica

The beautiful statue was only lent to Fr. Junípero Serra to accompany the Sacred Expedition of 1769. As a victorious Queen, her mission was not to gain new lands for Spain, but to conquer the souls of the many natives for Christ. As soon as the first two missions – in San Diego and Monterey – were established, the life-size statue was to be returned to Mexico City to its owner, Don José de Gálvez, Visitor General of New Spain, who was the chief planner of the expedition.

Our Lady of Bethlehem was carefully boxed up and packed in the San Antonio, one of the three ships that set out for San Diego. It was the only ship that arrived without mishap or sickness (the San José and all its men were lost at sea). We can see how dangerous these travels were and why the captains and sailors invoked Our Lady for a good success, or safe homecoming, before embarking.

The San Diego Mission was successfully set up 1669, Our Lady remained there a year while preparations were made for estabishing the second mission. In 1670, Our Lady re-entered the San Antonio and started the last leg of her trip on the Pacific to the second mission in Monterey, again without mishap.

mass under monterey oak

The first High Mass under the large oak on Monterey Bay on Pentecost Sunday, June 3, 1770

After the first High Mass was sung in California's second mission, christened Mission San Carlos Borromeo, Fr. Serra packed up Our Lady of Bethlehem once again to send back to Mexico City, since, as I noted above, the life-size statue was only on loan. I think I would have been tempted to just send word of the successful close to the Sacred Expedition and await further instructions, rather than risk another perilous sea voyage with the precious image of Our Lady of Bethlehem.

But Fr. Serra was a man of his word. The statue returned to Mexico City, and the joyous Dom Galvéz, exuberant over the success of what was being called the “impossible mission,” decided to send Our Lady of Bethlehem back to Fr. Serra as a gift to him and the Californian Missions.

Thus, Our Lady of Bethlhem traveled twice from Mexico City to Alta California: the first time on loan to accompany the Sacred Expedition of 1769, the second time a year later to remain in California permanently, a reward for the good success of the Sacred Expedition.

Clearly Our Lady of Bethlehem wanted to continue her work of conquering souls for Heaven in Spain's new territory of Alta California. The impressive list of Baptisms recorded in the Mission archives is proof of her success in this regard. By the time of Fr. Serra's death in 1784 – that is, in just 15 years – the Franciscans had baptized 6, 410 natives (pp. 53-55). A great conquest for Heaven!

Later, with secularization and the abandonment of the Missions, it was descendents of those converted Indians and early colonists who saved and preserved Our Lady of Bethlehem. When the restoration of Carmel Mission began in the 20th century, she and the Christ Child were returned to the rebuilt Church.

Our Lady of Bethlehem Chapel

The side chapel of Our Lady of Bethlhem

Here is the point that struck me in this history: From the very beginning, that first expedition to Alta California in 1769, Our Lady of Bethlehem has been there, a Queen and Mother. A fitting Queen and Mother, so radiant and majestic in her silk gown and jeweled crown, but unfortunately, a forgotten Queen.

It is my hope that this book will help to make Our Lady of Bethlehem better known and loved in our country. Had she been honored as she should have been, perhaps she would have worked marvelous favors and miracles for those coming to her with their woes and troubles.

I believe she would still give many favors and miracles in these dire times if Catholic will just turn to her with confidence. It is certainly a statue with an supernatural air around it, very similar to Our Lady of Good Success in Quito or the statue of Our Lady of Fatima that wept in New Orleans.

The only thing that seems to be missing is the devotion of the people. For this reason, it seems urgent that Our Lady of Bethlehem become better known so that she may intercede for California and our country in the chastisement that is certainly coming.

our lady of bethlehem

Posted December 12, 2018

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