Our Lady of Guadalupe Feast 'All for the Mother'

Posted: 12/1/2011

Our Lady of Guadalupe feast celebration, Danville, Ark.

Advent includes the greatest of Mexican feasts—the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12. The story of the Virgin Mary’s appearance in Mexico to Juan Diego in 1531, and the miracles associated with it, are known around the world.

Her apparition has always been seen as a sign of love and respect for the native peoples of Mexico and Latino Catholics everywhere. And devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe has only grown. Pope John Paul II even declared her the patroness for the Church of the Americas.

This intense devotion is evident every December during celebrations at Glenmary missions with Latino members, says Father Neil Pezzulo.

Father Neil is now living in Cincinnati as Glenmary’s first vice president. But early last December, in his 11th year serving Arkansas missions, he was preparing for yet another celebration of the feast. Looking back, he realizes just how important this event is to mission members—and to him, once he fully understood its meaning.

“At first, I didn’t completely grasp the painstaking attention to detail,” he says. “Then one year, just after the feast, I overheard a young woman ask a fellow Glenmary pastor, ‘Do you think the Virgin is happy?’ That’s when it struck me: the intensity comes out of love and desire to please the Mother.”

Father Neil says that “each mission makes the celebration its own,” but certain key elements are common to all. Some communities, he adds, have their major celebrations on the Sunday nearest to the actual feast day so more people can participate.
In describing the celebration, he focused on his memories of last year’s feast at the Danville mission. “The preparation usually starts a month or so beforehand,” he says. “For example, the Danville parishioners begin raising money for food, decorations and other needs by having weekly food sales.”

His own experience was that mission members who grew up with this feast have definite ideas about how they want to celebrate it. “As pastor I just tried to help in any way I could, including buying meat for the meal.”

During the week before the feast, he says, parishioners are busy working on floats for a procession, getting Our Lady and Juan Diego costumes ready for kids and adults, cleaning and decorating the church and their homes, ordering flowers, and buying and preparing food. Some families even have nine-day novenas at home.

When the celebration day comes in Danville, the church is opened at midnight for those who want to come and pray. “Most begin coming in quietly at around 5 a.m.,” he says, and the music group starts to play, until the crowd is gathered and the lights are turned on.

“Explosive” is the word he uses to describe the traditional early-morning service, mañanitas (“morning songs”). “As the number of people increases, the energy grows.” At 6 a.m., “the gathering of about 300 starts singing songs to the Blessed Mother, and it goes on nonstop for at least 90 minutes! The entire service lasts over two hours.” Afterwards, people share sweetbreads and hot chocolate. And some stay to pray.

At around 11 a.m., says Father Neil, 300 to 400 individuals come together again at a nearby park for a “very reverent” procession, with their colorful, flower-strewn floats and images and statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe. For 45 minutes, the people—some in costume—walk slowly to the church, praying rosaries, carrying flowers, playing music and singing songs in honor of Mary.

Once everyone enters the beautifully decorated church at around noon, people lovingly place their flowers at the feet of Our Lady, and the priest and overflow congregation of about 800 celebrate a joyful Mass.

After the liturgy, the entire group enjoys the festive traditional meal that’s been planned for weeks. “We never charged anyone to attend the meal,” Father Neil says, “and we always shared a sit-down dinner as a community.”

The post-meal activities often include a costumed play reenacting Mary’s appearance to Juan Diego, as well as traditional folk dancing.

Even when the large gathering is finally over, he says, the celebration continues. Some stay to pray, while others go home to prepare special evening meals for their families. “It truly is an all-day event.”  As pastor of the Danville and Waldron missions, he split his time but shared in both celebrations.

In his view, this special feast is also an ideal opportunity for evangelization: “If some people come to church just this one time each year, it’s a chance to make them feel welcome and invite them to participate more,” he says.

“I understand now why the feast is important to those who come, including me,” he says. “It’s all for love of the Mother.”

This article appears in the December 2011 Boost-a-Month Club newsletter.