More than 1,000 people gathered Sunday in downtown Raleigh to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, an object of reverence to Mexicans and other Spanish-speaking Catholics.
Some believers had saved for months to buy roses, a symbol of Our Lady, said Father Justin Kerber, rector of the Sacred Heart Cathedral. The procession began at the cathedral on Hillsborough Street and wound through the western edge of downtown before returning for a mid-afternoon Mass in Spanish.
An image of the Virgin Mary carried during the procession was placed in the cathedral after the event Sunday and surrounded by roses donated by her believers.
“They will have thousands of roses,” Kerber said during the week before the procession. “This is one of the biggest events of the year for the Hispanic community of our parish.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe made herself known to Latin Americans when she first appeared to Saint Juan Diego in 1531 and roses miraculously bloomed in December. In a historical account written by Father Kerber, Mary appeared as one of them, dark-skinned with Indian features. She told them she would be their mother. She would bring them compassion if they turned to Jesus, her son. She would always be the protector of the oppressed.
Despite frigid temperatures aggravated by gusting winds, large crowds came out for the colorful, simultaneously raucous and solemn procession. It went without a hitch under sunny skies.
Before the believers began their route through downtown, a crowd of several hundred people had gathered in the courtyard of the Sacred Heart Cathedral Church. The believers were drawn to the booming sounds of a lone drummer playing for two lines of dancers costumed in red cassocks trimmed with silver bells that jingled in time with their choreographed movements. The dancers wore headgear made of red, green, purple and yellow feathers and shook maracas to the accompaniment of the celebration rhythm.
“It’s a traditional thing that they do every year. They do that to honor the Virgin Mary. They do it in Mexico,” said Jesus Herrera, the manager of a Raleigh printing company attending the event with his wife, children and other family members. “They try to do the same thing here so they don’t lose their culture.”
Herrera’s son, Alfonso, 5, and niece, Jocelyn Herrera, also 5, were dressed in costumes and waiting excitedly for the procession to begin. Someone had painted a black mustache and beard on Alfonso’s face. The white linen garment he wore was emblazoned with Our Lady’s likeness. Jocelyn wore a colorful striped skirt. A matching shawl covered her long dark hair.
“My little son’s participating in the procession,” Jesus Herrera said with a proud little smile. “He’s wearing Indian dress and got his face all painted.”
More believers and procession participants showed up. The gathering grew by the hundreds and its members spilled over into the playground of the cathedral’s school: stalwart little boys and lovely little girls who were dressed in traditional Indian garments, two more dance ensembles, costumed adults and members of the Knights of Columbus wearing blue fezzes with golden tassels. The cab of a brown pickup truck was loaded with speakers and women who chanted praises to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The celebrants held aloft flags of their native countries in South and Central America, but a diverse group brought together by their faith attended the event.
Michael Wengenroth of Raleigh has attended the downtown Raleigh procession for the past three years. He said the event is akin to the St. Patrick’s Day parade.
“Obviously, the Virgin Mary is on a much higher level,” he said while noting the St. Patrick’s parade has become much more secular.
Images of the Virgin Mary were everywhere; on costumes, signs and other articles of faith. Our Lady of Guadalupe’s carved image sat atop a wooden platform covered in red, white and pink roses. The platform was carried by a group of believers in front of hundreds of her believers, who solemnly followed.
“They believe in a vision of the blessed mother,” Father Kerber explained. “It has to do with being a church that is of service to the poor.”