Accompanied by the emotive Mariachi Sol De Mi Tierra echoing off the walls of the sanctuary, the rose-bedecked image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was carried by solemn parishioners in procession to the altar of St. Joseph Catholic Church in New Paltz last Wednesday, December 12, the faithful bearing bouquets of flowers to be left at the base of the icon in tribute. The evening, bilingual mass was dedicated to a celebration of Latino ethnic pride and identity: The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The annual feast day on December 12 is particularly significant to Mexicans. It acknowledges the belief that the Virgin Mary, Mexico’s patron saint, appeared to a man named Juan Diego on several occasions between December 9 and December 12, 1531. Speaking to him in his native Nahuatl language — the language of the Aztec empire — Mary identified herself and asked for a church to be built at the site. Juan Diego sought out a bishop, who would not believe his story of encountering Mary without receiving a sign. On December 12, Mary appeared and told Juan Diego to gather flowers from a place normally barren in winter. The faithful man followed her instructions and found roses blooming there, which the Virgin Mary arranged in his cloak to be brought to the bishop. When Juan Diego arrived and opened his cloak, the flowers fell to the floor and on the fabric was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Mary’s miraculous appearance to Juan Diego as one of his people is considered a reminder that she and the God who sent her accept all people. The apparition was seen as a rebuke to the Spaniards for their cruel treatment of the indigenous population at the time and inspired the conversion of some nine million people to Catholicism.
The fête at St. Joseph’s, which concluded with a community meal in the parish hall accompanied by mariachi, was hosted by a parish group called Brazos Abiertos (“open arms”). The event was well-attended by not only Spanish-speaking congregants but also by a number of parishioners who were there to support the Latino portion of their community. Most of the mass was spoken in Spanish with the sermon and some prayers translated into English.
St. Joseph’s currently hosts a Spanish language mass on the second Saturday of each month. (Mariachi is not part of the usual service.) Father Salvatore Cordaro, pastor at the New Paltz church, says he hopes to integrate Brazos Abiertos into church life in general, as part of his vision for the parish as a whole. “They’re very devout, and committed, and I don’t want to isolate them. I want them to be a true part of our parish.”
Carolina Castro is one of the founding members of Brazos Abiertos, although she modestly credits Alfredo Estrada for laying the groundwork for the group. Asked what it means to a Spanish-speaking person to hear the mass said in their native language, she replies, “It means the world! I am bilingual, and I can read my prayers in English, and say them in English, but it’s very different saying them in the language you grew up with. You feel it more.”
Commenting on an observation that the event had drawn participants of so many generations, Castro noted the sense of pride that comes with honoring one’s culture as part of a group. “It’s that idea of being a village; you establish roots and come together as family.”
With the increasing population of Spanish-speaking people in the region, other area churches are also establishing such services, with St. Augustine’s in Highland holding a mass in Spanish every Sunday. Fathers Tom Deeley and Tom Travers of the Redemptorists Order, dedicated to missionary work, conducted the bilingual service in New Paltz on the feast day but will be moving on next year to other work, so the region-wide Brazos Abiertos needs to find leadership to continue.
This is the second year St. Joseph’s Church has held the traditional Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The day began with a 5 a.m. prayer service (las mananitas) with traditional Mexican music. Despite the early hour, Fr. Cordaro said the candlelight morning mass brought out several dozen parishioners. (According to Carolina Castro, the faithful often begin celebrating the feast at the stroke of midnight leading into December 12.)
The evening mass ended by reversing the way it began, with the procession of parishioners now removing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe from the altar before leading everyone downstairs to the parish hall for a reception. Conversation may not have been easy in competing with live mariachi, but the mood was convivial and strangers were warmly welcomed. And it’s impossible to overestimate the uplifting contribution the mariachi made to the entire event.
To those unfamiliar with the genre of music, it is often associated only with boisterous festivals and outdoor events. But in Mexico and in areas of this country with large Spanish-speaking populations, it is a cultural tradition reflecting all of the events of life, and it’s not uncommon to find mariachi in church, where it shows its softer side.
For more information about St. Joseph Church, visit https://stjosephnewpaltz.org/.