Our Lady of Guadalupe celebrations downsize during pandemic

Our Lady of Guadalupe, honoring the Virgin Mary, is one of the most important feast days of the year for Catholics of Mexican descent. Last year, thousands gathered at their parishes in the Diocese of Nashville to celebrate. In this Dec. 12, 2019, file photo, men carry a flower-adorned image of Our Lady of Guadalupe outside the Catholic Pastoral Center before Mass at Sagrado Corazon. Special Masses will still be held this year, but celebrations will be greatly restricted by the pandemic. Tennessee Register file photos by Theresa Laurence

For the people of Mexico and those who trace their family history to Mexico, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12 is a revered religious devotion that expresses their deep love for the Blessed Mother who appeared to a poor Indian nearly 500 years ago.

But as with so many things in this year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the traditional celebrations at churches across the Diocese of Nashville will be much more subdued. No one in colorful costumes performing traditional Mexican dances, no children dressed as St. Juan Diego, no plays depicting the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s appearance to him, no traditional Mexican food to share with parishioners.

“It’s been hard on the whole community,” said Beatriz Alvarez, the president of the Hispanic ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Cookeville and the parish office administrator.

Churches like St. Thomas Aquinas, with large communities of people with Mexican heritage, have been forced to change their plans for the feast day this year to accommodate the restrictions put in place during the pandemic to keep people healthy.

At Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Nolensville Road in Nashville, which was established to serve the Spanish-speaking community, there will be additional Masses to spread out the crowds, said Denise Angulo, the parish office administrator.

On Friday, Dec. 11, Our Lady of Guadalupe will celebrate Masses at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. and on Saturday, Dec. 12, there will be Masses at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., Angulo said. Bishop J. Mark Spalding will celebrate the noon Mass.

In normal times, the church can accommodate about 1,000 people, Angulo said. But because of the pandemic restrictions, Our Lady of Guadalupe can hold about a third of the normal crowd.

That could be a problem for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, when the church typically would be overflowing with a standing-room-only crowd, she said.

It’s the same story at other churches with large Hispanic ministries.

Javier Ovares, center, portrayed St. Juan Diego in a play about the story of the man who saw the vision of Mary in 1531 near modern-day Mexico City. The play, typically performed every year at Sagrado Corazon Church in Nashville on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, is one of many activities that will not take place this year due to the pandemic.

“There are other important feasts in the Church, but at least in Mexico, when you talk about Our Lady of Guadalupe, we fill all the churches,” said Father David Ramirez, a native of Mexico who is the director of Hispanic Ministry for the diocese and of the Sagrado Corazon Church at the Catholic Pastoral Center in Nashville.

“Even people who don’t come to Mass regularly, they have to come to church on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe,” added Anabell Trevino, assistant director of the Sagrado Corazon Center.

Despite the pandemic, “we expect a lot of people. That’s why we’re doing two celebrations,” Father Ramirez said.

Sagrado Corazon is adding a second Mass on Friday, Dec. 11, for the celebration. Bishop Spalding will celebrate the 8 p.m. Mass and the second Mass will be at 10 p.m., followed by the tradition of the Mañanitas, when the people serenade the Virgin by singing traditional songs.

The Mass on Saturday, Dec. 12, will be at 8 p.m.

The priests of the diocese’s Hispanic Ministry program also serve the Hispanic communities at several other churches around the diocese, and on Dec. 11 Father Ramirez will celebrate Mass at St. John Vianney Church in Gallatin and Father Rodolfo Rivera will celebrate Mass at St. Catherine Church in Columbia and Church of the Nativity in Thompson’s Station.

At St. Thomas Aquinas in Cookeville, the novena for Our Lady of Guadalupe will conclude with a prayer service at 6 p.m. Friday, Dec. 11, and there will be a Mass at 11 p.m. followed by the Mañanitas. There will be another Mass at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 12.

But like other churches, St. Thomas Aquinas will skip many of the more festive parts of the celebration because of the pandemic, Alvarez said.

At Our Lady of Guadalupe, the parish sells food on the feast day to raise funds for the operations of the parish and to provide assistance to people in need, Angulo said. “It’s our biggest fundraiser during the year.”

But this year, the parish will only be offering one plate of food to go for each person, she said.

Another popular part of the devotion is when parishioners bring roses to place before the altar of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the church. “Now we’re going to do the altar outside,” Angulo said.

The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe commemorates the 1531 appearance of the Blessed Mother to St. Juan Diego, an Indian living near Mexico City who was a convert to Catholicism. She appeared as an indigenous woman and spoke to him in his native Nahuatl language, asking him to ask the bishop to build a church in her honor at the spot of the apparition.

When the bishop asked for a sign to prove the apparition was real, St. Juan Diego returned carrying in his cloak, called a tilma, Castalian roses, which were not native to Mexico, picked from a hill known to be barren, particularly in December.

As St. Juan Diego opened his tilma to show the bishop the roses, it revealed the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the garment. The venerated image on the cloak is enshrined in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, which is the second most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world, after the Vatican.

The fact that the Virgin appeared as an indigenous woman was a point of pride then and still is today, and she has become an important symbol of national identity.

“She’s very important to us Mexicans,” Angulo said of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who also is the Patron Saint of the Americas.

“Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared in Mexico,” Father Ramirez said. “We are proud of that.”