TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Ask the waitress at La Terraza de Don Pepe, a neon-lit restaurant in this capital city’s shabby downtown, where the Virgin is and she waves toward the back, past the diners tucking into mounds of rice, beans, plantains and shrimp.
There, behind glass and a ragged bead curtain, is a replica of a tiny historic figurine depicting the patron saint of Honduras, Our Lady of Suyapa, revered for her power to work miracles. The original figurine was lost and then recovered in the men’s room of the restaurant almost a quarter-century ago, and people still visit the little shrine to pray at the spot where she was found. Plastic roses and carnations grace the alcove, along with a flutter of lempira notes, the country’s currency, left for the poor.
To many Hondurans, the little saint has taken on special significance in a political crisis that has uncovered pent-up social hostility since the president was deposed nearly four months ago. To many here, it seems this country has lost its way, and they have turned to their miracle-working saint to put it back on track.
In a little chapel in the back of La Terraza, newspaper clippings plastering the wood-paneled walls describe how luck, and most likely remorse, rescued her.
About 2 centimeters high, the original carved cedar figurine was snatched from its sanctuary in a church in the village of Suyapa on the capital’s outskirts in the early morning hours of September 2, 1986. That evening, a radio host received an anonymous call: The Virgin was safe, left in the men’s room at the restaurant. Sure enough, she was there, wrapped in newspaper. However, her gold and silver vestments; apron of precious stones; and silver crown were gone.
The archbishop was called, a crowd gathered and the Virgin was returned home to the church that night.
At Mass on a recent Sunday at the hilltop basilica dedicated to Our Lady of Suyapa — the patron saint not only of Honduras but of all Central America — worshipers asked God to give each side of the political divide the wisdom it needed to find an agreement.
“Nobody has the truth,” said Sebastian Valero, 57, a shopkeeper. “I have my truth, they have their truth. The only one who can resolve it is God.”
His wife, Maria Elena, added, “The worst thing is that even brothers are fighting.”
Earthly mediation has stumbled. In June, the military ousted the elected president, Manuel Zelaya, and replaced him with Roberto Micheletti. Both men claim to be the president. Each side’s supporters regard the other’s with contempt. Each invokes God on its behalf.
Even the Roman Catholic Church is split. The church establishment, led by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, supported the ouster of Zelaya on June 28, although it condemned his expulsion from the country. Rodriguez also warned Zelaya not to return, to avoid bloodshed.
Zelaya did return, and Andres Tamayo, a Catholic priest and environmental activist, has been ministering to him and about 60 others who have taken refuge in the Brazilian Embassy for the past month.
Tamayo’s Sunday Mass inside the embassy was broadcast by pro-Zelaya radio stations before they were shut down by the de facto government.
Radio Progreso, a Jesuit-run radio station that supports Zelaya’s return to power and is based in the country’s second largest city, San Pedro Sula, remains on the air. Its director, Father Ismael Moreno, has said that his employees have received death threats sent by text message.
For a moment, it seemed that another man of the cloth, Tegucigalpa’s auxiliary bishop, Juan Jose Pineda, would help bring the two sides together. He had been shuttling between Zelaya at the Brazilian Embassy and Micheletti’s government in the presidential palace with a proposal for a new round of negotiations. But those talks have snagged on one issue, Zelaya’s return to the presidency.
According to tradition, Our Lady of Suyapa — known as “La Morenita,” or “The Dear Little Dark One” — was found by a peasant, Alejandro Colindres, in 1747 as he bedded down for the night alongside the road and felt a jab in his ribs. He kept pushing the offending object away, but it kept finding its way back to disturb his sleep.
In the morning light, the object was revealed to be a wooden image of a dark-skinned Virgin Mary. He took it home to his mother, who set up a makeshift altar in their house in the village of Suyapa, which has become a suburb of Tegucigalpa. Her fame spread and neighbors flocked to the humble house to pray for miracles.
Twenty years later, a local grandee, Don Jose Zelaya y Midence, in grateful devotion after the Virgin was said to have cured him of kidney stones, built her a whitewashed adobe church where she is still kept, dressed once more in silk and silver finery, sealed inside an ornate gold frame mounted in a carved wooden ark.
The faithful are convinced that she has the power to make things right, even big things like a nation divided.
At the hilltop basilica, the anger surfaced right at the entrance. Octavio Cruz, a photographer who earns a few pennies taking photographs of worshipers as they come out of Sunday Mass, broke down as he described how he had finally learned to read in a night school staffed by teachers sent from Cuba to support Zelaya.
“His crime is to be with the poor classes, to give them hope,” Cruz, 58, said of the ousted president.
A woman who overhead the conversation said, “Don’t listen to him, he’s ignorant.” Neither she nor her husband, who works in the Agriculture Ministry, would give their names for fear, they said, of violence by Zelaya’s supporters. Her husband said, “If Honduras reinstates President Zelaya, there will be civil war.”
On the wall surrounding the basilica complex, Zelaya’s supporters have put up graffiti, accusing the church of joining the “golpistas,” those who engineered the coup, or “golpe” in Spanish.
“This is creating a convulsion in society,” said Ramon Orlando Hernandez, 69, a retired telephone company worker. “We know that only God can solve the crisis we have.”