Difunta Correa: the Most Popular Saint in Argentina
Despite the fact that Difunta Correa is not recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church, she is worshipped and included in prayers by millions of people. Her legend originates in Argentina, yet nowadays she is revered in parts of Chile and Uruguay as well. Of course, Chile also played a small part in her becoming so famous – more about that later.
If you have ever travelled by road in Argentina you will have noticed clusters of hundreds, or often thousands, of drink bottles, small and large, right next to roads. As an ignorant Westerner one might first think these are trash mountains – until you notice a shrine hiding among them. On closer inspection, you will discover that all the bottles are filled with water, and then you start wondering what this is all about.
These are shrines devoted to the famous Difunta Correa; famous at least in Argentina. It all began when some shepherds (or mule drivers, depending source), noticed birds of prey circling over a particular spot in the desert in the San Juan province of West Argentina. When they went to investigate they found the corpse of a woman under a Carob tree, who had obviously died of exhaustion and thirst. Miraculously, lying on top of her was a baby boy, still alive, suckling from her breast.
The tales are a little vague, but this seems to have happened some time between 1835 and 1850.
The legend, part myth – part fact, describes how her husband, Clemente Bustos, was forcibly recruited to fight for one side in a civil conflict, and taken to La Rioja. His wife was known as María Antonia Deolinda Correa. Her yearning for her husband grew stronger with every day they were separated until she decided to follow the track of the mercenaries who had abducted her husband.
Ill-prepared, she walked through the inhospitable, scorching, dry country until she finally collapsed at the spot where the shepherds found her. Her body was laid to rest by these shepherds on top of a small hill near to where they found her, marked with a simple cross.
Her tale, and foremost the miraculous survival of her child, became some sort of local folklore. Although it would probably never have reached such widespread popularity if it hadn’t been for a second miracle occurring near the site of her grave.
Around 50 years later, a well known gaucho named Don Pedro Flavio Zeballos was driving his herd of over 500 cattle from eastern Argentina to Chile, in the hope of getting a better price on the other side of the Andes. On this long trek he spent one night near the grave site. During the night a fierce storm passed through, distressing and dispersing his animals.
Since he had heard the legend of Difunta Correa from another gaucho, he swore that if he could recover his herd and thus save his reputation as an outstandingly skilled gaucho, he would build a shrine on top of her grave. The next day, miraculously, he found all of his cattle very near Difunta’s grave. After a successful journey to Chile and the sale of his animals, he returned to fulfill his promise. He erected the first chapel right on top of the grave.
Thus the foundation for today’s sanctuary near Vallecito was laid. The second miracle added to the first and spread further; soon people from near and far began making pilgrimages to the site and praying to Difunta Correa for their own personal miracles. The latest figures indicate that now well over one million people visit the sanctuary every year.
If you visit today you will probably be surprised by the size of it all: it has grown into a small town. Dozens of restaurants, surrounded by even more souvenir shops, snack bars, numerous chapels (often built by the faithful), a hotel, some amusement rides, countless barbecue areas, and even more parking spots are lined up, like pearls on a necklace, along a horseshoe shaped road, which detours from the main road.
And there are vehicles coming and going all through the day and night. Every long-distance bus, every truck driver, and almost every passing car pulls in to pay their respect, either briefly or taking their time. We witnessed one old man crawling up to the shrine on his knees, the entire length of the stairs.
The hill of the shrine is littered with devotional items; one side is completely covered with small hand-crafted models of peoples’ houses or business premises, for which they seek a blessing.
There are also thousands of vehicle number plates, vehicle spare parts, photographs, framed pictures, hand painted signs expressing gratitude, small engraved plaques, and red ribbons fluttering in the breeze everywhere.
Even we couldn’t resist: our truck Berta now has a ribbon hanging in her drivers’ cab reading “Gracias Difunta Correa – Protege mi Mercedes Benz”. It certainly can’t hurt!
If you are interested in unusual sights of religious devotion you might also like our post about 18 Unusual Roadside Shrines .