Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Mary Is With Us: Our Lady of St. Maryam Dearit, Keren, Eritrea

During this difficult time of Coronavirus, I will be sharing excerpts from the book, Magnificat: Mama Mary’s Pilgrim Sites, a collection of 24 testimonies by people whose lives were changed by Mama Mary.  I hope that these articles remind us that Mary is with us during this difficult time. May you find solace in these personal testimonials.  ~ Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, editor of Magnificat.


St. Maryam Dearit

ERITREA – Shrine of St. Maryam Dearit, Keren

Eritrea’s Christian population is composed mainly of Orthodox and Catholics. Italian influence is evident in the churches of the latter, especially at the Asmara Cathedral where a replica of a miraculous painting of Our Lady of the Rosary in Pompeii continues to attract visitors.

Mother Mary is deeply revered here and it is common practice to add “Mariam” to Eritrean surnames. An example is Gebremariam, which means “servant of the Virgin Mary.”

Christians and Muslims often make pilgrimages to the city of Keren, where a miraculous bronze statue of our Lady is enshrined inside the trunk of a huge Baobab tree.


Aimee Gaboya Ortega-Lucero

TRAVEL became an opportunity when I worked for the United Nations and I did just that -- reaching no less than the “ends of the earth.” This prerequisite, among others, motivated me to join peacekeeping missions when my desk job at its New York Headquarters, as well as my personal life, became stale and confining.

My first mission was Cambodia. Although it was a very satisfying work experience, my personal focus then was on the mundane. It was only after I crossed the waters of the Black and Red Seas to assume my last assignment that I found inspiration to chart another kind of sea change.

Peacekeeping missions are not for everyone. We often served in difficult and demanding situations. Working and living conditions were sometimes dangerous. But the precariousness of it all taught me valuable life skills. And while the true impact of my experiences may have taken some time to dawn, the significance is transcendent and the signposts are uniquely my own.

My work brought me to places that awed me, like the House of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus, Turkey; the shrine of our Lady in Medjugorje, Bosnia and Hercegovina; and the Saint Maryam Dearit Chapel in Keren, Eritrea.

I spent six years at the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG). The mission, which was second to my last assignment, was established to achieve political settlement between the Republic of Georgia and Abkhazia. These two amazing regions are geographically linked to each other by the mountains of the Caucasus and the Black Sea coast.

The inhabitants of Abkhazia, where I was based, were mostly Christians. Church buildings abounded in the area but they were either Eastern Orthodox or Armenian Apostolic. One church was reputedly erected over the tomb of St. John Chrysostom. And curiosity emboldened me twice to climb to a mountain cave where, according to legend, the saint lived in complete silence. Places of worship may have filled the landscape, but I missed the comfort of Catholic rites. So for the duration of my stay there, I was able to attend services only during home leave or when I visited Tbilisi, Georgia; the Russian city of Sochi; or Turkey. To remedy my growing guilt, I collected paintings of churches and Madonnas.

There was an old stone church inside the guarded hotel compound where we worked and lived. My colleagues and I cleaned it up, placed Mother Mary’s pictures there, offered flowers and lit candles. But I couldn’t pray! So I’d walk to the beach to watch the sunset burst in purples and pinks over the Black Sea. And I’d search for perfect stones.

While on vacation, I went to Izmir on Turkey’s western coast to visit the house of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus. She supposedly spent her last days there, based on the traditional belief that Jesus entrusted her to Saint John’s care.

The modern history of Mother Mary's House is unusual. It was "discovered" in 1812 by an invalid German nun, Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, who never traveled away from her home. The stigmatic nun had a vision of the Virgin Mary traveling with Saint John from Jerusalem to Ephesus. Her detailed description of Mother Mary's house was recorded at her bedside by a writer named Brentano.

Catholic officials visited Ephesus and the house was turned into a shrine. Muslims, familiar with Mary’s name that is frequently mentioned in the Koran, also visit the site.

The spring that runs under the house is believed to have healing properties, and many miracles have been reported. I filled to the brim a store-bought bottle pre-labeled “Eau de Meryemana Ephese” and pinned my petitions on a wall. And though I was awed by the spiritual significance of the shrine, the increasing growth of “spiritual tourism” in the area was very distracting. Revved up by my tour guide’s well-rehearsed enthusiasm, I was only too eager to see the carpet factories, ancient ruins, and most especially, to taste the local cuisine. Little did I know then the difference between a glorified vacation and a real pilgrimage.

