The search for the most beautiful representation of Our Lady of Fatima began during the time of the apparitions. The three young visionaries were the only ones who saw Our Lady in 1917. Thus, many pilgrims to the site asked the children how she looked. The children invariably replied that she was very beautiful. From this holy curiosity, the pilgrims naturally desired to see a physical representation of what the three children saw.
The first attempt to associate a statue with the apparitions came from Our Lady. During the apparition on September 13, 1917, she told Lucy dos Santos to have two litters made. The money collected in them was to be spent for the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and the rest should be used to build a chapel.1 She was instructed to put a statue of Our Lady of the Rosary in a litter. This first statue represented Our Lady, but it was not an exact image of how she appeared to the young children.
As per her instructions, the Chapel of the Apparitions was built soon after the October 13 apparition. However, two years passed, and there was still no statue to represent Our Lady of Fatima. The pilgrims who flocked to Fatima were disappointed by this lack of an image to inflame their devotion. A young pilgrim, Gilberto Fernandes dos Santos, decided to address this problem. Without consulting any authority, he took it upon himself to find a way to have made the very first Fatima statue.
Thus, the young pilgrim visited the different religious shops in Lisbon to see if there was something there that might have claimed to represent her. Upon finding nothing, he contacted Casa Fanzeres, a shop in the city of Braga that specialized in sacred art, and explained his project to the owner. The artist assigned to the task was José Ferreira Thedim, who took it seriously. He immediately sought descriptions of the apparitions.2 The only surviving seer, Lucy, was no longer available for consultation since she was spirited away to a school and later to an undisclosed convent to spare her from the burden of so many inquiring pilgrims. Her identity was even hidden from her fellow sisters.
The descriptions left by the three children were of little help. For example, when asked to describe Our Lady, the children simply responded that she was beautiful and more resplendent than the sun. One pilgrim showed a picture of his fiancée to Jacinta, one of the visionaries. He asked if The Lady was as beautiful as her. Saint Jacinta responded, “Much more.” One pilgrim pointed out beautiful young women in the crowd, and the children responded that the Lady was “much more beautiful.”
The artist asked for descriptions from Fr. Manuel Nunes Formigão, who had interviewed the three children extensively during the apparitions. He responded with instructions that were unfortunately lost to history. It cannot be ascertained how closely Mr. Thedim followed them. What is known is that Mr. Thedim went to different shops in Porto, looking at different statues of Our Lady popular in Portugal at the time for inspiration. He settled on a statue of Our Lady of Lapa3 to use as a foundation for the project.
This statue clearly influenced his work. On May 13, 1920, it was finished and delivered to the parish in Fatima. Fr. Manuel Ferreira, the same pastor in charge of the parish during the apparitions, blessed it. It was not taken to the apparition site since the Civil Guard was ordered to prevent pilgrims from going to Fatima. On June 13, there was no sign of the guards. The statue was then taken there and placed on a pillar next to the chapel door. It has remained in Fatima ever since and has only left for a brief period a handful of times. It is the oldest fixture of the shrine.
This is how Mr. de Santos described how the crowd received the new statue, which took place at a time of political unrest:
“As there was no persecution, I decided to take the statue of Our Lady of Fatima to the site of the apparition. It was 3:30 p.m. when I arrived with her at the door of the small chapel. I asked people to take their hats off. The moment people saw her, they “knelt on the ground, shouted, prayed aloud, cried, begging forgiveness with raised hands because they were witnessing the same solar phenomenon as on October 13, 1917.”
To this, Fr. John de Marchi adds a detail about what happen when the box that contained the statue was opened. He reports that “a girl of thirteen leaned over it with tears running down her cheeks. It was Lucia. The statue before her revived poignant memories of the events.”4
This statue is nicknamed “the Miraculous Statue,” while it is more commonly known as the Statue of the Chapel of Apparitions. It was the occasion of enormous graces for many pilgrims. The statue presided over so many Fatima ceremonies. Countless miracles are attributed to it, including its survival of a dynamite attack that blew off the chapel roof in 1922 and the famous miracle of the doves.5
Thus, the search for the perfect statue continued. The increasing popularity of devotion to Our Lady of Fatima meant the growth in the number of statues offered to pilgrims. Commercialization at Fatima grew exponentially after the local ordinary officially approved the apparition in 1929. Soon thousands and thousands of statues were in circulation throughout the world.
Based on the description of the three children, the artists of these statues made free use of their imaginations to represent Our Lady. The result was a vast array of statues of different designs, shapes and sizes. Some are clearly influenced by the statue of the Chapel of the Apparitions. Others imitated Baroque representations of the Immaculate Conception with abundant flowing fabric and elaborate gold inlays on her mantle, standing atop a billowing cloud. Some statues added three doves by her feet, not clearly stating whether the birds represented the three children or the miracle of the doves. Yet others resembled Our Lady of Lourdes, adorned with a blue sash. Some statues portrayed her looking up as if in ecstasy, while others portrayed her looking down as if in embarrassment to be looked upon by people.
Even worse, artists added features that children never saw in the apparitions. Thus, statues appeared with a tassel that held her mantle together, flowing hair, gems, wide sleeves and even sandals. Some even portrayed her smiling, contrary to Sr. Lucy’s testimony that Our Lady didn’t ever smile at them.
