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Our Lady of Guadalupe: A Photographic Mission

By Howard Earp

Howard Earp was president of the Portland Apostolate of Our Lady of Guadalupe and a special agent for the FBI. This article first appeared in the Mount Angel Letter shortly after his privileged mission in 1963 to photograph the miraculous image.



To have been chosen to photograph the incomparable self-portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe under the most ideal conditions was, I now realize, more of a privilege than an assignment. To see the color prints now, results of many hours of work on the scaffolding before her image through the devoted efforts of Fr. Abbot Columban and the intense work of a Portland printing company is almost an anti-climax. Through them my mind goes back to one year ago this spring. Abbot Columban of Oregon’s Trappist Abbey had asked me to accompany him with cameras and full equipment to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City so that truer representations in color of this miraculous picture might be obtained.

A routine assignment for me? Well, hardly, but I felt that it would not be too difficult with the help that would be provided, and with a large Speed Graphic camera, with 35 mm. cameras for added versatility, and with the usual accessories which color photography demands — exposure meters, color charts, filters, and plenty of film. So we boarded the jet plane in Portland to go on our mission.

       
  Howard Earp on the scaffolding before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
 
The glass door which protects the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was opened so that Howard Earp could photograph it unimpeded.
       

Abbot Columban had provided me with a booklet which told the story of this, the only known apparition of Our Lady in the Americas. I read it. I had no doubts about the authenticity of the apparitions nor of her portrait. The constant unbroken tradition of over four centuries, the recognition and honors given to this shrine by many Popes and the Church after long and prudent investigations, and the homage of literally millions of pilgrims — these things that I read about were enough for me. I could believe that a middle-aged Indian named Juan Diego had met and spoken with a beautiful Lady on the barren hill of Tepeyac. I could believe without seeing them, that miraculous roses of Castille had bloomed on that rocky hillside in winter, so that Juan Diego could take them, in his worn ayate tilma, as a sign to Bishop Zumarraga, Mexico's first bishop. But the portrait itself, imprinted on his tilma — we could see it at close range. Here was a still visible miraculous sign that had confirmed the Lady's identity and her message. This had instantly convinced the previously skeptical Bishop. I read again Pope Pius XII’s striking words: “...there, according to tradition, flowered the miracle, and on the tilma of the humble Juan Diego brushes not of this earth left painted an image most tender, which the corrosive work of the centuries was marvelously to respect.”

Miraculous? Yes, but no more or no less so than other occurrences at shrines of Our Lady, about which I had heard and read. Our Lord had brought about His first public miracle at Cana for her. There was no reason to believe that He would not continue to do likewise.

I felt that photographing the tilma with due respect for its miraculous nature could be carried out carefully and routinely with the preparations we had made.

But it was not routine! From the moment I entered the Basilica I felt the actual “presence” of Our Lady. This is not an exceptional experience. I now know, for I have checked with many others who have been there and they have had the same feeling. For me — expecting to photograph a picture and finding myself standing on a high scaffold facing more than just her portrait — the feeling that in some mysterious way her presence had remained and was still there — this was a tremendous and never-to-be forgotten experience. How could it be? I recalled her word to Juan Diego: “Am I not here?” and “Here I shall hear the prayers of all who invoke me.” Perhaps that explained it. She was faithful; she had kept her promise. I felt unworthy of this experience and was very humbled before it.

I found our work with the picture to be most unusual, by far the most fascinating photographic assignment I had ever had. It took place after the Basilica had closed for the evening on two separate occasions and it continued until long after midnight — at times when the scaffolding could be placed above the main altar before the picture and the glass enclosure of its frame opened.

First of all, Abbot Columban, a printer, and I worked with color charts in an attempt to match the shades and colors of the original. The results would be used to check the reproductions. These color charts contain little squares in gradual shadings from light to dark of each color. But after long checking and comparisons it was discovered that none of the squares matched the delicate colors of the image whose color seemed always “in-between” the shades. And then once or twice when a color had almost been settled upon by comparison, a change in the floodlighting caused very marked changes in the shades of the miraculous picture — but not in the color chart before it! Puzzling and perplexing it was. I could not help but conclude that this image did not reflect light like any other that I had ever seen. I also noticed that the colors seemed to change with distance. From the back of the Basilica, the mantle appeared a delicate, soft greenish-blue, very pastel, fresh and beautiful. But up close it was a much darker blue. I saw at very close range the uneven texture of the handwoven cactus cloth — the picture seemed “imprinted” on it. I saw no brush strokes.

These details were difficult at times to concentrate upon, for the impact of her portrait upon me was overwhelming. Her portrait was indescribably real, the features seemed like that of a living person, particularly the face and eyes. As a layman I cannot explain this. I only know my impression. I hesitated to speak of it for fear of misunderstanding or exaggeration. But from the time I entered the Basilica until the time I left, and upon the scaffold, I felt her “presence.” That is why I regretted leaving and why I want to return.

Many pictures were obtained of her beautiful portrait — full size, head and shoulders, her face, her hands, even of the angel who contentedly supports her upon the crescent moon. Abbot Columban, the printers, and I believe that the colors of the final prints correspond as closely to the original as it is humanly possible.

But more important to me, not only on the tilma and on our color file, but also in my heart and mind, Our Lady of Guadalupe had “imprinted” her wonderful portrait and left her tender message. I understood more completely that her words as a compassionate Mother were for all mankind, and that she came to North America as well as Central and South America. I hope increasing numbers here will realize this, will go to her shrine and meet her as we have done, and will take her into their homes and hearts. For she is His Mother, is never separated from Him, and will bring us to Him.

