By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published December 22, 2005
On her feast day, Our Lady of Guadalupe’s power to lead people to “Cristo” was evident through the pounding drums, thousands of roses and other expressions of love at Our Lady of the Americas Mission where participants prayed, attended Mass and celebrated all night Dec. 11 and throughout the next day.
Administrator Father Fernando Molina-Restrepo was touched by the love that enveloped the crowds that flowed in and out of the Hispanic mission, which has an estimated 6,000 members, and noted that many who don’t usually participate also attended.
“To see their beautiful love for Our Lady is very beautiful and makes you meditate a lot on how, through Our Lady, many people are brought to the church and to Christ. To see the power of Our Lady and her tender love in this humongous church is amazing.”
Hector Celis, for one, was glad to join Father Molina-Restrepo and honor María, whose appearance to Aztec peasant St. Juan Diego in 1531 is credited with bringing about the conversion of millions of the native population to Catholicism.
The 34-year-old Peruvian native stood in his winter coat behind the mission in the near freezing air as midnight approached and awaited his turn to grill thin slices of steak for tacos with cilantro for parishioners. Others wearing colorful Indian headdresses and shell ankle bracelets danced and shook maracas and tambourines beneath an outdoor shelter to honor Mary.
By selling tacos Celis was helping to raise money for the campaign to build a desperately needed new church for the mission that brought about his own conversion.
“That’s why we’ll be here all night. We’ve got God in our hearts” and devotion to his Mother, he said. “I was raised Catholic, but my faith came down when I came to Georgia. I found God again through this church. They help a lot of immigrants. It was looking at God through all these people here. That’s why I decided to stay in the church.”
The Spanish-speaking mission, in the heart of a multicultural Hispanic community, began its celebration at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 11. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory was the main celebrant at the first of six Masses at the mission, concelebrated by Father Molina-Restrepo and Father Arcangel Cardenas-Martinez, SSP, who works at the mission part-time. Another Mass followed at 10:30 p.m. There was also a reenactment of Mary’s apparition. As a mariachi band arrived, the mañanitas, the singing of traditional songs, began and lasted throughout the night.
The mission was one of at least 54 churches in the Atlanta Archdiocese holding Spanish or bilingual celebrations for the special feast day.
Those attending warmed up by eating tacos, along with tamales, quesadillas with crème, mole—a complex mixture of chocolate and spices—and sipping hot rice milk and atole, a blend of milk and corn dough and sugar. People also purchased pictures of themselves with an image of Our Lady, bought clothes such as the sweatshirt reading “home for immigrants,” a Christmas CD from the mission’s eight choirs, and various religious items. Proceeds also benefited the mission campaign to raise funds for the construction of a new church, as the community is extremely overcrowded in the existing space. Supporters could buy a $100 brick for the church on which to have their names inscribed.
Archbishop Gregory arrived in the mission’s parking lot, located on New Peachtree Road in an area where many shop signs are in Spanish and English. A little boy ran up and hugged him as Father Molina-Restrepo escorted him into the worship space.
Women dressed as cowgirls danced outside as the Mass began and attendees filled the church. The overflow crowd watched on a television overhead as they packed into the long hallway. One man clutched a picture of Mary to his chest and cactus sticks. A young couple, Ana Salazar and Luis Rojas, newcomers to the parish, stood quietly throughout the service as the mother rocked their 2-month-old in her arms. They live in the area and had seen the mission, so they decided to visit.
The archbishop spoke in Spanish to the congregation about Mary’s revered place in the church as the Patroness of the Americas. Beside him was a statue of Our Lady surrounded by roses and a little waterfall, and from the walls hung flags from several Latin American nations.
According to church history, Mary appeared as an Aztec princess to poor Aztec Indian Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill outside of Mexico City in 1531. She instructed him to go to the local bishop and request that a church be built on this particular spot. The bishop told Juan to bring proof of the apparition, so he went back to the hill where Mary instructed him to take Castilian roses to the bishop in his cloak. As Juan opened his “tilma” to present the roses to the bishop, Mary’s image miraculously appeared on his cloak made of cactus fiber. This convinced the bishop of the authenticity of the apparition.
