Story and photos by Jeff Keeling
The dancers, festively bedecked in red and white with rattles and bells dangling from their outfits, weaved up and down the road leading to St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The stars shone brightly overhead in the clear, cold December air.
It was the procession leading to a mass celebrating the Virgin of Guadalupe, a Marian apparition that occurred 483 years ago outside what is now Mexico City. Thursday night, along with the dancers, hundreds of members of the church’s Hispanic community celebrated the visitations that occurred over a four-day period to an Aztec convert, Juan Diego.
Diego’s experiences, and the resulting proof that convinced a Spanish bishop, were a turning point in the conversion of the Aztec culture. In the decade since Spanish conquest in Mexico, the native people had been understandably skeptical, if not downright hostile, to a new religion whose adherents included not only sincere priests and missionaries, but violent explorers and others whose actions didn’t seem to match up with the supposed teachings.
The ultimate conversion to Christianity of millions in the wake of “Our Lady of Guadalupe” cemented Juan Diego’s experience, and the site where it occurred, in Catholic esteem and tradition. The picture of Mary that remained on Diego’s cape, how it got there, and what it included all helped spur the conversion movement.
Around the illustration were a variety of symbols, colors, shapes and other features that held meaning to the Aztec people. They are said to have helped convince them that this Mary was signalling the end of their pagan belief system and its replacement by the faith she represented.
Thursday, activities at St. Mary’s included a play by the youth group that re-enacted the experiences of Juan Diego and the bishop. Following a rosary prayer service, St. Mary’s priests and lay leaders joined in the procession, several hundred yards to the church, of the dancers, drummers and throngs who followed them carrying a litter with a homemade statue of the Lady.
After a Spanish-language mass centered around the event, several hundred people enjoyed a party in the church fellowship area.
“This is a very important part of the church calendar in Latin America and particularly in Mexico traditionally,” said Lillian Isaac, a St. Mary’s member who wrote the play performed by the youth. “These type of celebrations here, especially with the play, help our young people know the reason behind its importance.”