Portugal Assembles for a Miracle September/October, 1917

Throughout all Portugal the story prospered. Never before had a miracle been so obligingly pinpointed on the calendar, with the month, the day and the very hour so precisely predicted. The children, if crazy, were certainly courageous. Their calm insistence was enough to shrink the scalp of a sceptic, or to send a pious, easily persuaded citizen running for his beads.

The forces of the new “enlightenment” found the situation not only amusing, but highly opportune. Here at last the sly, conniving Mother Church had gone too far, and her simple sheep, spoon-fed for centuries on superstition, were about to absorb a fatal overdose.

Avelino de Almeida, a celebrated Lisbon journalist, published a humorous article in the Seculo, in which he skilfully lampooned the whole affair. Senhor Almeida’s chore for his paper, the most widely circulated in the nation, did much to advertise the scheduled “miracle” and to fatten the ranks of both the scoffers and the faithful, who would journey on October 13 to that rough and humble chalice of earth known as the Cova da Iria.

In Lucia’s house, things did not go well. It is probable that in all the Christian communities of Portugal faith in the children and their Lady was nowhere so wan, emaciated and trembling as it was in their native village. It was true enough that less than a month before, in the Cova da Iria, the faith of many had soared as serenely as a straw hat scaled in the breeze; it was true indeed that a seemingly mystical and enchanting globule of light had hovered above the little oak tree where the children prayed, and equally true that many eyes had seen it duplicate the journey from earth to sky that Lucia described as her Lady’s path. But it didn’t help a great deal now. The children and their families had been warned of the wrath that would befall them if the promised miracle did not take place. Fear moved into the Santos house like a goblin, and faith seemed to have departed from all but Lucia, her two little cousins, and her steadfast uncle, Ti Marto.

Maria dos Anjos has told us:

My family was very much concerned. As the thirteenth of the month drew closer, we kept telling Lucia that she should forget all these wild stories she had invented, because otherwise all of us would suffer. My father was difficult with her, and especially when he was drinking, he was very, very bad, except that he did not beat her. It was my mother who did that.
We kept hearing reports that if the miracle was a failure our house would be bombed. We were terror-stricken, and our neighbours believed it, too. In our fears it seems that we believed everything, and everyone, but Lucia. People advised my mother to take Lucia away, but she did not know what she should do. Certainly at this time she did not believe.
“If it is really our Lady,” my mother said, “there could have been a miracle already. She could have made a spring come up, or something like that. But, no – even when it rains in that place there is no more than a drop of water. Where will all of it end?”
Only the children remained unexcited. One day, I remember, I went to them at the well behind our house, and I said to them:
“All right,” I said, “when are you three going to admit that nothing happened in the Cova da Iria? People are saying that they will put down bombs to destroy our houses. Why don’t you tell me the truth so I can tell Father Ferreira? He can then tell the truth to the people in the church, and all of this will be over. Shall I do that?”
Lucia frowned and said nothing to me. Only Jacinta spoke. She was crying, because I did not believe her, and I remember how little and squeaky her voice was.
“Say what you want,” she told me. “Believe what you like, Maria, but we have seen the Lady; it is true!”

Lucia’s mother was not having a happy time of it. A fretful woman, disposed to tears and prophecies of doom, she was convinced that assassins were lurking near, eager to pounce on her vision-addicted daughter and herself. Her husband, Antonio Santos, was no help. He would much rather have had a drink of wine, than a visit from an angel. Pointedly, and somewhat vulgarly, he had dismissed the mystical pretensions of his daughter. He was badgered and confused, and clearly unhappy with it all, and he must have had a difficult time with his wife, Maria Rosa, whose panic advanced to such a point that on October 12 she roused her daughter at dawn, demanding they go to confession – now!

“Why, Mamma?” said Lucia, sleepily.

“Because everyone says we will probably be killed tomorrow in the Cova da Iria – do you hear me? If your Lady does not perform her miracle, the people will attack us.”

