[Episcopal News Service] When Pennsylvania Bishop Daniel Gutiérrez, was a child growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, celebrating the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe every Dec. 12 and Christmas later in the month were equally significant for him and his Mexican American family.
They would attend a special Catholic Mass, sing songs of praise, participate in their South Broadway neighborhood’s procession, visit altars brimming with roses and share meals with their neighbors. The boys would dress as St. Juan Diego Cuahtlatoazin — the Chichimec peasant who is said to have received visions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the many Catholic titles referring to the Virgin Mary — and the girls would dress as angels.
Even though Gutiérrez has been an Episcopalian for about 25 years now, Our Lady of Guadalupe, known as “Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe,” “Virgen de Guadalupe” and “La Morenita” in Spanish, still plays a significant role in his life. He keeps a picture of her on his office desk, and every day he dons a necklace bearing her image around his neck, the only metal jewelry he wears. To Gutiérrez, Our Lady of Guadalupe is not only faith, but culture and identity.
“[Our Lady of Guadalupe] speaks in many ways. She’s not anchored to one religious tradition,” he told Episcopal News Service.
Celebrations for Our Lady of Guadalupe begin on Dec. 9, the feast day of St. Juan Diego Cuahtlatoazin — more commonly known as Juan Diego — who reportedly saw her apparitions in 1531, 10 years after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, on the Hill of Tepeyac in present-day Mexico City. Speaking to Juan Diego in his native Nahuatl language, the young, dark-skinned woman identified herself as Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, and asked Juan Diego to build a temple on the spot on top of the hill where she appeared to him. After the fourth of five apparitions, Juan Diego approached Juan de Zumárraga, the first Catholic bishop of Mexico, wearing a cloak stuffed with roses. When he opened his cloak and dropped all the roses, it displayed a detailed image of the Virgin Mary, depicted as a pregnant Indigenous woman wearing traditional attire.
“This is the mother coming to her children,” Gutiérrez said.
Hundreds of years later, Our Lady of Guadalupe remains a central figure of Mexican culture. Today, millions of people make a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City every year.
In 2018, two years into Gutiérrez’s episcopacy, the diocese celebrated its first Mass dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Since then, the diocese has celebrated her feast day. The diocese celebrated Our Lady of Guadalupe’s feast day on Dec. 10 this year at St. John’s Church at the diocesan center in Norristown, a suburb of Philadelphia. Festivities included a special Mass, a mariachi concert and a meal in the parish hall.
The Rev. Christopher Schwenk, vicar of St. John’s since 2022, told ENS that one of the “most beautiful moments” in the celebration is when everyone comes forward in a single-file line to lay a rose at the feet of a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a “beautiful and natural” symbol of their prayers, which are then believed to be carried to God.
“I think seeing that physically acted out and lived out, in bringing roses to Mary, is something that just touched my heart when I saw it … I was filled with tears,” he said. “It’s beautiful to see people offer their prayers and take that moment to pause and reflect before her image and then go back to ordinary life. It’s this sign of utter trust and utter devotion to Mary as an example of our faith.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe’s feast day is also celebrated in other Episcopal dioceses, including the Diocese of Virginia. On Dec. 10, Virginia Bishop E. Mark Stevenson celebrated the feast day at St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Leesburg, a bilingual parish. The Rev. Daniel Vélez Rivera, St. Gabriel’s rector, served as Stevenson’s interpreter during the worship service.
The feast day is typically celebrated over four days, beginning with the celebration of Juan Diego, and celebrations continue throughout the Pennsylvania diocese, including at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in New Hope, St. Jude & the Nativity in Lafayette Hill and Church of the Crucifixion in Philadelphia. St. Jude & the Nativity and Church of the Crucifixion are both predominantly Latino parishes. St. Jude’s is the temporary church home for parishioners of Church of the Crucifixion, which is under construction.
The Rev. Yesenia Alejandro, the first Latina priest in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, is missioner and vicar of both St. Jude’s and Crucifixion. When Alejandro, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was ordained as a priest in 2020, she encountered “much pain by many folks,” especially Hispanic men, who didn’t like the idea of having a female priest. In response, Alejandro placed a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe over the altar in the sanctuary of St. Jude’s, where a crucifix would normally be.
“I could not understand how someone who said they love the Virgen de Guadalupe, who believes in the mother of Christ, would treat me or any woman this way. I wanted them to see the God in me, to teach folks that if you love la Virgen de Guadalupe, then you can love what I can teach you” Alejandro told ENS. “Everyone that comes to church knows that God is the center of our lives. So, I decided I would put the Virgen de Guadalupe in front of the church as a reminder.”
Alejandro said she looks forward to celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe’s feast day every year because she enjoys the music, liturgy and message of hope.
“The joy, the cries, the celebration of faith is amazing, and it helps us grow to accept and love folk from all around the world,” she said. “This is one of the reasons why it’s important to understand culture, because we [Latinos] have very different ways of how our faith is expressed.”
Gutiérrez and Alejandro both said that celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe as a diocese is a way to understand and embrace different cultures, which is especially significant as the Diocese of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia metropolitan area become increasingly diverse.
Philadelphia’s Latino population nearly tripled between 2000 and 2021. As of 2021, nearly a quarter of a million Latinos live in Philadelphia, comprising 15.2% of the city’s population, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Gutiérrez said the Latino population’s growth in Philadelphia also reflects the growing number of Latinos, especially of Mexican heritage, filling the pews of the diocese’s 135 parishes. Gutiérrez said that one of his goals as bishop is to provide a chance for Latino Episcopalians to live out their faith and culture without worry, and for them to comfortably enjoy memories from their homeland.
“They should come in and feel welcomed and loved, that they can bring their history, their past, to present reality and not have someone else’s reality imposed on them. And that reflects on the message of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, of Our Lady of Guadalupe.” Gutiérrez said. “With colonialism, you had to forget your identity and where you came from. But Our Lady of Guadalupe takes everything beautiful about the Indigenous communities and will, I think, always be in the hearts of people, especially the marginalized, who identify with her because that’s who she appeared to.”
-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.