Far from home, Virgin of Guadalupe comforts believers
Waukegan church celebrates 476th anniversary of first sighting
By Andrew L. Wang | Chicago Tribune
6:44 PM CST, December 12, 2007
Powerful drumbeats echoed off the sanctuary ceiling and dancers in traditional Aztec garb leaped and spun at a frenetic pace as statues of Jesus and Mary cast beatific gazes upon them.
There was a time when the performance of an indigenous ritual might have been shocking at a Roman Catholic church; not so Wednesday at Holy Family Church in Waukegan, as parishioners gathered before dawn to mark the 476th anniversary of the appearance to an indigenous Mexican peasant of a dark-skinned Virgin, now known to the world as the Virgin of Guadalupe.
"She's really the blending of the two cultures into one," said Rev. Gary Graf, pastor of the church.
The message held special resonance for Latinos in this far north suburban city after a trying year.
Many said they feel targeted by police enforcing a city ordinance to tow cars if the drivers don't have insurance or valid driver's licenses. They fear they will be caught up in an immigration sweep, like the one in August that netted nearly 100 people—some of whom were not guilty of any crime or immigration violation. And they worry that new powers sought by local police will lead to deportation for minor offenses.
"I'm asking my parents to sell the house," said Veronica Martinez, 27, of Waukegan. "It's very tough." Martinez was among hundreds who attended the standing-room-only event in the city's largest parish, at 450 Keller Ave.
Mexican Catholics turn to the Virgin for solace, comfort and for aid in their earthly troubles. But another lesson of the Virgin is particularly relevant today, Graf told his mostly Latino parishioners: The collision of cultures can create a new, more inclusive society that values the contributions of both.
The story of the Virgin, passed down over nearly five centuries, says that Mexican peasant Juan Diego was walking to morning mass Dec. 9, 1531, when he heard a woman's voice calling him to the top of Tepeyac, a hill on the outskirts of Mexico City. When he reached the top of the hill, he saw the dark-skinned Virgin with European features who spoke in Nahuatl, his language, and asked him to build a church in her name.
Juan Diego told his bishop of his vision, but the cleric was skeptical and told him to get proof that the woman he saw was the Virgin. Three days later, the story goes, the Virgin told Juan Diego to return to the hill, gather roses and bring them to the bishop as a sign. He wrapped them in his tilma, or cloak, and when he presented them the roses fell to the floor to reveal an icon of the Virgin on the fabric.
A church was built, and today the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe stands on the site.
Wednesday's 4 a.m. celebration interspersed prayer with the singing of Las Mañanitas, or morning serenades, accompanied by guitars, tambourines and accordion. Graf was joined on the altar by small children, the boys wearing tilmas like Juan Diego's and sporting painted-on mustaches, girls with braided hair and brightly colored dresses.
Then came the Aztec dancers, wearing elaborate feather-covered headdresses, gold-trimmed garb and heavy anklets made of hundreds of seashells. They danced to a drum and the call of a conch shell. Fascinated parishioners pressed closer to the front of the sanctuary to see. Some snapped photos with mobile phones.
The Virgin's image has long been ubiquitous in Mexican-American neighborhoods and in recent years she has gained popularity among non-Latinos, non-Catholics and even non-Christians.
"She cares for us and comforts us," said Juan Carlos Pizano, 34, of Round Lake Beach, whose parents emigrated from Mexico. "She unites us as countrymen, as children to a mother."
Her story has many parallels to the situation of undocumented immigrants, said Elena Segura, director of the Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform, part of the Chicago archdiocese.
At the time the Virgin appeared to him, Juan Diego faced an uncertain future, she said. He was poor and alone in the world. Spanish conquistadors had come to his land and brutally established their dominion. Indigenous peoples like his were being converted to Catholicism, their native customs and religion being subjugated.
"Then this lady showed up in the midst of all this stress," Segura said Wednesday after speaking at the service. "He represents people in despair and fear. That's like what undocumented people are feeling now, especially in this town."
Moreover, Graf told parishioners, the Virgin's mixed appearance is a message that tells believers to reach out to the non-Latino community and accept their differences.
"This is a moment in time in which we're given an opportunity to learn from the newcomer and for the newcomer to learn from those who have been here for several generations," he said. "In the process everyone's got to give a little bit . . . to become a new people, a new creation."
Queen of Peace, Blessed Mother, pray for us.