While a maelstrom of controversy and uncertainty concerning Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) has been unleashed in recent decades, there is no doubt of the admiral’s loving relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary and his loyalty to the Church. He was patently Mary’s devoted client and servant. This explorer may be a favorite target of self-appointed and erroneously informed critics, yet no one can deny that his insistence on bringing missionaries with him to the New World was pivotal to the implantation of Catholicism among the natives of North, Central, and South America and improving their lives.
Born into an Italian family in Genoa, Cristoforo Colombo (his name in Italian) became an outstanding sailor even in his youth. As a young seaman he dreamed of making a voyage to find a shorter route to the Far East because Marco Polo’s land route to China was becoming more dangerous and expensive. He knew the world was not flat, and so did most educated people of his time. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain were persuaded to sponsor the expedition to secure Spain’s wealth, Ferdinand’s goal, and to spread the Catholic faith, Isabella’s concern.
Remember that 1492 was still the Middles Ages. The Protestant Revolt did not erupt until 15 years later. And later, unlike Hernán Cortés, Columbus didn’t see Native Americans as slaves or enemies, but as children of God, and as potential converts, and allies of Spain.
The admiral’s dedication to Mary
Columbus was a staunch champion of the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. His veneration of the Mother of the Redeemer was clearly a symbol of his faith and a mainspring of his life’s work of discovery.
At the very outset of his grand adventure, he recorded his devotedness to Mary by giving her name to his flagship.
Spanish seamen of that era frequently referred to their vessels by two designations: one was formal and dignified; the other was informal and casual. The nickname was generally used more popularly than the official, often religious, name of the ship.
The Niña (“Girl”) derived her familiar name from her master, Juan Niño. Formally christened the Santa Clara, the caravel was almost always listed by her popular nickname. The Pinta (“Painted One”) most likely bore the name of a saint, but it was probably used so seldom that no extant document lists it.
Columbus’ third and largest ship had been built in Galicia and was called La Galléga. Crew members noticed her tendency to lurch when turning, and dubbed the vessel Marigalanta (“Frivolous Mary”). In May 1492, she was chartered from Juan de la Cosa of Santona. Columbus himself named her the Santa Maria.
Before setting sail from southern Spain Cristobal Colón (his name in Spanish) went to confession and received Holy Communion at Mass. His flagship was outfitted with a chapel, where Mass was offered daily. Today the altar of that chapel is in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, at the Christopher Columbus Museum. Mathilde DeLagarde Boal inherited the altar in 1908 from her aunt, Victoria Colón, a descendant of Columbus who had preserved it at the Colón Castle in Spain.
Each day at nightfall, the admiral gathered his crew to sing the Salve Regina to salute their Protectress. Christopher Columbus emphatically demonstrated that his devotion to the Christian faith and to Mary was vital and vigorous. This is attested by the names he bestowed on lands never before seen by European eyes.
He called his first discovery in the New World San Salvador in honor of our Holy Savior. Next he expressed his devotion to the Immaculate Conception by naming an island Santa Maria de la Concepción.
On Subsequent voyages, Columbus called an archipelago east of Cuba “Our Lady’s Sea.” and an unusually circular island Santa Maria Rotunda. Neither of these names has been preserved in modern maps. And geographers have failed to identify the land he christened La Concepción in August 1498. Unfortunately, many names of religious and patriotic significance were later secularized.
On the return of the first voyage, difficulties multiplied. The hardships endured were much more severe than those of the westward sailing and tested the mettle of all crew members. Food was scarce and supplies rapidly diminished. More than one hurricane struck and battered the caravels mercilessly. The Santa Maria had already run aground.
Vows in times of distress
The end seemed imminent on Feb. 14, 1493. Columbus called together the crew and urged them to implore God’s help.
After praying for a time, each crew member made a solemn vow to make a pilgrimage if the lot should fall to him. Columbus directed that the first act of thanksgiving be a pilgrimage to the famous Marian shrine of Santa Maria de Guadalupe in southern Spain, and that the chosen representative carry a five-pound candle. Chickpeas were used to draw lots. One was marked with a cross. Columbus himself drew the marked pea.
