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In Many Churches, Icons Compete For Space


May 29, 2002
Copyright © 2002
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

PHOTO: Edward Keating/The New York Times

Shrines to Virgins favored by different groups often compete for space at churches in New York.

St. Cecilia Roman Catholic Church, housed in a 19th-century building in East Harlem, has run out of space. Not for parishioners, but for their icons.

It all started in the mid-1990's, when Mexican parishioners staked out a corner for a shrine to their patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe. Soon, black parishioners took another corner of the church to install a shrine for St. Martin de Porres, the Peruvian-Dominican ascetic who tended to the sick and unfortunate in the 16th and 17th centuries. Now, Puerto Rican and Ecuadorean devotees are lobbying for space for their own patronesses – the Virgin of Providence for Puerto Ricans, the Virgin of Cisne for Ecuadoreans.

The Rev. Francis Skelly, St. Cecilia's pastor, can hardly keep up with so much devotion.

Last January, the priest said, he returned from a vacation to find a statue of a regal-looking baby Jesus on top of a side altar. He suspected the church's small but powerful Filipino contingent – the Filipinos sing in the choir – so the statue of baby Jesus, with its crown, golden outfit and wavy long wig, remains where it miraculously appeared, while the baffled priest decides how to deal with it.

"I don't see him," Father Skelly said, deadpanning. "I don't want to get into it."

Roman Catholic immigrants have long brought regional devotions from their home countries to New York City. They built parishes bearing the names of patrons like St. Patrick (Irish), St. Boniface (German) or Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Italian).

But today, with the same churches accommodating more than one immigrant group, some parish priests say groups of the faithful are laying claim to both space and time within parishes for their own shrines and patron saint celebrations, sometimes with a fervor reawakened only by the competition.

In parishes like St. Cecilia, priests say there is no question who is responsible for the renewed interest in patron saints: Mexican immigrants, who brought with them their extraordinary devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.

"More than Christian, Mexicans are Guadalupanos," said the Rev. Luis Caro, a Chilean priest at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where Mexican parishioners installed a shrine to Guadalupe in 1993.

The Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to an Aztec shepherd, Juan Diego, in 1531 at the edge of present-day Mexico City; spoken to him in his native tongue; and left her brown-skinned image on his cloak.

Timothy Matovina, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and an expert on Latino Catholicism in the United States, said the Virgin of Guadalupe stands out among apparitions because she represents "the coming together of the indigenous and the Spaniard, bringing together the conquered and the conqueror into a new equality."

"This seems to be so kinetic, so deep," Professor Matovina said of the Mexicans' relationship with their Virgin. "In Mexican society, Guadalupe is everywhere – on tattoos, on T-shirts, on dashboards, in stores, in homes, in churches. She's the daily companion to Mexican people no matter whoever or wherever they are."

In New York City, the Mexican population tripled in the 1990's. The manifestations of their devotion are now visible in many churches – in elaborate outdoor shrines at churches like St. Helena and Our Lady of Mercy in the Bronx, in the steady supply of fresh-cut flowers at the foot of Guadalupe paintings inside churches like St. Cecilia in Manhattan and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Brooklyn, and in the mariachi celebrations of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe every Dec. 12 in church after church where Mexicans are a growing force.

"She's like a girlfriend," said Maria I. Sanchez, 39, a nanny who came to Mass on a recent Sunday at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on West 14th Street in Manhattan. Our Lady of Guadalupe, dating back to 1902, was one of the first Hispanic churches in the city, and its Sunday Masses are now attended by Mexicans from as far away as Philadelphia.

Ms. Sanchez, a Mexican who came to the city nine years ago and who lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter, said she appeals to the Virgin of Guadalupe in cases of grave illness or "when I want a good job and to be treated well."

Non-Mexican Catholics have taken note, not always happily.

"There's been reaction," said the Rev. Lawrence Quinn of Our Lady of Mercy in the Fordham section of the Bronx, with a congregation of about 1,500 that is predominantly Puerto Rican, Dominican and Mexican.

After the outdoor shrine went up next to the rectory about three years ago, he said, some Puerto Rican parishioners asked him sarcastically: " `Why don't you name the church the Virgin of Guadalupe?' "

In other churches, however, Guadalupemania has been contagious. At St. Helena, in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, where the shrine was built on the stump of an old tree in the middle of a parking lot, Msgr. Thomas Derivan said devotion to the Virgin had crossed ethnic lines in his congregation of 1,800 people, only about 500 of whom are Hispanic. He said the shrine was built after Pope John Paul II declared Guadalupe "mother and evangelizer of America" during his 1999 visit to Mexico.

"We're all under her cloak," said Maria Infante, 48, a Dominican-American teacher's assistant who has belonged to St. Helena parish for 15 years. "In her eyes, there is no nationalism."

But a more common response to the passion for Guadalupe, some priests noted, has been a more expressive devotion to other patron saints. Many churches now hold special Masses and celebrations with food and folkloric dances not only for Guadalupe but also for the Virgins of Providencia (Puerto Rico), Altagracia (the Dominican Republic), Cisne (Ecuador) and Perpetual Help (Philippines). Feasts that celebrate Jesus Christ, like Milagroso de Buga (Colombia) and baby Jesus (Philippines), are also recognized.

Many pastors said they welcomed the trend, noting that the feasts were usually attended by a cross section of parishioners and had often served to unify congregations.

But at St. Cecilia, whose congregation of about 1,000 is mostly Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Ecuadoreans, there is still the thorny matter of wall space. Some parishioners did not want to appear un-Christian by owning up to any sense of rivalry just as they looked for a way to bring their patron saint some prominence.

"It's not that we're competing," said Bolivar Cardenas, a 38-year-old auto mechanic from Ecuador. "What we want is to celebrate the devotion we feel for the Virgin."

Mr. Cardenas said he has planned a trip to Ecuador in June to bring back a statue of the Virgin of Cisne, and he wants Father Skelly to set up a shrine inside the church for it. But Agustina Facey, a Puerto Rican parishioner who has commissioned an artist friend to paint the Virgin of Providencia, said she had already put in a request for space.

"There's a little space we could use," said Ms. Facey, 54, a beauty salon owner. "We have Father Skelly more or less convinced."

Elvira Apolista, a Filipino parishioner, did not wait for permission. She was the one who sneaked the regal baby Jesus into the church after about 60 Filipino parishioners at the church held a celebration on the day of his feast in January.

"I couldn't take it back home because the other devotees would look for it," said Ms. Apolista, a 63-year-old housekeeper. "Nobody's complaining. I even see people, Mexicans and other groups, kneeling before him."

Father Skelly is still pondering his options. "Guadalupe got the one back wall that's free," he said. "If we had the wall space we'd have Altagracia and Providencia up there. Who are we going to take down?"

Sister Celia Ramirez, a Mexican nun who works at the church, empathized. She said she was trying to get the Ecuadoreans in the church together because she had learned that some were devotees of different Virgins, depending on which region they were from, but she insisted that the particular Virgin they are devoted to should not be an issue.

"Really, it's only one Virgin, under different names," Sister Celia said. "The truth is that there is only one mother of God."

She then pointed out with pride that the feast of Guadalupe draws the largest turnout among all the Virgin celebrations at the church.

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