An image of a breast-feeding Virgin Mary has been quietly making the rounds of homes and hospitals in Manila and nearby provinces, granting wishes of women desperate for a child and having troubles with their milk.
Rhoda Lugtu was among those who can attest to the miracles attributed to the unconventional image of the Blessed Mother, called Our Lady of La Leche, whose roots can be traced back to the 16th century in Spain.
Lugtu and her husband had tried for years to conceive but failed even with medical intervention. One day, amid their despair, they welcomed the image into their home in Manila after hearing stories of miracles from childless couples who had received the breast-feeding Virgin Mary as their guest.
For two weeks, the couple prayed before a statue of Mary barefooted seated on a throne with her right foot resting on a pillow. She was nursing the infant Jesus, his tiny hands clutching the fabric of his mother’s dress.
On the eve of departure of the image, Lugtu realized that she missed her period. A couple of weeks later, her doctor confirmed that she was pregnant.
Inspired by the growing devotion of mothers and mothers-to-be to the breast-feeding Virgin Mary, Nicole Liu also sought her intercession two years ago when she had a complicated pregnancy and later when her baby had difficulty breast-feeding.
“I continued my novena and cried several days for Our Lady to grant us a miracle,” Liu recounted. Days later, her baby started breast-feeding and she realized that she was also granted an ample supply of breast milk.
Another mother, Pearl, said the Blessed Mother also granted her prayers for an abundant supply of breast milk for her baby boy.
“Stories of answered prayers like these have kept us going to propagate the devotion to Our Lady of La Leche,” Remedios Ticzon-Gonzales, founder of Our Lady of La Leche Movement, said in a recent interview.
Gonzales, 72, has been chronicling miracle stories from women who prayed before the image since she founded the movement 12 years ago.
So far, the accounts she gathered have been compiled into a coffee table book. But stories from devotees continue to reach her.
Gonzales said while it was taking some time for the devotion to fully blossom in the country, more Filipino mothers and mothers-to-be were gradually developing a deep connection with the breast-feeding Virgin Mary as they realized the importance of breast-feeding.
Health experts and breast-feeding advocates worldwide reiterate the many health benefits of breast-feeding for mothers and infants as countries, including the Philippines, observe Breast-feeding Month this August.
Studies have shown that a mother’s milk protects infants from certain fatal conditions and diseases. It has also been linked to reduced cancer risks among women.
The Church has also joined the advocacy, approving the propagation of images of the breast-feeding Virgin Mary, which has been shunned by conservatives in the early years of Christianity.
The Church believes that breast-feeding has a paramount role in promoting the holy bond between a mother and child, and the dignity of motherhood. It also believes that the image emphasizes Jesus Christ’s humanity.
Means to holiness
Gonzales said the movement was created to promote among Filipino mothers the devotion to Our Lady of La Leche, who, she said, was the perfect symbol of motherhood.
“Breast-feeding is a means to holiness [so] we are promoting the devotion to the breast-feeding Blessed Mother who is the epitome of holiness,” she said.
The devotion to Our Lady of La Leche started in 1598 in Madrid, where the image, known as Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of the Milk and Good Birth), was said to have been enshrined in the home of a devout couple.
The husband prayed to the image to spare the lives of his dying wife and their unborn child. The Virgin Mary eventually granted his wife a safe delivery.
Upon learning about her intercession, King Philip III initiated the erection of a shrine in honor of Our Lady of La Leche.
More than two decades later, in 1620, the early Spanish settlers in northern America brought a 12-inch replica of the statue to St. Augustine City in Florida. They also built a shrine there on the same spot where the first parish Mass was officiated 55 years earlier.
In the Philippines, nothing much was known about the devotion to the nursing Virgin Mary until Gonzales discovered at her home in Mandaluyong City an image resembling that of the one being venerated in Spain.
Gonzales said that when her uncle, Ramon Ticzon, died in 1999, she inherited from him a family heirloom—an antique statue of the Blessed Mother, who was covered with a black and gold cloth from the neck down.
The statue, believed to be a century old, belonged to her grandmother, who had kept the almost shrouded image in her bedroom. But it was not known how her grandmother ended up owning such an icon, she said.
“I used to see it in her bedroom but it was always covered in cloth that you could see only her face,” she said. But when the statue arrived in her home following her uncle’s death, she decided to clean it and replace its rather gloomy cover.
When she unclothed the statue, the sight of the Virgin Mary’s breast and a healthy baby Jesus suckling it greeted her. “I was so enthralled,” she recalled.
She said all those years, the cloth, which everyone in the family had thought was part of the image, had been concealing its true identity. The cloth, she noted, could only indicate the “prudish ways” of the people in the past.
“I was so inspired by what I saw that the desire to propagate a devotion to this breast-feeding Blessed Mother instantly came to me,” she said, adding that the only problem at that time was that she had no name to call the image.
After going over more than 300 titles of the Virgin Mary on the Internet, she discovered that the image in her home was called Our Lady of La Leche, which has devotees in Spain and in the United States.
With the help of Fr. Nick Blanquisco, Gonzales obtained in 2000 permission from the late Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin to promote the devotion to the nursing Mary.
Following Sin’s approval, Gonzales gathered her women friends to form the movement and started distributing novenas and booklets, and bringing replicas to homes of mothers, expectant mothers and childless couples.
Eventually, the group started reaching out to hospitals, allowing the statue to stay for a week or two in maternity wards.
Recently retired Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales also allowed the propagation to continue in Manila.
Statues of Our Lady of La Leche have been installed in 23 churches and chapels in Metro Manila and in Batangas, Cavite and Mindoro provinces.
Several hospitals have initiated the enthronement of the statues either in their respective neonatal wards or chapels.