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Torch traveling from Mexico City stops in Lansdowne

A torch is passed to members of St. Clement Church in Lansdowne in a relay that began in Mexico City and ends in New York City, as part of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. (Lauren Loricchio/BSMG)

Dozens dressed in traditional Mexican dress danced to drum beats in the cold on Washington Avenue in front of St. Clement I Church in Lansdowne Thursday night.

The crowd was waiting for runners to deliver a torch that was part of a relay run that began in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City and will end in New York City.

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"This is a way to display faith and tradition — to show what Lady of Guadalupe means to us," said Carlos Gutierrez, 28, an organizer of the dance group, Danza Guadalupana.

Zeny Perlta, 36, of Baltimore Highlands, was among the dancers dressed in colorful costumes and feather headpieces, dancing and shaking a maraca to the beat of drums that livened up the quiet street.

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"[I] dance to say thank you to the Virgin [Mary] for everything she did for my family — taking us to the United States," said Perlta, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico 20 years ago.

The relay run is organized by Asociación Tepeyac de New York, a center that works with Latino immigrants.

The run is held to bring, "together two nations and thousands of families divided by the border," according to the group's website.

This morning, the torch will be passed on to Wilmington, Del., as it travels up the Eastern seaboard to its final destination.

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The run culminates on Dec. 12, the day of the Feast of the Lady of Guadalupe, a Mexican Catholic celebration to honor the Virgin Mary.

Last night, before the dancers lined up outside the Roman Catholic church in Lansdowne, a display of candles and flowers was set up beneath a statue of the Lady of Guadalupe, in preparation for a Mass to held after the torch arrived. A parish celebration was also held after the Mass.

The parish will also celebrate the Feast of the Lady of Guadalupe, beginning at 5 p.m. Friday, Dec. 12.

The holiday celebrates the appearance of the Virgin Mary to an Aztec peasant, Juan Diego, in 1531, who eventually led millions in Mexico to join the Catholic faith, according to Deacon Paul Gifford, pastoral life director at St. Clement.

Juan Diego was told to have a church built in her honor and when he asked the bishop in his town to build a church the bishop asked him for proof that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him, Gifford said.

Juan Diego returned to the spot where the vision had taken place and the Virgin Mary told him to collect roses and bring them to the bishop wrapped in his cloak, Gifford said.

"When he appeared to the bishop, he opened his [cloak] and not only did roses fall out, but the image of [Our Lady of] Guadalupe was on his [cloak]," Gifford said. "The bishop said, 'This is a miracle'."

The Virgin of Guadalupe has been part of Mexico's culture for centuries and has brought together descendants of the Aztecs and those who came to the country from Spain, said Pablo Peralta, 26, a member of the church.

Although the holiday originated in Mexico, the crowd was comprised of those from Central and South American countries such as Peru and El Salvador.

"You don't have to be Mexican to take part," Gutierrez said.

"It's been a long tradition of the Catholic Church to embrace immigrants and this goes back to the 1800s," Gifford said.

St. Clement Church is the only church in Lansdowne that offers services in both English and Spanish, Gifford said.

A Mass in Spanish is held Saturdays at 6 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 a.m. and Tuesdays at 7 p.m.

The church has two priests who offer Mass. Gifford celebrates Mass in English and Father Roger Brito offers Mass in Spanish.

Gifford, who has been with the church for six years, said roughly 30 percent of the church's population is Hispanic.

Those among the crowd said the church makes them feel welcome.

"Everyone here feels like they're in their own house," said Peralta, who came to the U.S. from Mexico in 2006. "It's like we're at home in Mexico celebrating the same traditions."

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