Origins and History
Many believe that Monte Toro pinpoints the spiritual centre of Menorca, where there has been a shrine and place of pilgrimage since the 13th century. Legend has it that Monte Toro, or El Toro as it is referred to by the locals, takes its name from a bull (el toro) which led a group of monks to a statue of the Virgin Mary in the rock face. However, some say the peak’s name is more likely to have come from the Moors inhabitation of the island, evolving from the Arabic words ‘al tor’, meaning high place or mountain, while others say the name Toro actually comes from ‘tor’, of pre-roman origin, like the Catalan word ‘turó’ meaning hill.
It is believed that the peak was first inhabited sometime in the 15th century when a watchtower was constructed at its highest point. A defense tower was later added to the top of the ancient watchtower in 1558. In the 17th century, around 1670, Augustinian monks built a monastery and stayed there until 1835, when all church property was confiscated. The monastery was destroyed a century later during the Spanish Civil War, and as part of the considerable restoration that took place in the 1940s, remains of the original building can still be seen.
More recently, the site has been divided between a convent and an army station, before being managed by the Franciscan Sisters, and is still an observation area. Being the island’s hightest point also means the Sancturay has had to share the summit with communication masts, transmitters and satellites for TV, radio and mobile phones which are prominent at the entrance, but just pass by, ignore them and enjoy the views…!
The imposing statue of ‘Jesus of the Sacred Heart’, with his arms outstretched to bless the Menorcans who died in the Spanish Moroccan wars of the early 20th century, stands in front of the Sanctuary. There is also a stone monument to remember all the Menorcans who emigrated to Algeria between 1830 and 1962, when it was a French colony.
Inside the main gates in front of the church, there is an attractive whitewashed courtyard lined with plants with a well and a monument to commemorate the 18th century Menorcans who emigrated to Florida to escape the disruption of the time and seek a better life, led by Father Pere Camps Gener of Es Mercadal.
Sanctuary of the Virgin of El Toro (Santuario de la Virgen del Toro)
The present Sanctuary was built around 1670 on the site of the old 13th century Gothic church. Next to the church, the defense tower built on the original watchtower forms one of the walls of the shrine’s courtyard.
Inside, the walls are adorned with tapestries there is a simple nave and an ornate baroque-style altar where can be found the carved wooden statue of the Black Madonna, known as La Verge del Toro or La Virgen de la Mare de Déu del Toro. To the sides, there are five small vaulted chambers, one of which features the holy cave where the bull was said to have unearthed the statue of the Virgin. To the side of the alter there is a small chapel for prayer and remembrance.
The Virgin of El Toro is regarded as the patroness saint of the island and as such this cave is much revered by the locals and considered an important pilgrimage point by many followers of the Catholic religion. Locals believe this statue of the Virgin Mary has been worshipped here since the 13th century.
In August 1936, shortly after the outbreak of civil war, the church was virtually destroyed and looted with altar pieces and statues, including the Virgin Mary, destined to be burned. A man called Joan Albalat saved the statue of the Virgin and entrusted it to farmers of the Rafal des Frares farmstead, where they kept it hidden until 1939.
Mass is said here every Sunday at 11.00am and many still make the pilgrimage, especially on the first Sunday each May for the ‘Festa de la Verge del Toro’.
The Legend of the Verge del Toro
According to legend, the image of the Virgin was discovered in the 13th century by a father of the Order of Santa Maria de la Merced, (founded by St. Peter Nolasco in Barcelona in 1218 for the redemption of Christian captives in Muslim countries). These friars were accompanying King Alfonso III ‘El Liberal’, when he conquered the island in 1287. In gratitude for services rendered, the monarch gave them two hermitages of land, one at Citadel and another at Llinàritx, Es Mercadal, (today an industrial area), where the friars built a convent.
One night, an elderly father saw a pillar of light shining up to the sky from the top of the hill. This strange phenomenon was repeated on successive nights. Believing it was a supernatural event, he decided to tell the rest of the convent. The next night, the friars set off in procession to the summit of Mount Toro. However, the climb became more painful and difficult and no one knew the best way to go to reach the top. Suddenly a raging bull appeared and blocked their way, but the friars were carrying crucifixes to guide them which tamed the bull and it led them up the hill through the dense undergrowth.
Suddenly they found themselves confronted with huge rocks which hindered their progress. To their amazement and wonder, the bull started to push aside the rocks with its horns, leaving the way clear again. Since then, this place is known as the ‘bou pas’ (passage of the bull). Upon reaching the summit, the incredible animal bowed to the entrance of a cave where they found the image of the Madonna and baby Jesus in her arms.
The friars moved the Virgin to the convent, but the next day the image had disappeared and they found it again in the cave on the hill top. Faced with this miraculous event the monks realised that it was the will of ‘Lady’ to live in the cave on Monte Toro, so they built a chapel on the spot to worship and later, they built a monastery to where they moved the Mercedarian Order (or Order of Mercy).
This story was then passed on by word of mouth from generation to generation.
Festa de la Verge del Toro
Following on from the legend of this miraculous event, Monte Toro became the spiritual center of the island and place of annual pilgrimage for Menorcans to worship their patroness saint, the ‘Verge del Toro’, whose feast day is on 8 May. The Sunday before, mass takes place at the Sanctuary to honour the Virgin Mary and seek her protection before the procession descends and the fiesta continues in the streets of Es Mercadal.