“Oh, Mamma – please,” said Lucia.

“Kill us, I said, daughter. And so we had better go to confession. We had better be prepared.”

“Well, if you must go, Mamma,” Lucia said softly, “I will go with you, but not for that reason. I’m not afraid of being killed – really I am not, and besides, I know the Lady will do all that she promised to do.”

Maria Rosa abandoned her pleas. As this point she gave up, less to conviction, perhaps, than to helplessness and sheer fatigue. But she managed to survive these difficult hours, and at night to find her bed, aware that tomorrow would be the momentous, decisive day.

It rained through the night and through all the following morning. The hills were drenched. The trees leaned with the weight of wind and rain. Where wagons turned and people marched, the roads were bad, the mud churned ankle-deep.

Lucia prepared for her scheduled journey to the Cova da Iria, intending first to join Francisco and Jacinta at their house. Her mother was in no mood this morning to belabour her, either with words, or the handle of a broom. Evidently convinced that this was to be her youngest daughter’s final day on earth, Maria Rosa had an erratic turn of disposition; she was tenderly compassionate. The pressure of events appears to have given her a new charge of courage, and she resolved, rather suddenly, that she would go with Lucia to the place of the apparitions.

“If my daughter is going to die,” she announced dramatically, “I want to die with her.”

Her obedient and puzzled husband joined the dismal company. They set off in the rain for the Marto household up the street, and it was here, at the Marto’s, that the local commotion had reached its hysterical zenith. The calm and observing Ti Marto himself, has reviewed for us the opening scene of this highly memorable day.

Ti Marto observed:

The people filled our little house so that you could not move an inch. Outside it was raining so heavily you could not see through the thickness of the falling water. Everywhere mud covered the ground.
Inside the house, the people were inconsiderate and wild with their fervour and their curiosity. With their muddy shoes they climbed on the furniture, and stood without apology on the beds. My poor wife! I remember her distress at this, but there was nothing we could do. I said to her, “Never mind, wife; at least it cannot get worse, for it is so crowded now that nobody else could possibly get in!”
A lady from the town of Pambalinho had come to our house with special dresses for Lucia and my Jacinta to wear that day. The dress for Lucia was blue and Jacinta’s was white. The lady dressed the girls herself, with great care.
But such excitement in the house! A neighbour came to me with great anxiousness. “Ti Marto, you must not go today,” he said. “People will not hurt the children, because they are so little, but with you it is another matter.”
“Yes, but I’m going,” I told this man. “I’m going because I have faith in all the children have said, and I do not believe it will go badly.”
This I truly believed, but with my poor wife it was not so easy. She had great devotion to our Lady, I know, but she was impressed by all the priests and people who said it could not be as our children claimed. She was afraid, poor woman, but not Jacinta and Francisco. They were not in the least perturbed.
“Father,” Jacinta said to me, “why should we worry? If we are killed, we will go to heaven, and those poor people who sought to harm us, they will go to hell for their sins.”
So when the children were dressed and ready, we left the house, going out into such a rain as you never did see. Out on the road we began to meet people who were not cynical; indeed we began to meet those who were foolish in another way. Women, and even fine ladies, were kneeling down in the thick mud before the children as they passed.
“My good people,” I said, “you must leave the children alone.”
But they kept crowding closer and getting more emotional, as though these little children had the power of saints. After a long and difficult time we at last arrived at the Cova da Iria. The crowd was so thick that we could not pass through. A man who was a chauffeur picked up my Jacinta at this time and carried her into the field, shouting, “Make way for the children who saw our Lady!” I followed them, and Jacinta, who could see me struggling among so many people, was frightened, lest something happen to me, and she cried out to the people: “Do not push my father! Do not hurt him!”
At last the chauffeur who carried her was able to reach the little oak tree and place her down, although the crush of people here was so great and frightening that Jacinta began to cry. Francisco and Lucia managed then to make their way. My wife, Olimpia, had not been able to get through, but I remember seeing Maria Rosa there.
It was at this time that I saw a man bearing down on me with a stick upraised, but before he could accomplish anything, the people nearby had closed their ranks against him, and when the great moment of that day arrived, it was quiet and orderly by the little tree.

