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Brian Nicholson, OKespaÑol
Father Oscar Martinez speaks at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church during the celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012.
Everyone here believes in (The Virgin of Guadalupe). As a mother, I pray to her and ask for her help a lot. And she helps me. I know she does. —Jazmin Gomez

ROSE PARK — On a surprisingly temperate mid-December evening, hundreds of Hispanic Catholics sang and danced their way from the state fairgrounds to the Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church as a way to honor the Virgin Mary — Our Lady of Guadalupe — and her miraculous appearance in 1531 to a Mexican peasant named Juan Diego.

"This is a big day for us — probably the biggest day of the year for Mexican Catholics," said Father Oscar Martinez as he led some 400 congregants on a processional through four blocks of city streets. Despite the darkness of the night, the procession was lively and festive, with spirited music from two mariachi bands, brightly clad dance teams pounding out traditional rhythms on the asphalt with their cymbal-shod feet and at least 200 faithful church members singing "La Guadalupana" while marching behind a banner proclaiming "The Virgin of Guadalupe, Queen of Mexico, Empress of America."

"She is our main mother," said Jazmin Gomez, one of the church members who marched along with the processional, pushing her daughter in a stroller as she danced to the music of the mariachis. "Everyone here believes in her. As a mother, I pray to her and ask for her help a lot. And she helps me. I know she does."

The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is celebrated by Mexican Catholics in Mexico and the United States each Dec. 12 as a way of observing the day on which a dark-skinned Virgin Mary is reported to have appeared to Juan Diego and told him to build a church on a hill in the Tepeyac desert near Mexico City. Part of the tradition holds that Juan Diego was able to prove to the local bishop that he had actually seen Mary when she instructed him to gather Castilian roses from the top of a mountain. He carried the roses to the bishop in his cloak, and when he gave them to the bishop there was an imprint of the Virgin Mary on his cloak from the residue of the soil and the roses.

Roses, therefore, figure prominently in the holy day's tradition, and you could see dozens of roses prominently displayed throughout the Our Lady of Guadalupe church Wednesday night, inside and out. "We offer roses to Our Lady," one worshipper said.

The annual celebration is a full day of events at the Rose Park church, beginning with music and a midnight mass, continuing through the night with different musical groups performing each hour, a 7 a.m. mass and the evening processional. Following the processional, it concludes with closing ceremonies, a late evening mass and a Mexican feast.

By the time the processional arrived at the church there were already hundreds of people packed in the chapel (and hundreds more watching via closed circuit television broadcast to the church's multi-purpose room), listening as Mariachi de mi Tierra played fiery, passionate music to a rose-framed portrait of the Virgin Mary. As one song concluded, Father Martinez took the microphone and said in Spanish, "Let's have a big round of applause for the Blessed Virgin!" as the crowd cheered joyfully.

"This is part of our faith and part of our culture," said Noemi Huizar, a teenager who participated in the procession wearing a beautiful traditional dress.

"We've been doing this (participating in the annual processional) since we were really little," said Noemi's friend, Esmeralda Gaeta. "We're in the process of confirmation now. This is really important to us."

One of the orange, red and yellow clad Danza Guadalupana dancers, Sergio Valerio, took it a step further when he explained his reason for performing the traditional dance in the processional each year: "We dance for the Virgin."