After Pentecost, the 12 Apostles dispersed to preach the Gospel all over the world. St. James the Greater, on one of his apostolic journeys, preached in the Iberian Peninsula in modern-day Spain.
St. James was discouraged that the pagans of that land were not responding to the Gospel and converting to Christianity. He had only a handful of converts to show for his labors. In the face of what he thought was failure in his mission, he prayed with his disciples by the Ebro river in modern day Zaragoza.
To bring him consolation, while she was still alive and living in Jerusalem, Our Lady appeared to him and his disciples atop a pillar of jasper stone carried by angels, while holding a smaller wooden statue of herself holding the Christ Child. 40 AD
According to one account, Our Lady had previously promised St. James that she would come to his aid when he needed it the most. In fact, it was she who sent James into that region of the Roman Empire to tell the people of Hispania about her Son, Jesus. And then, in his most desolate hour, when he was considering leaving his mission field, she comes to his rescue.
The Mother of God told St. James not to worry, that the people to whom he preached would not only be converted, but they would one day have faith as strong as the pillar on which she stood.
She gave the pillar and the statue to St. James and asked that a church be built on the spot in her honor, using the two items for the altar.
"This place is to be my house, and this image and column shall be the title and altar of the temple that you shall build… and the people of this land will honor greatly my Son Jesus."
After asking for her church to be built, she gave another promise that, “It will stand from that moment until the end of time in order that God may work miracles and wonders through my intercession for all those who place themselves under my patronage.”
St. James built a small chapel as Our Lady requested, by the Ebro river in Zaragoza, Spain, the first known Marian shrine in history. It became known as Our Lady of the Pillar, or Nuestra Señora del Pilar. The chapel was replaced by larger churches over the centuries, the present stunning basilica being erected in the 17th century.
The statue and pillar have been preserved in the basilica just as they were given to St. James almost 2000 years ago The pillar is now covered in an embossed metal covering, but behind the altar a portion of the pillar is exposed for veneration.
In the same vision Our Lady also recalled St. James to Jerusalem, where he met his martyrdom in 44 AD. His remains were taken by his followers back to Compostela, Spain, where a chapel was built in his honor. The chapel was later replaced by the famous Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, the most visited Catholic pilgrimage destination outside of Rome and the Holy Land.