BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — Roman Catholic faithful gathered in Brasilia on Saturday to honor the country's patron saint, Our Lady of Aparecida.

Her saint's day, Oct. 12, is a national holiday in Brazil, and tens of thousands of pilgrims annually mark the day by trekking to her sanctuary in the city of Aparecida do Norte about halfway between the cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

But she is honored in celebrations across the country.

The image of the dark-skinned Virgin of Aparecida emblazons bumper stickers, presides over shops and dangles from gold chains around women's necks all over Brazil. She's been syncretized with the goddess of love and maternity in a Brazilian religion with roots in west Africa, and her dark complexion has endeared her to blacks and those with a mix of black and white heritage, both of whom make up about half of the country's population.

According to church lore, the Virgin of Aparecida surfaced on Oct. 16, 1717, as the town of Guaratingueta prepared for a visit by Sao Paulo state's governor. A fleet of fishermen plied the nearby Paraiba River to catch fish for a banquet in the official's honor, but after 12 fruitless hours in the normally well-stocked river, all but three of the fishermen gave up.

As night fell, they cast their nets one last time, dredging up only the terracotta statue of a headless female figure, her hands pressed together in prayer. Surprised, they cast the net once more, bringing up a head that fit perfectly on the body.

They wrapped the pieces in their shirts and cast the nets once more, this time bringing up hundreds of fish.

A series of miracles was later attributed to the Virgin, including the freeing of a runaway slave named Zacarias.

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