When my UNOMIG assignment ended, my boss invited me to join his new team at the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE). The mission was established to monitor a ceasefire in the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. I was excited to see Africa but there were problems with my official release.

My return air tickets to New York were already issued. I didn’t want to go back to a desk job and in my restlessness, Medjugorje came to mind. So I searched the Internet and was immediately directed to a site called the Medjugorje Web Pilgrimages. Coincidentally, a group tour from the United States was scheduled that very week and I was able to join by land, if only for three days. So instead of going straight home to New York via Istanbul, I left Abkhazia days early to make a side trip to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. A driver named Jure picked me up from my hotel and I rode his old Mercedes taxi all the way to Medjugorje. The trip along the Adriatic Coast took less than three hours, and this included a short stop so my driver could buy fresh fish.

A private room with bath was reserved for me in Mirjana Brecic’s home in Podbrdo. She is the oldest sister of Vicka, one of the visionaries. But while waiting for my group to arrive by motor coach from Split, Croatia, I hurriedly took a day trip in the same Mercedes taxi to Dubrovnik.

The house where I stayed was very close to the apparition hill. With a borrowed wooden cane, I struggled with the rocks and stones that lined the path to the sacred spot. But upon reaching it, I understood why they say heaven touches the earth in Medjugorje.

It was All Souls Week. A novice in the devotional practices of the shrine, I walked with more knowledgeable pilgrims to the cemetery at nightfall. Encircling the tombs, we said special prayers by candlelight, hoping to release some lost souls to heaven. Our “quiet time” broke only after someone wondered loudly if our Lady was passing by.

My religious articles kept on accumulating and I would bring them twice daily to the parish church of Saint James for blessings: Once in the morning during the English mass, and then again during the evening services so the Virgin Mary could bless them too. I dabbed my rosaries with the water dripping inexplicably from a statue of Jesus.

Although I missed much of the tour’s full itinerary, my visit to the Cenacolo made up for the loss. And it was there where I bought my most precious souvenirs: two small picture frames of the Virgin Mary handcrafted by its rehabilitating members.

The visionaries said that nobody goes to Medjugorje by accident and that we are called individually by our Lady. I also learned that pilgrims go on pilgrimage not necessarily to see something, but to receive something, such as renewed spirit, greater devotion, or a closer relationship with God. But I may have trivialized the experience by behaving like a tourist. My sightseeing trip to Dubrovnik, as well as my frequent visits to the village shops, proved that I was not able to separate myself completely from the world.

And yet, my UNMEE assignment became official after two months of prayerful waiting and I was posted to Asmara, the Eritrean capital.

Eritrea has an extensive coastline on the Red Sea. Mussolini had wanted to establish it as a strong industrial base for Italian colonies in the Horn of Africa. The Asmara Catholic Cathedral is considered one of the major works of art in the continent. The Cathedral has a beautiful painting on its main altar, a replica of a miraculous image enshrined at the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary in Pompeii, Italy. The Baby Jesus is sitting on Mother Mary’s lap and Mother and Son are handing out rosaries to Saint Dominic and Saint Catherine of Siena.

The availability of church services in Eritrea solidified something that was growing within me. And as fate would have it, a colleague from Cambodia days was also assigned to the Mission. Her piety was contagious. Together, we would borrow the UN land cruiser to catch the Italian evening mass, stay late for prayers, and still reach home before curfew. Her name, coincidentally, was Maria from Damascus, Syria.

Our prayer group was very active and while our excursions to the Red Sea made me wonder each time how it parted during biblical times, Divine Providence may have led us to Keren, some 91 kilometers north-west of Asmara. The city is an important commercial centre. It was also the scene of many battles, including World War II, and the Eritrean War of Independence.

In 1869, a group of French nuns opened an orphanage in the Keren area and cultivated orchards. The Lazarists gave them a bronze statue of the Virgin Mary and they carved a shrine inside the trunk of a huge Baobab tree to house her. The shrine is called St. Maryam (Mariam) Dearit. The tree is about 75 feet high.

One legend tells that a group of Italian soldiers saw a beautiful lady beckoning them to hide inside the shrine to avoid attack from British planes during World War II. A bomb struck the tree and landed in the soldiers’ midst. But it didn't explode and the soldiers survived. The hole can still be seen on the walls of the tree. Every May 29th, people of all faiths flock to Keren to commemorate the miracle. A procession is held and the statue of the Virgin Mary is carried around the Baobab tree, followed by singing and dancing.