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Editor’s note: In Issue 99 of The Reign of Mary, I mentioned the demise of a great devotee of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Howard Earp, who passed away in January of 1999. This personal letter reveals the intensity of the love and devotion he experienced at the shrine of Our Lady when he visited there in the early 1960’s. May his words inspire us with a greater love and appreciation for the Madonna of the Americas!



3-15-64

Dear Fr. Buckley:

I enjoyed having lunch with you and talking about the slides and presentation of material about this devotion. As a layman, I certainly appreciate your interest and help.

I had remembered a quotation about Mary in the book Mary in Our Life by Father William G. Most, and have looked it up again, as it had influenced my thoughts about her and I had liked this book very much. This is the quotation:

“We can only be certain that from the very beginning of her life Mary possessed greater grace than that which the highest of angels and men have at the culmination of their growth, when they enter heaven” and “Indeed, according to most theologians, it is likely that even her initial grace — the grace with which she began — surpassed the final grace of all angels and saints taken together. The incomparable exalted position in which God has placed Mary seems to call for so great a measure of grace as this, for her dignity (from the fact that she is the Mother of God) is, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, in a certain sense infinite” and Pope Pius IX in defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception asserted that, of her fullness of grace “none greater under God can be thought of, and no one, except God, can comprehend it.”

So, of course, this unique place of hers makes her closest to God in His love, which she returns beyond the power of any of us. She was the closest to Him of anyone while He was on earth, she is the closest to Him of any created person, angelic or human, now — the mirror of God. God’s infinite merits are passed or applied through her to us, from the Redemption — that is, God’s plan. That is what I understand from this book.

And the beautiful story of her coming at Tepeyac seems to me particularly important in that it expresses so clearly from her words that she is not only the Immaculate Mother of God, but also our mother, which she truly merits from the Incarnation and from Christ’s words on the cross. And she is the “best” of mothers, first in caring for Our Lord, now in her compassion and love for us, her children. She extends her help there to all who come to her, as the plaque states, “to all who love her and seek her.”

That is what filled my mind and my heart as I approached her sanctuary at Tepeyac, the place that she had personally chosen and the church she had instructed to be built for her purpose.

I am sure that everyone who goes there is in some way aware of this contact with her, in greater or lesser degree, according to his disposition and need perhaps — I do not know. But I know that this experience was very real to me, more so than the awareness of meeting someone you see and know. Her personality in the sublime manner that God sustains, literally and graciously “overwhelmed” me while there in the Basilica — to the point that all else that was material or distracting faded away before the closeness to her, the feeling I had that she had remained with her miraculous sign, her self-portrait. It is a quiet, peaceful, and secure feeling, as if I had come home. And this was surprising to me in a foreign country, being there for the first time.

And I understood without any studied effort at contemplation, as I just remained there, her wonderful place and dignity, her love and tenderness as a mother, her power, her fullness of grace — and I had a new and greater awareness of all the virtues that she has that would take a book, or books, to express, and of her closeness to God, her Son.

And I am sure that she “changed” me according to what was best for me, not necessarily at all what I had prayed for through her intercession. She “changed” me, not of her own power or person, of course, but through God’s plan for us, which gives her His graces to distribute as she wills, to whom she wills. She is ever faithful to God and to us. She is the “way” that God came to us as Man, and she is the way that is most fitting and natural for us to go to Him.

I do not mean to imply that she overshadows her Son there, Who is often, through the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, really present in that form above the main altar and just below her picture. Her “presence” is always modest, fitting, and adoring Him first of all, and humble — if that word is appropriate to the Queen of Heaven and earth, and I am sure that it is. That is the feeling that I had.

There is a constant movement of people as they come, remain to pray, or go, but her work of grace continues as constantly to each. It is compassionate, very tender, and serious because of the importance of her role as Mediator. There is some emotion, for who could meet his mother without love? But it is very deep in the soul, and there is joy in meeting, too. But she comes to the intellect and will with her message as you remain.

And that is why I found it hard to go away and leave her there, who is present in a supernatural way that God has planned for our good, and seems to be so close. And that is why I want to return, why I would like to be of help to anyone who would look for information about Our Lady of Guadalupe, or copies of her miraculous portrait, or who would like to go there.

I made a “Journey to a Stairway,” as Dale Francis wrote in his article in Our Sunday Visitor about the shrine, when our close-up examination and color photographs were permitted in 1963. And I find that after climbing it and “meeting” her in a special way through her miraculous and sacred image, that my feet will not get back down on the ground again willingly — for I would remain. She “imprinted” her portrait not only on the tilma of Juan Diego and on our color film, but on my mind and heart. And she “imprinted” her messages there as well, as she does to all who come and listen.

So how could I be the same again, or have real interests in things that are material as such? My thoughts return to her. I have been helped in ways I do not merit or understand, and I want first of all to “mind” her. God was subject to her — why not I? And I want to serve God out of love, not fear, and that is her way.

And that is how it goes, when I start thinking about the two wonderful visits to her shrine that I was privileged to make with Father Abbot Columban of the Trappists. I wish others the good fortune to find her there, too, and through her to come close to her Son, from Whom she is never separated, in love and service for all eternity.

Sincerely,
Howard Earp


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