For Malaysians, May 13 is a reminder of a dark blot in our country’s history. Many lives were lost then and on subsequent days, because of ethnic clashes.

For Catholics the world over, however, that date is of heavenly significance. Exactly 100 years ago on this date, an apparition appeared before three children. It is a story that most Catholics are familiar with.

On the noon of May 13, 1917, in the parish of Fatima in Portugal, three young shepherd children were playing, building a little house of stones (on the site where the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary now stands – construction started in 1928).

They suddenly saw a brilliant light. Thinking it was lightning, they decided to head back home. The children, Lucia de Jesus dos Santos (then 10 years old) and her cousins, Francisco (nine) and Jacinta Marto (seven) saw on the top of the holm oak tree (where the Chapel of Apparitions now stands), a Lady more brilliant than the sun, and from whose hands hung a white rosary.

The Roman Catholic church later certified that it was the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, henceforth referred to as the Lady of Fatima.

The Lady was said to have told the children that it was necessary for them to soak themselves in prayer and to appear at the same place on the 13th day of each month. The apparition appeared before them five more times and, as word got out, more people were present each time to witness it, too.

For the final appearance on Oct 13, 1917, some 70,000 people were present while a thunderstorm raged, and they were promised a miracle. The sun suddenly appeared and seemed to get closer and closer to the crowd and “danced and whirled” in front of the onlookers who could look directly at it without their eyes burning.

Virgin mary

A representation of Lucia tending to the sheep, in the main basilica.

I was reflecting on some of this as we got off our Trafalgar Tour coach on a chilly afternoon in November last year, at the Cova da Iria in Fatima, where the church stands. The church draws about four million visitors a year but, that weekday, there were not many people around.

We were only given about 30 minutes to explore this vast complex. The first thing we checked out was the Basilica of the Holy Trinity, which was built only nine years ago.

It has a very plain and simple facade, very modern and not what one would assume to be a church. The design by the Greek architect Alexandros Tombazis was chosen from an international design competition organised in 1997.

The main altar has a weathered cross mounted on the wall and reaching the ceiling; a statue of the Virgin Mary nearby; and the background image is made of large mosaic. The stained glass panels with Bible verses in six languages also catch the eye.

Outside the church, there are a few giant stylised sculptures that invite you to whip out your camera.

On the other end of the complex is the main Basilica with it’s imposing bell-tower, capped off with a bronze crown and cross, and flanked on both sides by colonnades. I only spent a minute or so in here because I had to rush back to the coach which was parked near the shops outside the complex. It was all hushed and quiet inside and I quickly took in the relatively austere interior. Most old European churches contain intricate mosaics, paintings and many elaborate statues so it was a bit of a surprise to see that it wasn’t so here.

Aside from the time spent in the modern Basilica, most of my time there was devoted to a quest. Although I’m not a Christian or a Catholic, I have many Catholic friends. The fountain at Fatima is supposed to be blessed, and many stories have circulated about the supposed healing properties of its water.

I was tasked to bring back bottles of the water for my friends.

Virgin mary

The Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary and the fountain in the centre.

My initial assumption was that it would be like Lourdes in France, where you can purchase the holy water at the church. Upon inquiring at the Chapel of Appari­tions, where many devotees were lighting candles in prayer, I was told that I should just collect it myself from the fountain in the centre of the courtyard.

It took me aback because there was no one at the fountain whereas I had imagined long queues!

The problem was I had no receptacle to fill the water with. I was told that I could purchase some at the shops about 10 minutes’ walk away. As time was of the essence, I basically sprinted to the shops, purchased two one-litre bottles and sprinted back to the fountain – again, with hardly anyone in sight. I was pleased that I could fulfill my promise.

The three children – or the seers – too fulfilled the promises to the Lady. For the two youngest ones, it proved to be short lives (which they themselves had prophesied).

They were infected by the flu pandemic that swept through the world then. Francisco was the first when, at age 10, he succumbed to his illness. Jacinta died at age nine a year later, after a long and painful episode.

The principal seer, Lucia, devoted her life to the religion and from 14 years of age was in different orders of nuns; finally she became a Carmelite nun. She reported seeing visions of the Virgin Mary again, twice, and even of Christ on two separate occasions.

She died on Feb 13, 2005, at the age of 98.