The admiral selected a second renowned shrine of Our Lady for pilgrimage – Santa Maria de Loreto in Ancona, Italy. This time the cross-marked pea was drawn by seaman Pedro de Villa. Columbus promised to defray the expenses for this long pilgrimage.
Yet another lot was drawn, and this bound the admiral to spend a night in prayer at the church of Santa Clara de Moguer, home port of the Niña. To conclude this intense time of prayerful intercession, Columbus bound himself and the entire crew to go in their shirts in thankful visit to the first church of the Virgin Mary they encountered when they reached land.
Almost miraculously they rode out the storm, survived the damage and continued homeward.
But more danger awaited them. Two weeks later, on March 3, howling winds split their sails and threatened to rip them from the masts. Again the crew stormed heaven and drew lots for the pilgrimage to the Marian shrine of Santa Maria de la Cinta in Huelva, the port from which they had departed on the historic and world-changing voyage. Again the lot fell upon Columbus. It appeared that Our Lady was intervening to bring the admiral to her shrines.
This was an age in which people were quick to take vows during times of distress, only to forget them when trouble subsided and calm was restored. Not so Columbus.
Landing at the Azores on Feb. 17 or 18, 1493, he reminded his men of their obligation. Walking barefoot in their shirts led by Columbus, they went in procession to a small chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Mass was celebrated for them by a local priest. For most of the day Columbus remained at the chapel in prayer.
The admiral’s faithfulness
When they reached Spain, Columbus was honored by the monarch and hailed by the common people. But in this hour of triumph he was faithful to his vows. Traveling south from Barcelona to Seville, he went by way of the monastery and shrine of Santa Maria de Guadalupe on the slope of the Sierra de Estremadura. Not only did Columbus make the promised pilgrimage, but on the second voyage he named an island Guadipea because its mountains resembled those behind Santa Maria de Guadalupe.
Until life’s end, Columbus actively promoted the honor of Mary and her veneration. In 1498, he executed a formal document for the disposition of his property and future income. One of the major bequests was made for the establishment of a church on Española to be named Santa Maria de la Concepción. Seven years later, he stipulated in his last will and testament the specific site for the proposed church. Sadly, the memorial to Mary was never erected. Spanish rulers failed to honor their contract with Columbus and his estate did not have enough funds to materialize his wishes.
In his waning years, Columbus’ dedication to Mary was evidenced even more openly. Frequently, be wore the white cord of a Franciscan, and at least on one occasion appeared in the full habit of the sons of St. Francis of Assisi.
His ties with the Franciscans were close and genuine. He sought them out for their guidance and moral support, and the friars influenced his devotion to Mary and her Immaculate Conception.
In the 15th century, the theological opponents of the mystery of the Immaculate Conception were varied and vocal. But the Franciscans were early and ardent supporters of the doctrine. As early as 1263, the Franciscans celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Since 1484, Columbus enjoyed close relations with noted Franciscans. They had befriended him in his darkest hour, successfully interceded for him at court, and persuaded Isabella to sponsor his first voyage. It was the friary of Santa Maria de la Rábida in Huelva that offered him the strongest support.
In time of distress, the admiral turned to Mary for aid, and she responded. Is it too much to conjecture that a major motive in his unparalleled career of discovery was his desire to lay new treasures at the feet of his Lady?
No wonder, then, that more than a century and a quarter ago the Servant of God, Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, chose the intrepid navigator and admiral as model for the fraternal order of Catholic gentlemen. This is reflected in the page one report of the May 25, 1878, edition of the Connecticut Catholic: “As American Catholics, we do not know of anyone who more deserves our grateful remembrance than the great and noble man – the pious, zealous, and the faithful Catholic – the enterprising navigator, and the large-hearted sailor, Christopher Columbus – ‘the Christ-bearing dove’ as his name signifies.”
- Written by Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
Note: Brother John M. Samaha, S.M. has been a Marianist for 60 years. After a variety of assignments in education in the United States and Lebanon, he is now retired at the Marianist Center in Cupertino, California.
Used with permission.