In 1946, John Haffert, the co-founder of the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima, took over the effort to find the most precise and beautiful Fatima statue. He met with Sr. Lucy and showed her hundreds of pictures of the most beautiful statues of Our Lady of Fatima he had seen in his travels. He had hoped that at least one would come close enough to “her” beauty. Sr. Lucy considered each one attentively but said none of them looked like Our Lady as she appeared at Fatima. Thus, once again, the search continued.
In February of 1947, an American priest who was also a trained sculptor dared to present Sr. Lucy with his attempt. His statue was based on compiling all the known descriptions available and even incorporating the just-then released fourth memoir of Sr. Lucy.7 He shared the intense desire to see a perfect representation of what the children saw at Fatima.
When Fr. McGlynn showed it to Sr. Lucy, her comments discouraged him. She said the portrayal of Our Lady made her seem too old. She did not appear elegant, and the folds of her clothing were too flat. Fr. McGlynn fell into the same trouble as the other artists. His imagination fell short of reality. The New Yorker in him did not give up easily. Seeing the rare opportunity to work directly with Sr. Lucy, he proposed to make another statue under her supervision. It was the perfect arrangement.
Sr. Lucy was not easy to please. Corrections came readily without any concern for how hard they may be to follow. One time Sr. Lucy told him to make her face narrower, which he did. Then she said that the statue looked stout. He made her slimmer. Then she said the mouth needed to be higher. At that point, Fr. McGlynn thought to himself that moving a mouth higher on a clay model would mean reshaping the whole area. When Fr. McGlynn asked for leniency, Sr. Lucy was relentless. She said through their translator, “I can’t tell him I like it if I don’t.”8 What frustrated him the most was her constant enigmatic comment: “It is not as beautiful.” The nun who acted as the translator between Fr. McGlynn and Sr. Lucy tried to console him by saying that beauty is relative to the person.
Alas, Fr. McGlynn returned to America without the perfect statue. He was consoled that the effort resulted in getting some features right, such as the folds of her tunic and mantle, the position of her hands, and how Mary’s Immaculate Heart looked. He returned with a more beautiful statue than the one he had brought to Sr. Lucy.
The effort also bore fruit. McGlynn passed his notes to Mr. Thedim, who was in the process of making the very first pilgrim statue. His work was finished and blessed on May 13, 1947. The result was spectacular. One of Mr. Thedim’s students alleged that the artist liked this statue above all the Fatima statues he had made. It is definitely an accurate statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Even the height is close to the height of the apparition, which Sr. Lucy said was “about a meter high.”
This statue was destined to travel the world as a pilgrim. As soon as she began her pilgrimages, the reception was overwhelming. Mr. Haffert saw that the statue would be scheduled in Europe for many years before she could go to America. Thus, he petitioned the bishop to have a second pilgrim statue made to travel in the Western Hemisphere.
Perhaps encouraged by the warm reception of the first pilgrim statue or emboldened with the certainty of accuracy by Sr. Lucy’s guidance, Mr. Thedim worked on it with unusual fervor. The result was even more spectacular than the first statue. The second pilgrim statue was blessed on October 13, 1947. In 1981, Mr. Haffert arranged to leave the statue with Sr. Lucy overnight. The next day she commented, “that she had never seen a statue, which so resembled the actual apparition of Our Lady.”9 Finally, a statue that satisfied Sr. Lucy was found. And it has touched the lives of hundreds of millions of people ever since.
Her first tour in the United States alone covered 32 dioceses in 20 states and was venerated by 5,000,000 people.10 This statue has not stopped traveling the world since then. This statue cried in New Orleans in July of 1972. The weeping made it world-renowned since hundreds of secular newspapers worldwide published a picture of her tears. The face of this statue has touched hundreds of millions if taking into account all her non-stop travel worldwide organized by the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima (now called World Apostolate of Fatima). There are also holy cards and pictures spread by many movements promoting the Fatima message and over 100,000 rosary rallies promoted by America Needs Fatima over the past decade. Just in the U.S. alone, America Needs Fatima has published innumerable pictures of this statue on its flyers, publications, rosary rally banners and rosary centerpieces.
Other Sources Used: Documentação Crítica de Fátima: seleção de documentos (1917-1930). Fátima: Santuário de Fátima, 2013; A Pathway Under the Gaze of Mary: Biography of Sister Maria Lucia of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart; Vision of Fatima by Fr. Thomas McGlynn, O.P.
- Fatima from the Beginning, Fr. John de Marchi, 114.
- Fr. John de Marchi, 168.
- “I showed him (Dom Jose Correia da Silva, Bishop of Leiria-Fatima) the statue. He apologized for the comment that the face of Our Lady looked too old. The bishop remarked that he knew Lucy did not like the statue at the Sanctuary, which is so greatly venerated, but added that the people did and, therefore, it could not be changed. He himself apparently is greatly attached to that image not only because of its typical Portuguese character but particularly because of the profound impression it had made up on the people throughout the years when Lucy, because of her seclusion, was unable to pass judgment upon any image of Our Lady of Fatima.” (Fr. Thomas McGlynn, Vision of Fatima, 31.)
- Published on December 8, 1941.
- Fr. Thomas McGlynn, Vision of Fatima, 104
- John M. Haffert, To Shake the World: Life of John M. Haffert (Asbury: The 101 Foundation, Inc., 2001), 87; Haffert, Her Own Words, 156.
- The Fatima Century, Thomas J. McKenna, 86.