The earth shook and the steeple fell, taking most of the bell tower with it. A white facade gave way, leaving the pews open to the street.
But amid the wreckage at the basilica, one object remained untouched: Our Mother of Monserrate, the statue of the Virgin Mary for which the church was named.
Dressed in gold robes and wearing a tiny crown, she is only about 3 feet tall. But the statue, which landed on these shores from Spain in the 16th century, has long played an outsize role in the history of Montecristi.
She survived bombardment by pirates and became a rallying point for Catholics when a secular government expelled priests generations later. Every November, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims trek from across Ecuador for nine days of festivities in her honor.
Now, after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake upended the nation last weekend, the survival of Our Mother of Monserrate has become a symbol of the persistence of this hillside town.
“She is the mother who has taken care of us through this earthquake,” said the Rev. Angel Toaquiza, the priest who looks after the broken church. “And I think a sign of this is that she suffered no damage that day.”
That she stands at all, he said, was no less than a miracle.
Eight people from Montecristi were among the more than 570 who have died throughout Ecuador since the earthquake struck. Gabriela Rocío Mero, 36, a teacher from this town, had gone with her daughter, 8, and her niece, 9, on Saturday evening to buy school supplies in the port town of Manta when a building collapsed and killed all three.
The body of the mother was found Monday. Tuesday night, after the remains of the two children were discovered and buried, neighbors from an alley beside the church gathered for a nightlong vigil.
“She was very religious, very sincere,” said Adriana Palma, a friend since childhood.
The vigil was being held under the rubble of the bell tower. With the church closed, the only place for the memorial was outside, Palma said.
That night, the damage of the church seemed to weigh on people at the vigil almost as much as the deaths in Montecristi.
The cross at the top of the bell tower used to be the first thing people would see when they approached the town from the road, said Palma’s mother. Even sailors could spot the white church against the mountains when they came from sea.
“It is the pride of this town,” said Fabricio Quijije, a neighbor.
Times like these were precisely when Montecristi would turn to Our Mother of Monserrate for solace and guidance.
According to local legend, the statue was sent to South America by King Charles V of Spain, as part of a pair with a statue called the Virgin of Mercy. The king intended the second statute to remain in Ecuador, while Monserrate was supposed to make its way to the viceroy in Lima.
But the statue had other plans. When the boat set sail for Peru, it was mysteriously unable leave the port, according to the tale. The captain took it as a sign that Our Mother of Monserrate should stay in Ecuador.
Since then, residents say, the statue has intervened repeatedly for them over the generations. Nearly everyone has a story.
Toaquiza remembered a terminal cancer patient from Guayaquil who was cured after visiting the church. Luzmila Morales, a catechism teacher, said that just this month, even before the quake struck, she and other parishioners had escaped when a hillside collapsed, leaving her bus under an avalanche.
“We began to pray,” she said. “She covered us with her shroud.”
The statue’s survival of Saturday’s earthquake has especially captured the imaginations of those of Montecristi, a sign of hope in a week with little good news.
Dalinda Bravo, a 28-year-old from nearby Portoviejo in training to become a nun, recalled sitting in the church on Saturday evening, as she had countless times before, praying and singing songs to the Virgin Mary.
Suddenly a roar echoed through the church. Cracks began to tear across the walls. A statue of St. Peter fell and broke in two.
“It felt like we were in a blender,” she said.
Toaquiza was having coffee across the street, preparing for 7:30 Mass, when the tremors began.
“Thank God we hadn’t started Mass when the bell tower fell,” he said. “That was the miracle.”
Four days later, he gathered with a group of about 200 to celebrate the evening Mass, which has been moved outdoors.
The sun set after a hot afternoon. Behind him, sparrows flew in and out of a crack in the basilica walls.
“I have been asked by people how we have been affected by this earthquake,” he began. “Do we still believe in Our Mother?”
”Yes,” said the crowd.
But the question of what would become of the church worried those who attended. Could it be repaired? Or would money need to be found to tear it down and build anew?
“Please let someone rebuild our temple. Let us build it with even more love,” said a woman who took the microphone.
Others, like Silvia Quijije, whose sister Gabriela died with the two children Saturday, saw hope even in the broken church.
“We believe the Virgin saved us,” she said. “She sacrificed her house to save our lives, like how Jesus died for our sins.”
She pointed to the collapsed bell tower near her home and said: “The tower fell into the church. It didn’t fall into our house.”