As the population of Latin Americans continues to grow in North Mississippi, parishioners at St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo are working to integrate the customs of an English-speaking parish with that of their growing Spanish-speaking neighbors. Thus, on December 10th, 2006, the church hosted a celebration to honor the Mexican tradition of Our Lady of Guadalupe and drew more than five hundred people from all over north Mississippi throughout the day’s activities.
The tradition of Our Lady of Guadalupe dates back to the early 1500s when Our Lady is believed to have appeared to a Mexican Chicemeca Indian as the pregnant mother of God. The Catholic understanding is that Our Lady came to offer faith, hope, and consolation to the oppressed natives of Mexico and to reconcile then with their Spanish leaders. She is credited with putting an end to human sacrifice of the Aztecs in Mexico and, over the next nine years, converting nine million Mexican natives to the Catholic tradition.
Elquin Gonzalez, the Hispanic pastoral coordinator of St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo, Miss., worked with a Catholic Church in his native Colombia for 15 years before coming to the United States to serve the growing Hispanic population in northern Mississippi. Gonzalez encouraged the parishioners of St. James to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe for the first time soon after he arrived in Tupelo in 2001. “This year we wanted to share this celebration with the English-speaking community at St. James,” says Gonzalez. “We do not have two communities, one Hispanic and one English-speaking. We have just one community, so we try and share this celebration with everyone.”
The celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe has received a hugely positive response at St. James, which now counts over 200 Hispanic families as weekly parishioners, says Father Gus Langenkamp. On the day of the festivities, Catholics come to Tupelo from all over north Mississippi to be at the church in time for the pre-dawn “Las Mananitas” (“early morning”) kickoff celebration. “We started Las Mananitas with a drama put on by the youth to remind people how the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego,” says Gonzalez. “The mariachi band gave the Virgin a serenade, followed by the Holy Rosary. Then we finished this part of the morning with a traditional Mexican light breakfast of hot chocolate and sweet bread.” Nearly five hundred people were in attendance at the 5 a.m. performance.
Members of the St. James congregation trained for more than six months for the traditional Mexican dancing routine which immediately followed the morning mass. Uniforms were imported from Mexico featuring an elaborate image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the back. The folk dancing is a tradition rooted in Indian families wanting to give adoration to Jesus and veneration to the Virgin. Later in the afternoon, the celebration continued with a parade processing around the church grounds. Children dressed as Juan Diego and Our Lady rode on floats fashioned on the back of pick-up trucks, while a mariachi band performed songs offering thanks to the Virgin. A Spanish mass immediately followed the parade and the day of festivities culminated with a big reception featuring a variety of Mexican foods.
– Kate Medley
Videos of Dancers at the Our Lady of Guadalupe: