For millions of Catholics around the world, Dec. 12 holds special significance.

It is recognized as Día de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, or Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

It marks the date in 1531 when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to an indigenous peasant, Juan Diego, on a hill in the outskirts of Mexico City to ask that a church be built on that site.

As tradition has it, Juan Diego reported this occurrence to the local bishop, who did not believe the peasant and asked for proof of the apparition.

Early in the morning of Dec.12, the lady appeared again to Juan Diego, and instructed him to return to the bishop with Castilian roses as evidence.

When Juan Diego presented the flowers to the bishop that he carried back in his cloak, it was discovered that a life-size image of the Virgin Mary was imprinted on the cloth. This image is known as Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Today, the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City stands on the site where Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego. The Basilica draws millions of tourists and pilgrims every year, and is one of the top attractions in Mexico.

Inside its sanctuary, the cloak bearing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is still on display.

But it wasn’t until 1859 that Dec. 12 officially became a national holiday in Mexico to honor the Virgin Mother.

Across the borderland, where nearly 80 percent of residents are Catholic, her image is found in church statues, yard fountains, paintings and home décor, larger-than-life murals, jewelry and clothing – and even tattoos – honoring her.

Many El Paso and Juárez Catholics will attend special masses on this day – many preceeded by a pilgrimage to a shrine for the beloved Virgin.

Father Fabian Marquez, of El Buen Pastor Catholic Mission in Sparks, attributes the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe to her being a powerful symbol of Mexican cultural identity and Catholic faith.

She is associated with everything from motherhood to feminism to social justice, he said.

“Our Lady of Guadalupe is seen as the champion of the underdog and of the downtrodden,” he said. “And she will continue to be relevant as long as there are disparities in economic and political power in this world.”

“She is the ultimate protective mother,” added Marquez, “because she is all about motherhood and protection and unconditional love. And who doesn’t love and honor their mother?”

 That’s why Dec. 12 marks a feast day that the community enthusiastically celebrates, Marquez said.

In El Paso, the largest shrine and feast day celebration to the Blessed Mother can be found in an open courtyard area of St. Mark’s Catholic Church, 11700 Pebble Hills, on the far Eastside.

It was two years ago this month that the church erected the 30-foot sand-colored statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

It’s made of cantera, volcanic quarried stone, and stands outside the church for parishioners to gather at a sacred space for prayer and pilgrimage.

“This feast day is important and will continue to be important, because it brings all of us together as one family under the protection of Our Lady.

“That’s why those of us that are Guadalupanos (believers of Mary’s apparition) are always proud to proclaim: ‘Viva La Virgen de Guapalupe!’”

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