In celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, here's a story I wrote for the Catholic Universe Bulletin that appeared on Dec. 1, 2006.
Queen of the Americas
Our Lady of Guadalupe feast reaches all Hispanics
By Wendy A. Hoke
For centuries she has been called upon to comfort, defend and protect. Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Marianist apparition who appeared as a native Aztec on a Mexican hilltop to a widower in 1531, is responsible in part for converting millions of indigenous people into Catholics.
Today she is known as the patron saint of the Americas, or the Queen of the Americas, as some Hispanics like Victor Pena of La Sagrada Familia refer to her.
For the faithful, like Eva Pena of Sacred Heart Chapel in Lorain, she is hope.
Sitting under her peaceful gaze in the sanctuary at Sacred Heart, Pena pauses from the history of Our Lady and says, “Can I tell you a personal story?”
Six years ago her husband passed away after a short bout with lung cancer. Several months later, her oldest son had a grand mal seizure and was diagnosed with a stage four malignant brain tumor. Surgery was performed, but doctors warned that he might never be the same, experiencing possible blindness, deafness and inability to chew properly.
“My friend told me to pray, to pray hard. So every day I would pray to Our Lady,” she said. Surgeons were able to remove 90 percent of the tumor. Within two months of his surgery, Pena’s son was back at work. He has been in recovery for five years.
Pena’s story echoes that of Juan Diego, the Mexican Indian Christian who was on his way to church when Mary appeared to him on a hill in Tepeyac near Mexico City. “Our Lady gave Juan Diego a message to take to the bishop, that she wanted a church built on the hill.”
In order to convince the bishop of her appearance, Our Lady filled Juan Diego’s tilma (cape tied around his neck) with fresh roses, which were not known to grow in this region, particularly in winter.
“When Juan Diego removes his tilma and the bishop sees all the roses, he is astounded,” she said.
At the time, Spanish missionaries were not very successful in converting indigenous people to Catholicism and much blood was shed in the process of trying to do so. But the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe changed that since she appeared not as a white European Madonna, but as a Native Aztec Indian, speaking in the native Indian language.
Her likeness, beautifully rendered in the mosaic in Sacred Heart Chapel, is filled with symbolism. Her red robe represents the blood shed through wars with native people. She wears a Christian cross at her throat and an Aztec cross on her womb. She is framed in golden rays of the sun, a symbol of Aztec culture. On her head is a crown of 12 stars and a rose pattern is on her cape.
She has been called upon to cure the sick, including Juan Diego’s uncle for whom he was praying at the time of the apparition. Alcoholics have turned to her for help in abstaining from drinking.
Her feast begins Monday (Dec. 4) with nightly novenas, some in Spanish and some in English, and runs through Dec. 12.
Eva Pena looks forward to the celebration. She grew up with a Mexican mother and an Italian father. Her mother prayed the rosary daily. “I grew up honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe for how miraculous she was.”
The feast day begins with an early morning service, called Las Mananitas, a good morning song traditionally played with mariachi band. Sacred Heart (440) 282-7172 and La Sagrada Familia (216) 631-2888 on Cleveland’s West Side both begin the day with traditional song and mariachi music.
Following Mass said in Spanish, both parishes host a celebration party with dancing and traditional Mexican food. It’s a big event drawing big crowds from all cultures. All are welcome, but plan to arrive early to get a seat.
At St. Mary in Painesville (440) 354-4381, Las Mananitas begins at 4 a.m. A procession of children dressed in traditional Indian costumes like Juan Diego and bearing gifts of food and flowers precedes the evening Mass, according to Christina Garcia.
“Las Mananitas connects us with Mexican culture,” explained Garcia. “Our Lady of Guadalupe adopted us; she’s like a mother to the Mexican people. The first thing Mexicans want to see when they cross the border is Our Lady to thank her,” she said.
Although the feast is largely centered on the church, it also is celebrated in some homes as part of the Christmas celebration.
“We put a statue in our home all during December with lights around it because that’s how we start Christmas. We’ll put her next to the Christmas tree so we can remember her all during December,” said Garcia.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Macedonia will celebrate with an evening prayer service with its PSR students, according to Father David Trask. Although it is not home to a Hispanic community, Father Trask said Our Lady greatly influenced the church’s founding pastor.
“We honor Our Lady for her many miracles and for who she stands for,” said Pena.