When Marta Noella was a girl, she says she was frequently beaten by her strict father. At 14, she was so depressed she planned to kill herself by stepping in front of a car.
What happened next she attributes to a miracle from the Virgin of Caacupe, whose shrine is the most important pilgrimage site in Paraguay and will be the site of Pope Francis' Mass on Saturday.
"I felt the presence of God and right then I decided I wanted to live," said Noella, now a 23-year-old university student who spent the night standing near the basilica in hopes of getting a look at Francis when he arrives.
The Caacupe shrine, which houses a little wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, is close to Francis' heart. When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, he often visited the Villa 21 slum where many Paraguayan immigrants live, joining them in their religious processions and celebrating baptisms at their church, Our Lady of Miracles of Caacupe. On Saturday, he'll celebrate Mass at the original Caacupe shrine. Hundreds of thousands are expected to attend.
On Friday night, tens of thousands had already arrived. Many brought chairs and blankets, sitting and lying down in the square and along the street where Francis is to arrive. Youth groups chanted "Pope Francis, Paraguay is with you!" Elderly Paraguayans periodically kneeled on the cement to pray. During periodic bursts of rain, the faithful pulled out plastic ponchos and umbrellas, passing around sweets and sipping on mate tea to stay warm.
Maria Luisa Gonzalez, 54, sat with her husband and prayed. She recounted how, when she was 8 years old, she had a terrible stomachache that persisted for a few weeks. The day her parents decided to take her to a doctor, she saw a painting of the Virgin of Caacupe hanging on a street vendor's cart.
"I immediately felt so much better that we didn't go to the appointment," she said. "After that, I believed in the Virgin's miracles, and I have been coming every year to give thanks since I was 15."
Tradition has it that the Virgin was carved by a Guarani man named Jose, by many accounts an early convert to Christianity around the beginning of the 17th century. Francis' Jesuit order and their Franciscan brothers were both evangelizing the region and created settlements that gave local Indians unusual autonomy.
According to lore, Jose was carrying a load of wood back to his settlement when he spotted a rival group that was fighting the incursion of Christianity and killing converts. He hid behind a tree and prayed to the Virgin, promising to carve a statue of her out of it if he was not spotted. His escape is considered the first of many miracles in what would become the religious center of this poor nation of 6.8 million sandwiched between Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil.
While Christianity is under siege by secularism and evangelicals in much of the hemisphere, Paraguay remains overwhelmingly Catholic. Eighty-nine percent here profess the faith, according to the Pew Research Center.
The country's indigenous roots remain powerful as well. Even wealthy Paraguayans of European lineage take pride in speaking Guarani, and Francis is likely to emulate the example of Pope John Paul II, who used that language to greet the faithful in 1988, the last time a pope visited.