In 1889, Juazeiro was no more than a tiny hamlet. There was nothing unusual about its young priest, Padre Cícero Romão Batista, until a woman in Juazeiro claimed the wine he gave them at Communion had turned to blood in their mouths. At first, it was only people from Crato who came, and they were convinced by the woman’s sanctity and the evidence of their own eyes that Padre Cícero had indeed worked a miracle. As his fame grew, the deeply religious inhabitants of the sertão came to hear his sermons and have him bless them. Padre Cícero came to be seen as a living saint: miraculous cures were attributed to him, things he had touched and worn were treated as relics. The Catholic Church began a formal investigation of the alleged “miracle”, sent him to Rome to testify to commissions of enquiry, rejected it, sent him back to Brazil and suspended him from the priesthood – but nothing could shake the conviction of the local people that he was a saint. Juazeiro mushroomed into a large town by sertão standards, as people flocked to make the pilgrimage, including legendary figures such as the bandit chief Lampião.
By the end of his long life, Padre Cícero had become one of the most powerful figures in the Northeast. In 1913, his heavily armed followers caught the train to the state capital, Fortaleza, and forcibly deposed the governor, replacing him with somebody more to Padre Cícero’s liking. But Padre Cícero was a deeply conservative man, who restrained his followers more often than not, deferred to the Church, and remained seemingly more preoccupied with the next world than with this. When his more revolutionary followers tried to set up a religious community nearby at Caldeirão, he didn’t deter the authorities from using the air force against them, in one of the first recorded uses of aerial bombs on civilians. When he finally died, in 1934, his body had to be displayed strapped to a door from the first floor of his house, before the thousands thronging the streets would believe he was dead. Ever since, pilgrims have come to Juazeiro to pay homage, especially on the anniversary of his death on July 20; an enormous white statue of the priest looks out from a hillside over the town he created.