In the story, the new minister of Gobernación and Justicia, Áfrico Madrid, is quoted as announcing on national radio that
We ask all the Honduran people, private business, and all the citizenry and people in general, that they take note of this decision of the government of the Republic so that they can carry out their business in the morning, since from midday and on public offices will be closed.Recall that Honduras' Constitution guarantees as one of the rights of the individual freedom of religion, without any preference of one over another:
ARTICULO 77.- Se garantiza el libre ejercicio de todas las religiones y cultos sin preeminencia alguna, siempre que no contravengan las leyes y el orden público. Article 77.- Free exercise of all religions and forms of worship without any pre-eminence is guaranteed, as long as they do not countervene the law and public order.
So, what makes this religious event so critical that it justifies the violation of this constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion without preference for one?
Nuestra Señora de Concepción de Suyapa is a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary, made of cedar, and just 6.5 centimeters tall. Pope Pius XI declared her the "Patroness of Honduras" in 1925 and established her feast day as February 3, moving the celebration, which had been February 2 (Candelaria).
The statue was reportedly discovered in mid-January or early February 1747 by a laborer, Alejandro Colindres, who was returning from clearing family cornfields on Piliguin mountain, outside of Tegucigalapa. Because he stayed working too late, darkness fell as he was coming down off the mountain, and he was forced to sleep outdoors. Colindres was awakened by a sharp pain in the side, and discovered that he was sleeping on something. (Later versions of the story claim that without looking at it, Colindres threw it as far away as he could, only to find it underneath him as he lay down again. This detail is not present in early versions of the story.)
The next morning, Colindres discovered that what had bothered him during the night was a small statue of the Virgin Mary, which he took home to his mother's house in the small town of Suyapa, 7 kilometers outside of Tegucigalpa.
For the next 20 years it remained in their home, on their family altar. In 1768, the statue was credited with its first recognized miracle, curing José de Zelaya y Midence, owner of the nearby Hacienda Trapiche, of kidney stones, and it began to attract public attention. With the attention came money, and the family was able to construct a small chapel for the statue, completed in 1777. (Records held in the Archivo Eclesiastico de Comayagua, which burned in 2008, provided information about the people who contributed labor and materials for the construction of the chapel.)
Since 1768, many others have attested to miracles performed by the Virgin. Perhaps the most well known is the report that she comforted Honduran soldiers during the 1969 Soccer War with El Salvador.
In the 1950s, work began on a new Basilica for Nuestra Señora de Concepción de Suyapa next to the chapel, and it was inaugurated in 2004. The image spends most of the year in the chapel, inside a glass case, but is moved to the Basilica during January and February to accommodate the large crowds of pilgrims from all over Honduras and Central America. The statue has a group of male, lay caretakers called the Order of the Gentlemen of Suyapa (Orden de los Caballeros de Suyapa), founded in the 20th century, that accompany the statue whenever it leaves the chapel to travel around Honduras, as it often does in February.
The statue of the Virgin of Suyapa, at 6.5 centimeters tall, is the smallest miraculous statue or image that I know of in Latin America. By comparison, the next smallest is the statue of Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles, in Cartago, Costa Rica, which is 20 centimeters tall. That statue, reportedly carved of stone or dark wood, was also miraculously found in the 18th century.
The statue of Our Lady of Suyapa has been stolen twice. In 1986 it was stolen and stripped of its gold, silver, and jewels, and left in the men's room of the restaurant La Terrraza de Don Pepe in Tegucigalpa.
The celebration at the Basilica will last for a week, with the largest crowds anticipated on February 5.
One group in Honduras has a special devotion to Suyapa: the Armed Forces, for whom she is described as a "captain". On February 1, as reported by the Honduran press, the leaders of the Armed Forces, accompanied by Porfirio Lobo Sosa, attended a mass in honor of Suyapa, at which the sermon emphasized the valor of the Armed Forces. The auxiliary bishop of Tegucigalpa, Juan José Pineda, who presided, ended by giving Romeo Vasquez Velasquez a wooden shield symbolic of his defense of the country.