Every January 20 and again on March 20, the Feast Day of Saint Sebastian brings thousands of pilgrims to the community of Yumbel, in Chile’s Bío-Bío region (VIII), (see this interactive map from Expedia) to celebrate at Parroquia Santuario San Sebastián de Yumbel.
Many come from miles away, some on their knees, to pray before the altar and the image of the saint in an impressive, and crowded, display of religious fervor. There are so many pilgrims that additional trains from other localities pour into the local station.
St. Sebastian, or San Sebastián is the patron saint of archers, soldiers, athletes, the dying, enemies of religion, the plague and others. Although the Catholic church does not authenticate his history, legend, from a story that began two centuries after his death, has it that Sebastian was a noble Roman in the Imperial Guard under Emperor Diocletian. Converted to Christianity, Sebastian was in a difficult position. He was reputed to heal by making the sign of the cross over the ill and dying, and did what he could to alleviate the suffering of Christians whom Diocletian intended to exterminate.
When he was found out, Sebastian was arrested and sentenced to death. Pierced by multiple arrows, he was left to die, still tied to a tree. Irene, a fellow Christian and the widow of St. Castulus, found Sebastian still alive and nursed him back to health.
Instead of hiding his recovery and leaving Rome as soon as he was recovered, Sebastian went back to court to accuse Diocletian of all the cruelties of his actions. This time, taking no chances, Diocletian had Sebastian beaten to death. The date of his death was probably in AD 288. He was buried in the Ad Catacumbas on the Via Appia.
During the Middle Ages and the Renaisssance, Saint Sebastian was depicted in numerous paintings, such as Saint Sebastian Tended by an Angel and illuminated manuscripts such as this depiction of St. Sebastian, in a medieval Book of the Hours. With plagues decimating the population of Europe, he was a popular saint for his reputation of protection against the dreaded disease.
It’s not surprising that the Spanish colonists who were fighting the Araucanian nation for territory in the southern areas of Chile prayed to Sebastian. Originally the chapel dedicated to Sebastian was in Chillan, but for safety’s sake was moved inland to the tiny village of Yumbel. Over the years, a new church was built, using local cedar, and gained fame locally and further abroad. The one in use now is a 1939 reconstruction following earthquake damage.
During the year, the statue of San Sebastián rests inside the church above an altar constructed of local cedar, but for the Feast Day celebrations, it is moved outside to the Campo de Oración, a 43 hectare area set aside for religious devotions. These include a procession through the town with the saint, and the faithful dressed in the saint’s colors of red and yellow. Thousands of candles are lit in his honor.
When the Feast Days are not celebrated, Yumbel is a quieter place, the center of agriculture and forestry. Visitors to the area also enjoy the resort spas at Balneario Río Claro and Balneario Salto del Laja, plus the many attractions of Chile's Lake District.