Millions of native people converted to Catholicism because of the apparition, and Our Lady of Guadalupe became engrained in Mexican identity, with devotion spreading throughout Latin America.
In the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, located on Tepeyac Hill, the original “tilma,” depicting Mary pregnant with her Son, remains today and shows no signs of decay. Modern infrared photography and digital enhancement techniques have not been able to detect any sketching or outline that an artist would use to produce it, and neither have tests been able to determine how the image was produced.
The archbishop spoke of how Mary is a “magnificent symbol” of the splendid union of divinity and humanity and how the dress that she wore “truly becomes for the people, a tunic of salvation.”
“Each generation has its own call of the blessed young girl from Nazareth because she reveals God’s plan to be one with His people.”
As Mary is the garden in which God planted the fruit of eternal life, how “powerful is the love that God has for each of us in all of our diversity and uniqueness.”
“This celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a reminder of the true wealth with which God manifests His love to each person. It also is an opportunity to understand, with a new profoundness, the dignity that each culture and race has in the mystery of the church,” he continued. “The events on Tepeyac Hill in 1531 are timeless in their greatness and eternal promise.”
The archbishop prayed, “Allow us to be prepared with Maria for the birth of the Savior,” after which a musician softly played a guitar as the gifts were prepared. Choir members with instruments—a wooden flute, guitar and tambourine—sang songs such as “La Guadalupana” and “Buenos Dias Paloma Blanca” (“Good Day White Dove”) and “Ave Maria.” Eucharistic ministers weaved through the crowd in the hall to offer the Eucharist as others carried candles in glass cylinders with the image of Mary. Following the Mass many placed roses and incense before her statue.
After the Mass, newcomer Luis Rojas said the all-night celebrations were a way to continue on a small scale the Guadalupe traditions he grew up with in Mexico. Ana, as she held their baby, said that every day they put their lives in Mary’s hands.
Outside, El Salvador native Luis Portillo, who wore a gold Guadalupe medallion along with a crucifix, chatted with parishioners. He has been at the mission a couple of years.
“It’s the Virgin for Latin America and for the U.S. because she’s the mother of Jesus Christ.”
He affirmed that Christ is the center of his faith, but he views Mary, being the mother of Christ, as his spiritual mother in the same way a person loves one’s earthly mother.
“We believe in Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.… Do you love your mother? I love my Mother, the Virgin Mary.”
The young adult is a carpenter and sends money home to El Salvador to his family there. He has learned English through the mission classes and wants to start computer classes. He is involved in a Bible study group and spent the previous night in prayer at the church. Portillo was heading home about 10 p.m. for some sleep, but said he’d return by 3 a.m. He was grateful for the presence of the archbishop.
“He didn’t forget us. He’s got a big heart.”
The Peruvian Celis, who came with his mother and two brothers, recalled how he was not interested in religion but in making money when his mother invited her prayer group to their home. He began to reconsider his position and realized, “I was wasting my life and the faith I had in my country.”
He began attending Mass at the mission and was impressed by the services they offer to the poor knocking at their door, not only to those who are members but also to those they may never see again. Those services include prenatal education classes, haircuts, English and computer classes and homeless and alcoholic support. “Here they help you without expecting anything from you.”
Volunteering at a table selling religious items was Mexican-American Romulo Moncada, who was dressed as St. Juan Diego for his role in a dramatization. He recalled first attending the mission’s celebration in apartment complexes for about 20 people before they even had the current building, a warehouse they moved into in 1991 after the congregation was established in the late ‘80s.
“It’s a very, very special day,” he said. “We love her so much and now here we try to continue some of the younger traditions for younger generations.”
He, too, stressed the need for the mission to build a new church to better serve the community.
“We have (around 700) children in religious education and we have no room for them, and that’s why we try to do as much as we can to collect money. We really need it … It’s going to be similar to the cathedral in Mexico.”