CHICAGO – Several weeks after it first appeared, the Virgin Mary-like salt stain on the wall of an underpass in Chicago continues to draw scores of visitors — and almost as many tall glass candles.
But these aren’t just any candles. These are a 20th-century invention that has become the official beacon of makeshift memorials and vigils. They come out for everything from miraculous sightings and missing children to neighborhood tragedies and anti-war demonstrations.
More commonly, though, they are lit in the home to accompany a specific petition to a higher authority.
Known as prayer candles, seven-day candles or, in Spanish, veladoras, they come in 81/2-inch glass jars filled with about 71/2 inches of paraffin and usually bear an image and a prayer.
Scholars and candle industry folks find their origin hard to pinpoint. According to Sister Schodts Reed, chief executive officer of the Reed Candle Factory in San Antonio, her Mexican-born father-in-law, Peter Doan Reed, invented the prayer candle in the late 1940s.
The elder Reed started making votive candles — which are always burned in glass and are so named for their use when making a vow or petition — in 1938. But after about a decade of making standard votives, Reed, in 1947, came up with a tall jar model that could burn for seven days and bore a picture of a spiritual figure along with a prayer.
“His goal was to allow people to have their particular patron saint with the image on the candle so that they could light it and have their prayer on it,” Reed said. “That way, they have a silent prayer that is continuing even after they are done praying.”
Reed said her father-in-law’s company started out selling just a few types of silk-screened prayer candles, and now it produces 350 saint varieties alone, many with paper labels. And this doesn’t count the mystical varieties made by a subsidiary, Mission Candles.
The popular candles can be bought in herbal/spiritual shops called botanicas, often found in Hispanic neighborhoods and from Web sites or supermarkets.
The usage of these candles has evolved far outside of a religious context. On the same Web site and even on the same store shelf, you can find Virgin Mary candles not far from “D.U.M.E. Black List” candles that are purported to help you, well, kill your enemies.
More common uses include attracting a specific mate with a “Come to Me” candle while simultaneously sabotaging the mate’s current relationship with a “Break Up” candle. According to Carlos Soto, manager at Indio Products, a chain of botanicas in Southern California, the combo is his No. 1 seller.
The target market for seven-day candles is primarily female, according to botanica representatives across the nation. Jorge Diaz says most of the customers at his Texas store are Hispanic, but on the Chango Web site they are “almost all Anglo or African-American. More and more of them are getting into this.”
Soto also notes that his customers — both on the retail and wholesale level — are 80 percent women because “the ladies come in here to get candles for their relationships when their man leaves and then they see it works. So later when they need help with their jobs or money or gambling or a court case, they come back. The men, for some reason, they don’t want to tell anyone about needing help with women who left them.”
Most of the candles bear printed prayers (in Spanish and English) for the users to recite. But a proper petition often involves more than just buying a candle and lighting it when you get home, explains Soto.
He also notes, “before you start your petition, you should cleanse yourself and your home (of negative energy) first,” with a shower, open windows and incense.
“A lot of people say the candles don’t work, and it is because they light them as soon as they get home instead of cleaning themselves first,” he says.
And then they still might not work. But just in case you want a refund or are thinking of calling the Better Business Bureau, keep in mind that many are now made with the word alleged written above their “magical use,” and they’re only a $2 investment.
Any additional investment of faith, however, is up to you.