This simple and restrained account by Ti Marto does not convey the full proportions of the first great pilgrimage to Fatima on October 13th, 1917. The drama and the haunting mystery of the previous apparitions – at least as word-of-mouth and press accounts, had filtered through – had thrilled the spirits and heightened the hope of nearly all religious people in the land. Even the clergy – tightlipped, sceptical, and justifiably in fear of a shameful fiasco – waited tremulously, as citizens of a nation already torn by bitter religious dissent.

We have at hand a variety of newspaper accounts, taken from journals of differing political policy and tone, and while tempted to print them all, we are aware their bulk would tax the limits of this book. The following is from an article in the newspaper, O Dia, which we now know to have been written by Dona Madalena Patricio:

The hamlets, villages and towns in the proximity appeared to be depopulated. For days beforehand, groups of excursionists were to be seen on the way to Fatima. The fishermen from Vieira left nets and wooden houses by the sea and came swinging through the pine woods. Artisans from Marinha, farmers from Monte Real… serra folk from much further afield, from every place where news of the miracle had penetrated, the people left their houses and their fields, and came to Fatima by horse, carriage, on foot, by every means of transport. The roads through the pines and the mountains echoed during these two days, with the noise of traffic and the voices of the pilgrims.
Autumn was reddening the vines, stripped after the vintage. The cold north-west wind announced the coming of winter… and all night and into the morning a sad, drizzling rain fell. Damp and cold, it penetrated into the bones of those who, with their families and animals, were flocking along the roads which led to the miraculous mountain.
The rain fell and fell. The cotton skirts of the women dripped and hung like lead around their ankles. Water poured from the new caps and hats which had been donned in honour of the day. Boots and bare feet splashed through the muddy puddles… and up on the mountain there was what appeared to be a large dark stain – thousands upon thousands of God’s creatures waiting for a miracle, a blessing, and an alleviation in the bitterness of life….

These observations cover the mass movement of pilgrims approaching Fatima from the direction of Leiria and the ancient cathedral city of Batalha. Signs of equal fervour and spiritual excitement were witnessed on the road leading into Fatima from Vila Nova de Ourem, and the following account was presented by Avelino de Almeida, serving as special reporter for the Seculo, the most widely read Portuguese newspaper of the day. It was Senhor Almeida whose competent hand had satirised earlier the amusing rash of “miracles” alleged to have broken out in the hills. He writes objectively and well:

Senhor Almeida writes:

