There are historical documents from 1502, which show that already in those years there existed a Marian cult of the Spanish conquerors on the island of Hispaniola.
The story of Higüey's "Virgen de la Altagracia" (Virgin of the Highest Grace) was written at that time. Among Columbus' first European settlers after the discovery of America were the two brothers Alfonso and Antonio Trejo, who operated the first sugar factory in Higüey. They donated the image of the Virgin in 1572 to the first church built there.
The origins of the picture itself remain in the dark. The devout 14-year-old daughter of a merchant from Higüey asked her father to bring her a picture from Santo Domingo when he returned from his business trip. It should be a picture of the Virgen de la Altagracia.
As always, the merchant's older daughter wanted just clothes and ribbons and trinkets for herself; the younger one, the businessman's heart's delight, was called Niña. She was a shy, withdrawn child who loved to pray.
The merchant desperately tried to find a picture of this virgin for his beloved daughter, which no one knew. He asked pastors and merchants, but no one ever heard anything about the veneration of such a virgin and such a picture. After days of fruitless search, sadly he took the way home.
In the evening he came to a hostel in Los Dos Ríos and told about his desperate and fruitless search for the picture. Just before going to bed he heard a knocking on his door.
At the door, an old, white-bearded man with a bundle under his arm appeared. "There is no Virgen de la Altagracia? But I have it here with me." The old man opened the bundle and held a painting in his hand, which he presented to the merchant.
The merchant invited the old man to come to his house in Higüey, but the old man had disappeared the next morning.
The story happened on the 21st of January. Niña welcomed her father on his return under an orange tree at the place where Higüey's Cathedral stands today. The orange tree is still standing today.
The Spanish army was fighting against the French occupiers under the protection of the Virgin, since they had conquered almost the whole island. Under Antonio Miniel on the 21st of January 1690, the French were beaten.
In earlier years, the Virgen de la Altagracia was worshipped together with the Virgen de los Cielos (Virgin of Heaven) on the 15th of August.
In 1692, the Holy Seat of the Catholic Church declared the 21st of January the official holiday of the Virgen de la Altagracia. The basilica of Higüey in its present form was inaugurated on January 21, 1971, and in the same year by Pope Paul VI. declared it Basilica Menor.
The image of the Virgin received the highest honors twice: the coronation of a pope. In 1922 by Pius XI. and in 1979 by John Paul II. On his second visit to the Dominican Republic in 1992, the Pope raised the building in Higüey to the rank of Basilica.
The image of the Virgin measures 33 by 45 centimeters and is, according to experts, a work of the Spanish school of the late 15th, early 16th century. The Virgin is depicted in the colors blue, white and red, the colors of the later Dominican Republic.
The painting represents the birth scene of the baby Jesus, the highest of all graces. The frame surrounding the picture is of pure gold and one of the finest works of Dominican goldsmithing. It is inlaid with emeralds and other gemstones that have been donated by devout believers who received miracles attributed to the Virgin.
However, Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia is not the patron saint of the Dominican Republic, as is often said wrongly. She is the protective and spiritual mother of the country.
The patron of the country is Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, whose holiday is the 24th of September. Her cult dates back to the year 1218.
The cult around the Virgen de la Altagracia dates back to the 16th century. Originally the celebrations took place only around the city of Higüey, but over the years they spread over the whole country. Today, pilgrims come from all over Latin America to worship the Virgin and ask her for a miracle.
On the site of the basilica is the Museum of Altagracia, inaugurated in 2017. In seven rooms historical and religious objects are shown.
The museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 8.30 am to 5 pm, on Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm.
Admission is 100 pesos, a guided tour costs 200 pesos.
The Basilica of Higüey is depicted on the Dominican 50 peso bill.