Within the parish of Fatima, which is itself a small and modest place, there is a little hamlet called Aljustrel, and to find a less pretentious part of the world, you would probably need an angel for a guide. It is in the precise geographical center of Portugal, some say, though I have never measured it. Actually it is a group of aged and whitewashed houses, some detached and others joined, that tumble at a slight grade down a rocky lane where donkeys and sheep are happy, and an automobile, to proceed in peace, would require the gearing of a goat. It is little different now from the days of 1917, when it was the home of the three little children to whom our Lady appeared.
These children were as ordinary, by all the fair accounts of those who knew them best, as bread and fish, as gaiety and tears, as simple games of fancy, as flowers in the summer fields. They were not conspicuous for their gifts or their delinquencies.
Lucia Santos was older than her little cousins, Francisco and Jacinta. She was born on March 22, 1907, in the last of these whitewashed houses on the left-hand side of the descending road. She was the youngest of seven children born to Maria Rosa and Antonio Santos (sometimes called “The Pumpkin”). (4) Lucia had never been exactly pretty, either as a child or as an adult. Scrubbed and posed and supplied with a halo, she could neither then nor now fulfil the holy-picture concept of a flowering saint. As a child, her features were blunt, her eyes alone being luminous and soft. Her lips were too thick and her nose was too flat. Her eyebrows, black as crepe, appeared to form one horizontal line.
Yet Lucia was gay and bright and loved by other children. Her lightness of spirit gave a shine to the dull facade and managed most times to chase the gloom away and out of sight. It was less a redeeming factor in her personality than it was a dividend of goodness. And if, as has been our privilege, you were able to meet and to know the adult Lucia, one note of her personality would ring above the rest—her gladness.
This story of Fatima treats of Lucia in her years of childhood and early adolescence. We know a great deal about her, not only from her memoirs and the gracious help she has herself supplied, but in the endless testimony of living people who knew her well and loved her more. These documents are abundant, and throughout the text we will quote them with exact fidelity. Lucia’s oldest sister, Maria dos Anjos (which means Mary of the Angels), is a plain woman, middle-aged, as practical as a loaf of bread, and herself a stranger to angels. She recalls her sister with quiet and non-rehearsed affection:
We loved her because she was so intelligent and affectionate (Maria has told us). Even when she had grown to the age of ten and was believed old enough to be trusted with the flocks, she would run to my mother and sit on her lap to be cuddled and kissed. We who were older used to tease her and say, “Here comes the cuddler!”—and we would even be cross with her when we felt it was overdone. But it made no difference. It would be the same the next day. You should have seen her when my first baby was born. She came home from the fields and locked up the sheep and ran as fast as her legs would carry her to my house, which was just across the street from my mother’s house. She clutched at the baby and covered it with kisses, not at all like the others around here who thought a baby was just a baby.
Lucia loved children and they adored her. Sometimes a dozen or so of them would collect in our yard and Lucia would be perfectly happy just decorating these little ones with flowers and leaves. She would make little processions with make-believe saints, arranging flowers and thrones and singing hymns to our Lady, just as if they were all in a church. I can still remember the ones she liked best. (Here Maria dos Anjos hummed a well-known Portuguese hymn to our Lady.) And she would finish the hymn by giving the “blessing.” She knew so well how to look after children that the mothers used to leave their little ones at our house when they went out to work.
No one could beat Lucia at games. She was always the organiser. The children used to hide under the fig trees and in the bushes or under the beds—anywhere, and when they were all tired from their games they would sit in the shade of the fig trees and listen to Lucia tell stories which never, never seemed to have an end.
It is certain that Lucia was gay and content as a child, not only from the testimony of those who lived with her and grew up with her, but from her own self-possessed and unfaltering recollections. After twenty-five years in a convent, she was able, at the bishop of Leiria’s firm request, to recall and document in her own hand the least details of childhood—the dances, the games, the moods of other children, the brightness of costumes, festively, proudly worn. Piety of a melancholy strain never touched Lucia sufficiently to erase the natural delight she found in costuming and fancy frills. She loved dearly to dress for festas, in the bright adornment of jingling gold chains, elaborate earrings, and shawls made gay with feathers and dazzling beads.
In that neighbourhood (Lucia has testified) no other girl was dressed as prettily. I think my sisters and my godmother, Teresa, were surprised to see that one so plain could look so nice. The other children would please me by crowding around to admire my pretty things. I think, too, that all the other children liked me—all but a little orphan girl whom my godmother had adopted at the time of her own mother’s death. She seemed to think I would get part of the inheritance she hoped for herself.
There is evidence that Lucia as a child was somewhat supercharged with dancing energy and an inclination to jabber endlessly. Her uncle, the good and patient Manuel Marto, does not indict her for this perpetual motion of lip and limb, he merely states it to have been so. He was fond of her, and recalls her depths of affection. She called him “Father.”
“It was all the time ‘Father do this’ and ‘Father do that’” Senhor Marto recalls. “She was full of mischief and I used to think she would either be very good or very bad.”
4. In Portuguese villages people are more commonly known by their nicknames than their real ones. (return)