La Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia (8 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 8 a.m.–8 p.m. Sun.) is definitely the focal point of Higüey  and an important structure in the predominantly Catholic Dominican Republic . It is the house of the patron saint of all Dominicans, Our Lady of Altagracia, the Virgin Mary. Construction began during Trujillo’s dictatorship in 1954, was inaugurated by Pope John Paul in 1971, but wasn’t actually completed until Balaguer’s presidency in 1972. The basilica sits on 40,000 square meters, and the basilica itself is about 4,600 square meters.
Its signature, enormous concrete arches loom 80 meters into the Higüey sky, signifying the shape of praying hands, and were designed by the French team of Pierre Dupré and Dovnoyer de Segonzac. The eclectic design allows a harmonious mixture of the traditional Catholic footprint shape of a cross, coupled with a modern rising form. Inside, parishioners hear mass under multiple arches that lead to the altar and frame a magnificent stained glass wall behind it.
Even more famous than the celebrated architecture of the basilica itself is the encased, framed painting of the Virgen de La Altagracia (Virgin of the Higher Grace). This depiction of the Holy Mother draws pilgrims from all over the country, who form a line to one by one worship and ask for healing miracles. Prepare to stand in line as some have much to say to her.
The painting of the Virgin Mary on the altar in the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia is encased not only in glass but also in a fog of legend and folklore. There are many tales of how the painting came to be depending on whom you ask. How did the painting make it to the basilica? Who brought it? Renditions and versions swirl around in the oral-tradition mixer of Dominican culture.
In one version, a merchant was asked by his daughter to get a portrait of Our Lady of Altagracia on his next trip to Santo Domingo . He’d never heard the title and was discussing it while staying overnight at a friend’s house just as an old bearded man happened by. The old man pulled a painting out of his satchel and said that it was what the merchant had been searching for, the Virgin of Altagracia. The merchant and his friend gave the old man a place to stay for the night, but by morning he was gone and they never saw him again.
The merchant took the painting to his elated daughter. They placed it on the mantel in their home, but it kept disappearing, whereupon they would find it again outside. They finally placed it in a church.
Another legend says a sick child from Higüey  gave an old man (thought to be an apostle) a meal and a place to stay, so the man healed her and in the morning left the portrait for her.
Perhaps the most popular story is the one where a sick little girl was visited by the Virgin Mary, who appeared to her in an orange tree that once stood in the place of the original basilica. (In yet another version, it was three children!) A portrait of the Virgin Mary appeared under the tree, so the child/children took it home; by morning, the portrait had disappeared and was found back under the tree. The painting is now built into the basilica.
To this day, orange trees are a major theme in the artwork throughout the basilica, and on January 21 oranges are prominent, sold in piles for the Día de la Altagracia festival .
The basilica also has artwork on either side of the altar by the Spanish muralist José Vela Zanetti. On the edges of the massive parking lot and across the street from the basilica are various memorabilia stands and shops where you can purchase a wide assortment of trinkets such as candles, plastic rosaries, and photos of the Pope. Wear clothing that respectfully covers your knees and shoulders or you won’t be allowed to enter the basilica.