Images of faith
By CHRISTINA HEADRICK
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 2000
CLEARWATER -- A light drizzle slicked U.S. 19, just north of Drew Street. The nearby parking lots for Kane's Furniture and Best Buy were deserted. Most cars whooshed along the ruler-straight stretch of highway on Monday night and never slowed down.
But Maria Guadalupe, a 26-year-old Clearwater resident, pulled off at an office building minutes before midnight.
She had come to pray.
Under the glare of a billboard's lights, she quietly bowed before the iridescent image on the glass wall of the building. Guadalupe looked at it and saw the Virgin Mary -- and not just any image of the Virgin Mary.
She noted how the outlines of the image, called Our Lady of Clearwater by its believers, are similar to pictures of a 469-year-old apparition of the Virgin Mary just outside Mexico City. That image, called Our Lady of Guadalupe, is where she got her name.
Maria Guadalupe, who moved here this summer and works pressing Cuban sandwiches, said the rainbow swirls on the glass building on U.S. 19 are the surest sign yet that Mary is at work in her life here, in America.
"She is the same here," Guadalupe said in Spanish, her eyes moist with emotion. "She is the Mother of God, the Mother of Jesus. She is here for her children. She just loves us very much and we love her."
Maria was far from alone as she prayed before the image. More than 1,000 others -- the vast majority Mexican -- made their way, too, to Our Lady of Clearwater. They spent the hours after midnight in reverence and celebration, enjoying the first of several events of vital importance to Clearwater's burgeoning immigrant population of Hispanics.
Just before dawn, many trekked across town to a special Mass and breakfast at 5 a.m. at St. Cecelia Catholic Church. On Friday, there was another Mass, as well as a procession and a dinner dance party lasting well into the night.
Similar festivities occur all over Latin America on Dec. 12, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a name given to what Catholics believe was an apparition of Mary in Mexico in 1531.
But in Clearwater, while most of this community slept, Monday night's celebration at the glass building was special. It was a time when people interwove old and new visions of Mary and renewed beliefs, fortified in another country, but, they say, still needed here in America.
A night of roses, votives and songs
The eve of Our Lady of Guadalupe's feast day is a big deal in Latin America, where celebrations in her honor include extravagant musical performances, fireworks and special Masses.
Members of the Hispanic community in Clearwater decided in 1993 that they wanted to put on similar events here.
Since then, the events have grown with the area's Hispanic population, now an estimated 14,000 people, including many immigrants from Mexico, where Our Lady of Guadalupe is revered.
"People here can't travel back to Mexico to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe," said Jose Vidales, a 38-year-old member of St. Cecelia, who organizes the church's ministry to help families in need. "So this is something good for the community here. This is the connection."
St. Cecelia's parishioners began planning six months ago for last week's celebrations, raising thousands of dollars in donations to pay for them.
The festivities began, as they have for the past several years, with songs and prayers at the image said to be the Virgin Mary on U.S. 19. The Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg has expressed skepticism about the image on U.S. 19. Glass experts have explained it as the result of corrosion of metallic elements in the glass' coating.
"A miracle cannot be physically explained," said diocese spokesman Bill Urbanski. "This image can be and has been scientifically analyzed. It's due to chemicals and all that. But we do believe anything that brings people together in prayer is a good thing."
Nevertheless, a crowd was drawn to U.S. 19 after dusk to celebrate the eve of Our Lady of Guadalupe's feast day.
As midnight grew closer, hundreds arrived. They jostled for the best places to see the image. Their faces and cowboy hats were reflected in the glass, seemingly at Mary's feet.
Some threaded their way through the crowd, slipped under a rope, and lit candles, six rows deep, in front of the image. Others laid red roses, white mums and poinsettias before the figure on the glass. Many also knelt and prayed on the wet asphalt.
Members of an Ohio-based group called Shepherds of Christ Ministries led a rosary, focusing on the joyful mysteries of Mary's life, as the crowd swelled. The Shepherds lease the Virgin Mary site, pray and make rosaries there.
"Santa Maria, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte," the crowd chanted with the Shepherds' rosary leaders.
People who weren't praying spoke in whispers -- a normal thing for church but strange for most U.S. 19 parking lots.
