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Celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe
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The shrine to The Virgin of Guadalupe at Mision El Santo Nino Jesus Episcopal Church in St. Paul. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
Thousands of Mexican Americans in Minnesota Friday celebrate a Mexican national holiday, the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The annual celebration commemorates the day the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a Mexican peasant nearly five centuries ago. Hundreds attended a midnight Mass at a St. Paul church Thursday night to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe.

St. Paul, Minn. — For Mexicans, El Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe, the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, is the most important holiday of the year -- even more so than Christmas.

The mythology surrounding the Virgin Mary's appearance has created not only a national holiday for Mexicans, but it has also represented a blending of national identity and religious faith.

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Image Aztec dancers

At midnight Mass at the St. Paul Episcopal denomination, Misión El Santo Ninõ Jesús, about 300 Hispanics came to demonstrate their faith in Our Lady of Guadalupe. Later, they shared traditional Mexican food, songs and dance.

A mariachi band played traditional Mexican ballads between liturgical readings. To honor the Mexican Indian heritage, a group of Aztec dancers made a symbolic offering of themselves to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

This seemingly odd juxtaposition makes sense if you look at Our Lady of Guadalupe as the link between the old Aztec poly-theistic religion of Indian civilization, and the modern-day Mexico.

According to the lore of Guadalupe, in 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared at least twice before a peasant named Juan Diego. She told him to go to the bishop and tell him to build a temple on the site where she appeared. It is said that to prove her existence, she left an image of herself imprinted on a piece of cloth.

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Image Mariachi band

A temple was indeed built. And hundreds of years later, that cloth is said to be the very one that still hangs today in the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City, visited by about 10 million people a year. Those visits to Juan Diego occurred not long after the Spanish conquest. Some say the miracle of the Virgin Mary's visit led to the relatively swift conversion of millions of Aztec Indians to Christianity.

To this day, Mexico remains a predominantly Catholic country -- 89 percent of its population is Catholic.

Twin Cities resident Elisea Cervantes says the Virgin of Guadalupe is important not only to Mexicans, but to Catholics everywhere.

Her daughter Gabriela Perdomo translates.

"If you ever have something that you're worrying about, or need some faith, you can always go to the Virgin, pray to her. We always believe in her. And we have faith that she'll eventually come through with whatever we need," Cervantes says.

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Image Ana and Beatriz de Santiago

For Mexican-American Beatriz de Santiago, attending the midnight Mass in honor of Guadalupe is about maintaining a connection with her culture and heritage.

"It means more than anything, family, getting together, feeling the flavor of Mexico -- with the drums and the dancers and the mariachi and all that -- the feeling of it. It's the connection to our roots," says Santiago.

Bishop for Minnesota James Jelinek attended the midnight Mass and led the Eucharist. Jelinek says he believes the culture of Minnesota's churches is responding to the state's increasingly diverse population.

"How do we take what have been the riches of their spiritual experiences, and utilize those that fit very well with Christianity? That's what we struggle with all the time. And you could see that with the dancing, and the style of the music," says Jelinek.

Misión El Santo Ninõ Jesús is the only Hispanic church in the Episcopal Diocese in Minnesota.

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