Our Lady of Fátima  

One hundred and six years ago, on 13 October 1917, 70,000 people gathered on the hilltop of Cova da Ira in Fátima to witness ‘the miracle of the sun’. This vision was said to be sent from heaven to prove that the Virgin Mary had indeed appeared to three children in Fátima. 

Over a century later, the Fátima story has become one of Portugal’s most famous tales, bringing millions of pilgrims each year from all over the world to this once sleepy village to give thanks and praise to the Mother of Christ. Today, the nieces and nephew of Saints Francisco and Jacinta Marto, two of the three children who witnessed the apparitions, continue to tell the Fátima story by opening up their family home, filled with relics and artefacts relating to their saintly uncle and aunt. Last month, I met with one of them, Jacinta Marto Pereira, who shares the same name as her saintly aunt, to find out more about this fascinating story in Portugal’s history.

Fátima, Municipality of Ourém, Santarém District

On 13 October 1917, three shepherd’s children, siblings Francisco and Jacinta Marto, aged ten and nine, and their cousin Lúcia dos Santos, aged seven, were tending to their flock in an area called Cova da Iria when a beautiful lady dressed in white, shining more brilliant than the sun, appeared above a small holm oak tree.

The Lady told the children that she had been sent from Heaven with a message for the world and that they should pray the rosary every day for the conversion of sinners and she would visit them at Cova da Iria on the 13th day of each month from May until October. 

Fátima Children

On 13 June, the Lady appeared to the children, again telling them to pray the rosary, adding the Fátima prayer for the salvation of sinners. The children were told that soon Francisco and Jacinta would be taken to heaven, but Lúcia would live much longer. During the third apparition on the 13 July, the Lady revealed to the children three secrets. The first was a vision of Hell, a dark, unearthly place where the souls of sinners would go. The second secret was the revelation of World War II and the persecution of Christians in Russia following the revolution and the rise of communism. The Lady said that peace would only be restored when Russia would be converted to Mary’s Immaculate Heart. 

The third and final secret remained under lock and key until it was revealed in the year 2000 by the Catholic church. It was a vision of a Bishop dressed in white falling to the ground. This has been interpreted as the 1981 assassination attempt on the late Pope John Paul II, which happened on the 64th anniversary of the first apparition in Fátima. During this apparition, Lúcia asked the Lady to perform a miracle for those who do not believe. The lady said that the Lord would perform a great miracle on 13 October for all to see and believe and, on that day, she would reveal who she was and what she wanted.

As rumours spread about the visions, the children were arrested on 13 August so that they were unable to see the apparition. The authorities tried to force them to confess that these were made-up stories or to show proof. Standing their ground and refusing to reveal the three secrets, the children were threatened by the Municipal Administrator of Ourém, Artur de Oliveira Santos (1884 –1955) who told them they would be boiled alive if they did not tell the truth. But the children would not break their silence and devotion to the Lord and the Mother of God and eventually, they were released by the authorities. 

Artur de Oliveira Santos © Museu Municipal de Ourém, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Children at site of apparitions

On 19 August, the lady appeared to the children in nearby Valinhos in a grove of olive and cork trees, where she told the children to continue to pray for the conversion of sinners.

By the fifth apparition on 13September, people began to gather at Cova da Iria to see if the lady would appear. From the sky, rose petals began to fall and, as the witnesses touched them, they disappeared. Lúcia asked the Lady to cure the sick, to which she replied that some she could save, but others could not be cured.

The sixth and final apparition took place on 13 October 1917. It had rained heavily for three days. The land was soaking wet, but around 70,000 people, both believers and sceptics, gathered at Cova da Iria along with soldiers from the National Guard and the Administrator Artur de Oliveira Santos to witness the great “Miracle of the Sun”. At around 2.00 pm, the grey clouds parted and the sun began to shine as the Lady appeared just as she promised on the same spot above the holm oak. She told the children, “I want a chapel built here in my honour. I want you to continue saying the rosary every day. The war will end soon, and the soldiers will return to their homes.” The lady revealed, “I am the Lady of the Rosary. People must amend their lives and ask pardon for their sins.” Those watching believed that this was indeed Mary, the Mother of God. 

Miracle of the Sun 1917

At that moment, the sun appeared to zig-zag across the sky before plummeting towards the earth and returning to its natural position. Many were relieved after thinking it would be the end of the world, but, finally, credit was given to the children that the Mother of God had indeed visited Fátima. After the event, which lasted around ten minutes, the crowd saw that their clothes and the land they were standing on were bone dry as if water had never touched them. Some of the sick who had travelled from far and wide reported being healed and even the sceptics seemed to have been converted. 

Francisco and Jacinta Marto were victims of the pneumonia epidemic, which swept across Europe. Francisco died at home on 4 April 1919, aged ten and the following year, on 20February 1920, Jacinta died, aged nine, despite attempts to save her life at the Hospital de Dona Estefânia in Lisbon. Lúcia, who lived her life in a convent, died in Cóimbra on 13 February 2005, aged 97. The three seers are interred in the Basilica of Our Lady of Fátima near the Sanctuary of the apparitions. 

In 1930, the Catholic church officially recognised the apparition events as “worthy of belief”. In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II beatified Francisco and Jacinta, and, on the centenary of the apparitions in 2017, Francisco and Jacinta were canonised as saints by Pope Francis. At the same time, Sister Lúcia was declared venerable. 

Sister Lucia in the Chapel of the Apparitions, next to the column which marks the exact place where the Apparitions of Our Lady took place, May 1946, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Pope Paul VI before the statue of Our Lady of Fatima during the Pontiff’s visit to the Sanctuary in occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the Apparitions, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Meeting The Relatives of Saints Francisco and Jacinta

Just a stone’s throw away from the site of the apparitions is the quintessential village of Ajustral, where the three children once lived. Standing alone on a sleepy dirt track is the home of Saints Francisco and Jacinta. Built in 1888, the children lived in the house with their parents, Manuel and Olimpia Marto, and their siblings. Sitting in what was the pantry, I met Jacinta Marto Pereira, one of the children’s nieces, who, along with her sisters Maria, Laura (who passed away in 2009) and brother Francisco, opened up their family home as a museum to the millions of pilgrims looking to learn more about the Marto family. 

Jacinta and Luka

Born in 1942, in the same room where her uncle Saint Francisco died in 1919, Jacinta is the daughter of João Marto, the younger brother of the two seers. She studied in Porto before becoming a primary school teacher and later returned to Fátima to continue to tell her family story. Jacinta told me how proud she is to carry her aunt’s name and how overjoyed she was when learning that, after so long, her relatives would finally be canonised by Pope Francis. But she insisted that even though she is related to two saints, she still sins. “I am like everyone else; none of us are exempt,” she told me as we walked through the historic family home.  

As I explored the small three-bedroom cottage, it was like taking a step back in time. The kitchen, where Jacinta used to eat alongside her parents and siblings, was nothing more than an open fire scattered with copper cauldrons, almost like something out of a historic movie set. Jacinta explained to me that in 1930 her grandparents moved to a cottage across the road, where they lived up until their deaths in 1956 and 1957. Her father, João, lived in the house with his wife, Emilia, up until his death in 2000. 

Marto house

Although rebuilt using traditional methods, little has changed in the two houses. Inside, the original photographs, documents and even Francisco’s birth certificate are preserved. The original dining table and bench where St. Jacinta lay shortly before her death stands in the kitchen, whilst in the main bedroom, one can see the bed that St. Francisco died in after his long illness, along with his iconic woollen cap. Outside, farming tools that were once used to tend the land remain just as they were a century ago. 

“In 2002, in honour of our father, we opened Casa de João Marto to show items belonging to our family,” says Jacinta. Born in 1909, João Marto was eleven years old at the time of the apparitions. He wasn’t present during the miracle of the sun due to rumours that if the miracle did not happen, the whole family would die. He was, however, present at the earlier apparition in the Valinhos olive groves on 19 August 1917. 

Marto house
Francisco’s bedroom

Jacinta explains, “At around 4 pm, my father was with Francisco and Lúcia tending to the sheep. Suddenly, they felt a supernatural presence and Lúcia asked my father to fetch Jacinta. Not wanting to miss out, he refused, so Lúcia offered some coins to my father as a bribe. He collected Jacinta and Our Lady appeared above a small holm oak tree. Although my father couldn’t see or hear what the others witnessed, Our Lady said to the other children, ‘I want you to continue to go to Cova da Iria on the 13th day and continue to pray the rosary every day. In the last month, I will perform a miracle for everyone to believe. And the money that people leave at the site should be used to build a temple’.” Jacinta said that according to Sister Lúcia’s testament, “Our Lady began to ascend towards the east.” After the vision, the children cut branches from the holm oak, which gave off a singularly sweet scent and took them home to the exact house I am standing in now. 

Marto Family

When I asked if the overload of souvenirs distracts from the true meaning of Fátima, Jacinta told me, “It has always been like this.” From the first talk about the apparitions, pilgrims flocked to Fátima and vendors started selling rosaries. In the 2020 film Fatima (which I highly recommend), there is a scene of a young boy selling rosaries and exclaiming, “Rosaries, get your rosaries, only 6 cents.” When the seers said, “Mary has arrived”, the boy could then be heard saying, “Get your rosaries, now 10 cents!” 

What is touching is that if it were not for this simple family, Fátima would not be what it has become today. Amongst the shelves of rosaries and plastic statues of Mary, the humble relatives of the Saints of Fátima remain close to their roots and devoted to the powers above, which chose their relatives to share God’s message. 

Original chapel 1922 © Patrick Coelho da Silva, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Converted by a porch 1937 © Patrick Coelho da Silva, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The chapel today

Earlier this year, during the papal visit to Fátima for World Youth Day, another miracle took place. A six-year-old visually impaired girl from Spain claimed that her sight was restored after receiving Holy Communion at the Sanctuary of Fátima. 

Despite attempts to silence the Fátima story over the years, this town, its followers and the relatives of the three children have kept the story alive. And whilst some may be sceptical at the events which unfolded all those years ago, I leave you with this thought. How did three illiterate children from the Portuguese countryside foresee World War II, the rise of the Communist state in Russia and predict their own deaths? If it were a coincidence, it would be a very lucky one, for it can only be described as a miracle!

The Fátima Prayer

“ O My Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell… 

Lead our souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy. Amen.” 

Delivered by Our Lady of Fátima during the third apparition on 13 July 1917.


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