Martin DeSoto had more than just his doctors to thank after successful surgery last year to repair a detached retina in his right eye.
During his recovery, the Tucson native learned that a casual friend had gone to Mission San Xavier on his behalf to pin a milagro to the blanket covering the resting figure of St. Francis. The small metal offering that was left in his name resembled a pair of eyeglasses, and DeSoto has no doubt the gesture worked.
“I’m sure, because I’m doing really good now,” said the San Xavier regular, who also volunteers as a docent and serves on the nonprofit board in charge of preserving the mission. “There’s always people doing things for other people. It’s life-giving.”
As families gather this week for elaborate Thanksgiving feasts, an older, more intimate ritual of prayer and gratitude continues to unfold at Southern Arizona’s most famous church. Every day, worshippers in need of a miracle to help an ailing relative or heal a broken heart will pin their own milagros to the mission’s namesake saint.
The charms come in a variety of unusual shapes, from praying figures and body parts to farm animals, trucks and houses.
Their exact symbolism is open to interpretation. Their true meaning is known only to the people who leave them. Sometimes it’s best not to guess, as with one milagro left at the mission years ago that appeared to depict a handgun with a pair of testicles attached to it.
“Everyone has their own take on it”
Milagros is Spanish for miracles, and “they can be used to request, or they can be used to say thank you,” according to famed folklorist and author Jim Griffith, who lives less than a mile from Mission San Xavier. “If you want a miracle, you pray for it. If the saint does something for you, you do something for the saint.”
“These relationships are personal and two-way with the santo,” Griffith said.
There are no written rules for the use of milagros, he said. The custom is handed down from generation to generation, so different families practice it in different ways. “Everyone has their own take on it,” Griffith said.
At San Xavier, worshippers leave photos, handwritten notes, clumps of hair, X-rays and sonograms. In recent days, the saint’s blanket was decorated with three hospital bracelets, including one belonging to an 18-year-old man.
People give thanks to the saint with bouquets of flowers, a new blanket or pillow for his bed, or a simple handwritten note.
“Thank you San Xavier for curing my kidneys,” read one recent note, neatly printed in Spanish on a torn piece of cardboard. “Keep caring for me and all my family. I love you very much.”
An ancient custom still important today
But metal charms are the most popular local currency for this personal, spiritual transaction.
“More milagros are offered at Mission San Xavier than at any other place in Arizona,” wrote anthropologist and author Eileen Oktavec in “Answered Prayers,” her definitive 1995 book on the ritual. “The many milagros hanging on the statue of St. Francis are testimony to people’s belief that prayers can be answered and miracles do occur.”
According to Oktavec, the ancient folk custom can be traced back to the Old World, though such spiritual offerings are also common among indigenous people in the Americas. The practice is still widespread at Catholic and Greek Orthodox sites around the world.
Milagros are especially popular in Mexico, but offerings of tiny metal people, animals, body parts and other shapes also can be seen at churches and shrines in other parts of the United States with large populations of Mexican, Mexican American and American Indian Catholics.
DeSoto said he has seen people crawl through Mission San Xavier on their knees to commune with “San Francisco.” “It’s so important to people,” he said.
Prayers come in all shapes and sizes
A few religious stores in Tucson stock milagros, many of which are made in Mexico.
The gift shop at San Xavier doesn’t sell the charms, but it does keep a variety of them behind the counter for anyone who asks.
On a recent Friday, gift shop clerk Becky Lujan pulled out one of two plastic boxes stamped with the word “milagros” and opened the lid. Inside, compartments typically used to sort craft supplies or fishing tackle were filled instead with hundreds of charms separated into such categories as “legs and feet,” “arms and hands” and “ears, babies and lips.”
“There’s even a bottle here, maybe for alcoholism, I don’t know,” said longtime gift shop clerk Laverne Morillo. “It’s up to the individual.”
Symbols of hearts and women seem to be the most popular, she said.
Anyone is welcome to take a milagro or two in exchange for a donation, but Morillo said the charms are meant to be used in prayer, not worn as jewelry or kept as souvenirs.
Lujan said she gets at least one request a day from someone looking for milagros, and it can happen a dozen times or more on a busy Saturday or Sunday. “Sometimes people ask what they are and then want to try it,” she said.
Rev. William Minkel — better known as Father Bill — took over as pastor at the mission in September. Before that, he served the church on the Tohono O’odham Reservation, where he said he also saw people leaving offerings.
“These things aren’t necessarily promoted by the church as I know it,” Minkel said, but he certainly respects the history and importance of the custom.
The mission’s staff tries to leave the milagros up as long as they can, he said, but St. Francis tends to get cluttered and needs to be cleaned from time to time. That’s when the charms are removed and recycled.
“We take them off, and they go back into the gift shop,” Father Bill said.
No busy season; miracles are needed year-round
The mission’s wooden figure of St. Francis has an interesting history of its own, Griffith said. It was the statue of Christ on the cross at Tumacacori Mission until 1849, when Apache raids forced residents to pack their saints and flee that community.
Griffith said the effigy has been on display to the west of the main altar at San Xavier since the 1890s at least. Initially the statue represented the body of Christ in his tomb. Then around the time of World War I, it was recast as the revered 16th-century Jesuit missionary.
Each year in early October, thousands of Catholics gather to celebrate St. Francis Xavier at the Tucson area mission or the cathedral in the Sonoran city of Magdalena de Kino, 60 miles south of Nogales.
But there is no busy season for milagros. Griffith said people need miracles year round.
“It’s not calendrical. It’s demand and supply,” he said.
As for his own personal relationship with St. Francis, Griffith said he tries to concentrate on the gratitude side of the equation.
“Whenever I get out of some kind of major surgery that involves being knocked out, I make it over there and leave my hospital bracelet on him,” he said.
Contact reporter Henry Brean at email@example.com or 520-573 4283.
On Twitter: @RefriedBrean.