We removed our shoes before entering the Baobab. This time, I was able to place things in their proper perspective, opening myself to Mother Mary’s presence in the simple shrine. The statue is believed to have healing powers. Pictures of loved ones hung on the walls. And local women brewed coffee in the shade of the tree, confident they would be blessed with children if a passing traveler accepts a cup.

I left Asmara after three years, entrusting to a local staff one of my two pictures of our Lady of Medjugorje.

A pilgrim has been described as half a tourist if the tourist is half a pilgrim. While the description fits, breaking the cycle should come easy now that I know what’s more important: that the success of a pilgrimage cannot be measured by the number of sacred sites visited or by the quantity of souvenirs bought. What truly matters is the person’s intention, as well as his/her transformation.

Peacekeeping has been more than a fulfilling work experience. By traveling the network of routes to help missions carry out its mandates to help countries rebuild themselves, I found my own mission in the process. My biggest question now is how to build a faith-centered life.

I pray for depth and wisdom, just like the Black Sea and its positive water balance. So one day, I’d be able to say that I’ve been true to my own salt — just like the highly saline waters of the Red Sea.

BIO of author:

AIMEE GABOYA ORTEGA LUCERO became a wife and mother right after graduation from St. Theresa’s College, Manila. She had completed kindergarten and high school in St. Theresa’s College, Cebu, where she was born. When her children (Michael and Tahnee) were pre-teens, she went to New York and worked at the United Nations. Her family followed her to New York. She retired after twenty-five years of service. She currently lives in New York and is busy as a wife, mother but now, a grandmother.


Book: Magnificat: Mama Mary’s Pilgrim Sites

Collected and Edited by Cecila Manguerra Brainard

Hard copies available from Philippine Expressions Bookshop: 1-310-548-8148 or 1-310-514-9139

Anvil, 2012, softcover, 168 pages, ISBN 9789712727115

Available from Amazon Kindle

Contributors are: Lucy Adao McGinley, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Angelita Caluag Cruz, Maria Ciocon, Celeste, Ma. Ceres P. Doyo, Millicent Dypiangco, Ma. Milagros T. Dumdum, Penelope V. Flores, Almira Astudillo Gilles, Ma. Teresita Herrera-Tan, Fe Aida Lacsamana-Reyes, Jaime C. Laya, Guia Lim, Linda Nietes-Little, Ma. Teresa Z. Lopez, Aimee Gaboya Ortega Lucero, Lynley Salome R. Ocampo, Ma. Cristina Padilla-Sendin, Marsha C. Paras, Rev. Dr. Sebastian Periannan, Brian Ascalon Roley, Julia H. Wolski, and Linda Yamamoto.
Praise for Magnificat

“This is another outstanding book by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard. Profoundly Marian and beautifully written by the contributors as these are their personal experiences! To our fellow devotees and would-be devotees of the Blessed Virgin Mary, you will surely fall in love with Magnificat: Mama Mary’s Pilgrim Sites and love Our Blessed Mother even more.” (Bishop Leopoldo C. Jaucian, SVD, DD, Bishop of Bangued, Philippines)

“The devotion to Mama Mary is strong in the hearts of every Filipino.” (Father James B. Reuter, SJ)

“The Magnificat has always been a testament to God’s paradoxical dealings with his people. This book assembles a tableau of witnesses to how a fleeting visit with Mary can turn into a life-changing introduction to her Son. Through their stories the author offers their readers the distinct possibility of setting the stage for a personal, if vicarious, epiphany.” (Father Dionisio M. Miranda, SVD, President, University of San Carlos in Cebu)

“Running as a leitmotif in all the essays in this book is the writers’ palpable love for Mama Mary. Each writer has undergone a change in his or her life or outlook following a visit to a Marian site. Some may have experienced a “miracle,” or felt consoled and renewed; others a deepening of spirituality, or an epiphany, an insight into the divine. Although we know that Jesus is the only Way to the Father, it is our belief in the power of Mary’s intercession to her Son, borne out of the Bible’s Cana story, that makes us all turn to Her, whom Her divine Son will never refuse. Kudos to Cecilia Manguerra Brainard for putting together an engaging collection of stories that magnify the humble handmaid of the Lord.” (Erlinda E. Panlilio, Writer and Editor)

This blog is also published in Cecilia's official website:

Tags: book review, Marian, Mama Mary, Our Lady of Maryam, Catholic, religion, Christianity, anthology, Medugorje, Coronavirus, Covid 19

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