On the road we can see the first groups of people making their way to the holy place, which is about twelve miles from here.
Men and women are for the most part barefooted, the latter carrying their shoes in bags on their heads, while the men lean on thick sticks and are also prudently armed with umbrellas. Apparently indifferent to what is going on around them, they do not seem to notice the countryside, nor their fellow-travellers, but murmur the Rosary as they go along immersed in thought.
A woman recites the first part of the Ave Maria, and immediately her companions continue the second part in chorus. They move rhythmically and rapidly in order to reach the place of the apparitions before nightfall. Here, under the stars they will sleep, keeping the first and best places near the little tree.
At the entrance to the town, women of the people, apparently influenced by the atheistic tone of the place, mockingly interchange impressions on the topic of the day, while the believers pursue their way indifferent to everything alien to the object of their journey. During the night the most varied types of vehicles have arrived in the square, bringing their loads of the devout and the curious.
At daybreak fresh groups hurry through the town, and the habitual quiet is broken by singing of the most varied kind.
At sunrise the weather looks threatening. Black clouds gather exactly over Fatima but this does not deter the people who by now are flocking in from all sides, employing every means of transport. There are luxurious motor cars travelling at speed, ox carts pulled in to the side of the road, victorias, closed carriages, carts in which seats are improvised and in which not another soul could be squeezed. Everyone is provided with food, both for themselves and for the beasts… valiantly playing their part.
Here and there one sees a cart decorated with greenery, and although there is an air of discreet festivity, people are sober and well-mannered. Donkeys bray at the side of the road and the innumerable cyclists make prodigious efforts not to collide with the carts.
By ten o’clock the sky was completely hidden behind the clouds, and the rain began to fall in earnest. Swept by the strong wind and beating upon the faces of the people, it soaked the macadam and the pilgrims, often without protection against the weather, to the marrow of their bones. But no one complained or turned back, and if some took shelter under trees or walls, the great majority continued on their journey with remarkable indifference to the rain.
The place where the Virgin is alleged to have appeared is fronted to a large extent by the road which leads to Leiria, along which the vehicles bringing the pilgrims are parked. But the great mass of the people congregate round the oak tree which, according to the children, is the Vision’s pedestal. It can be imagined as the center of a large circle round which the spectators gather to watch events.
Seen from the road, the general effect is picturesque. The peasants, sheltering under their huge umbrellas, accompany the unloading of fodder with the singing of hymns and the recitation of the decades of the Rosary in a matter-of-fact way. People plod through the sticky clay in order to see the famous oak tree with its wooden arch and hanging lanterns, at closer quarters.
At one moment a terrified hare runs through the crowd and is hardly noticed except by half a dozen or so of small boys, who catch and kill it.


The crowd waiting in the rain.

Many attempts have been made to compute the number of pilgrims who made the difficult journey to Fatima in October, 1917. Only one thing is altogether certain. It was a tragic problem such as had never beset this obscure and lonely section of the hills. Professor Garrett, of Coimbra University, has estimated a crowd of one hundred thousand, though admittedly he had no means of gauging the actual number to any fine degree. A more generally accepted figure is 70,000, a staggering total at the time. In any event, it was such a vast and unaccustomed crush of humans, that amateur statisticians attempted to count the vehicles that passed at certain points. A reporter from the paper, Diario de Noticias, dutifully counted 240 carts, 135 bicycles and 100 cars that returned from Fatima to Vila Nova de Ourem, and while it is true that in America today we can count 100 cars outside of any thriving supermarket, we are speaking of Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, when an automobile was almost as rare as a five-legged calf. Obviously this reporter did not count oxen, donkeys, horses, mules, or that primary means of transport in those days of grace, a peasant’s feet.

Maria da Capelinha recalls:

Even on the twelfth of the month, which was the day before, there were so many people that it was hard to believe. They made such a noise that I could hear them even as far away as my own village. They had to sleep out in the open, completely uncovered, because there was no shelter at the Cova.
Before sunrise on the thirteenth, the people were praying and singing. I came very early myself, and managed to get close to the oak tree, which was now little more than a stripped trunk of a tree, although I had decorated it with ribbons and flowers the evening before. For myself, I felt very sad that this was to be the last of our Lady’s visits, but like everyone else, I was longing to see the promised miracle.
I remember how it was that day, how difficult for the children for a while. There was a priest whom I did not know, and this priest had spent the whole night here. Just before noon, when I began to notice him, he was saying his Breviary. When the children arrived then, dressed as though for their first Communion, this priest asked them directly what time our Lady would appear.
“At midday, Father,” Lucia said.
And then the priest looked at his watch and said to Lucia,
“Listen, it is midday now. Are you trying to tell us that our Lady is a liar? Well, child? Well?”
He was aggressive, this priest, and impatient with the children, and very suspicious. In a few minutes he looked at his watch again.
“It is past noon now,” he said derisively. “Cannot all you people see that this is just a delusion? That it is nonsense? Go home, everyone, go home!”
He began to push the three little children with his hands, but Lucia would not go. She was very close to tears, yet full of faith.
“Our Lady said she would come, Father,” Lucia said firmly, and I know that she will keep her promise.”