"I think her message is a message of peace," whispered Leticia Rameriz, 21, who came to Clearwater several years ago from Mexico, speaking in Spanish. "To see her here is something that makes me very emotional, more than anything.
"I never imagined that so many people would come together here like this, but it's lovely to see so many who believe in the Virgin Mary."
At midnight, the sounds of mariachis broke through the hushed atmosphere, and a group called Mariachi Vallarta came strolling through the crowd.
As is traditional, the mariachis led the crowd in singing Las Mananitas, a cheerful song to celebrate birthdays in Mexico, which also is sung to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe's feast day.
As the crowd sang loudly and cheerfully -- and sometimes a little off-key -- the mariachi trumpets slid up and down the scales with festive flourishes. Guitars, a bass and several tambourines kept an upbeat rhythm.
"It's already dawning," they sang in Spanish, led by members of St. Cecelia's choir. "The light of day we see. Wake up, little Virgin. Look, it's already dawned."
Other songs followed until past 1 a.m. Some songs were patriotic; the Lady of Guadalupe is considered one of the most important popular symbols of Mexico, in addition to being the patron saint of Latin America. Her image was used as an emblem of the revolution that established Mexican independence.
"Mi Virgen ranchera! Mi Virgen morena!" the crowd sang in a song for their "brown Virgin," because she looks more Mexican than other images of Mary. "Viva la reina de los Mexicanos!"
The translation: Long live the queen of the Mexicans!
The power of Guadalupe
The name Our Lady of Guadalupe dates to the reported appearance of Mary to an Aztec peasant named Juan Diego in 1531 just outside Mexico City. Mary is said to have filled his tilma, or cloak, miraculously with roses and emblazoned her image on the cactus-cloth garment.
The image since has been reproduced on everything from statues to key chains, and found its way to religious places as far away as India and Japan.
Mary is shown standing on a half-moon, supported by an angel, experts say. She wears a blue mantle, decorated with stars. And she always is surrounded by a golden aura that looks like rays from the sun.
Last week people held up images of Our Lady of Guadalupe and compared them to the image on the glass in Clearwater. The head is tilted in the same way, they said. The hands are folded similarly. There even appears to be a golden aura around the glass image, believers said.
Jaqueline Orsini Dunnington, a New Mexico-based expert on images of Mary who has written two books on Our Lady of Guadalupe, is not surprised that the Hispanic community in Clearwater would find Our Lady of Guadalupe in the glass of an office building.
"Our Lady of Guadalupe, she's the mother who goes with them," Dunnington said.
"She broke the frontiers of their old pagan (Aztec) religion," she said. "She broke the tradition of certain concepts of who should run Mexico, when her image was invoked for Mexican Independence in 1810. The great statement was "Viva Mexico! Viva Guadalupe!' Now she goes beyond."
The image of Mary since has been associated with the anti-abortion movement, the feminist movement and Chicano movements for rights for immigrant farm workers, she said.
Priests at St. Cecelia agree that Our Lady of Guadalupe is special. Apparitions are special to the church. Father Ricardo Stardomski, who spoke at Friday's Mass, said he also can understand why some people see her in the glass image on U.S. 19.
"It is similar," he said, adding that he wasn't speaking for the church. "If this, for you or for whatever person, it serves to strengthen the faith, you believe. But the church does not mandate you believe what appeared on this wall."
Mary presents a wonderful example for people to follow throughout their lives, Stardomski said. Those who attended last week's events also said they see Mary as a comforting figure.
Carlos Flores, 26, and his wife, Patty Garcia, 24, said they came to say a prayer last week at the U.S. 19 office building for all the world's people.
Four years ago, they prayed for the health of their 5-month-old son, who had a horrible fever. He got better.
"She just shows that anywhere we go, she's going to be there," Flores said. "She's everywhere. You're never alone."
Rafi Rodriguez, the rosary prayer group leader during Monday's vigil, said people identify with Mary as a mother to whom they can turn in times of need to help them find God.
His wife, Sharon Coogan, one of the few non-Hispanic people at the Guadalupe festivities, said she was struck by how deeply spiritual the experience was.
"In America, we have a secular life and a religious life," Coogan said. "But the church is really imbued in the culture in Latin America. There just isn't that kind of separation there."
- Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Times files were also used.
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