A celebration of heritage

Local Mexican community celebrates its patron saint

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: December 12. 2006 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – Worshippers spilled into the aisles and out the chapel door at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Prineville on Sunday, as members of the local Mexican-American community packed the pews to celebrate the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.

Traditionally, feast day celebrations for the Virgin of Guadalupe, also known as Our Lady of Guadalupe, are held on Dec. 12. Catholic churches in Central Oregon were slated to observe the holiday early this morning with the singing of traditional songs known as las mananitas and Mass, but the bigger events happened this weekend with fiestas, processions, music and dancing in honor of la Virgen.

“All elements of the Mexican community try to show up on this day,” said Max Hernandez, a 33-year member of St. Joseph’s who carried a red and green tinsel-festooned image of the Virgen of Guadalupe in a procession Sunday. “It’s one of the biggest celebrations in the whole of Mexico.”

The festivities at St. Joseph’s got started Sunday with las mananitas at 6 a.m. and a Spanish-language Mass at noon. The church holds Mass in Spanish every week, but this Sunday saw a much larger turnout than usual, said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Robert Greiner. The ceremony included a mariachi band leading the hymns and a procession of children, many in traditional peasant costumes, who laid flowers in front of a statue and portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe. At the end of the Mass, the entire congregation, led by the children and the mariachi band, walked slowly from the church to a hall next door for a fiesta with food, dancing and pinatas.

“It’s a real connection with their homeland because all of Mexico celebrates the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe,” Greiner said. “It certainly connects them with their roots and their families back home.”

The feast day of Dec. 12 commemorates the purported apparition of the Virgin Mary to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, an American Indian and convert to Catholicism, in a town near the present-day Mexico City. Since then, the Virgin of Guadalupe has come to be a symbol of mexicanidad – “Mexican-ness” – and is one of the most revered religious icons in Mexico. Many scholars also think that she is a “Christianized” version of the Aztec goddess Tonantzin.

During Sunday’s Mass, Greiner said that the Virgin of Guadalupe represents liberty and hope for the Mexican people and for all Latin Americans; in 1999, Pope John Paul II named her patron of the Americas.

“Latin Americans are united by many things – land, history, the Christian faith and the devotion to Mary,” Greiner said. “Our Lady Of Guadalupe will always be a symbol of hope for Latin America.”

Greiner said that about 100 families attend St. Joseph’s Spanish-language Mass. The special activities for the Virgin of Guadalupe’s feast day have been happening for “quite a few years now,” since before Greiner arrived at the church 4 1/2 years ago.

On Saturday, Catholic churches in Bend and Madras also held celebrations. The Rev. Gregory Okorobia of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Madras said about 100 people participated in a parade from Culver to Madras on Saturday. He added that 400 people heard Mass in the gym at Jefferson County Middle School, which was being used instead of the church to accommodate everyone. Okorobia said that in the past the Mass has drawn a crowd of up to 1,000 people, but the turnout might have been smaller this year because the celebration was held Saturday instead of Sunday.

Okorobia said that St. Patrick’s has observed the feast day for more than 20 years.

“It’s a long tradition here” among Mexican-Americans, he said. “It holds them together, in fact here in the U.S. even those who have left the Catholic church, they come back for that feast, so they just want something that holds them together.”

The commemoration at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Bend also featured a procession – from Pilot Butte to the church’s community center on Northeast 27th Street – Mass, a mariachi band, food and dancing Saturday. This morning, the church planned to hold bilingual Mass and las mananitas. On Saturday, children also put on a play re-creating the apparition of the virgin to San Juan Diego, who in 2002 was the first indigenous American person to be canonized.

The Rev. Joseph Reinig of St. Francis said the participation of children in these events is customary in celebrating the day of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe and helps them understand the religious traditions.

At St. Joseph’s on Sunday, Elias Villagomez said the events are important in helping Mexicans living in Oregon retain their cultural and religious heritage.

“For we Mexicans it is a great fiesta that we celebrate,” Villagomez said. “We continue it so that the children will go on learning about our culture.”

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