The sun is not due to rise above the horizon for another four hours Wednesday when the first worshipers begin to congregate at the corner of 10th Street and Oakdale Avenue.
As young and old file through the front and side doors of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, their breath that forms mist in the near-freezing outside air is masked again by the sanctuary’s warmth. Before long, those breaths become songs and shouts of appreciation; their hands clap in time with a beat or in a round of applause.
They and other devotees elsewhere in the Rogue Valley and the world gather Dec. 12 for lengthy ceremonies in the dark hours of la madrugada, after all, to celebrate.
“It’s not really people coming to see us,” says Itzamaray Bencomo, one among the 28 young people performing the danzas Guadalupanas in the latter part of the service. “It’s more for her.”
At 24 years old, Bencomo is by now well-versed in the rituals of the Día de la Virgen Guadalupe, the annual festival celebrating the Virgin Mary: Mexico’s patron saint and pillar of the Catholic faith. Dec. 12 is a day marked the world over.
“Mexicans, first of all, they are Marianos,” Madre Imelda Mercado, director of Sacred Heart’s Hispanic ministry, says in Spanish. “100 percent ... they have a lot of faith, a lot of trust, a lot of love in the Holy Virgin.”
Some attendees immediately sink to their knees, eyes closed in prayer, hands quickly making the sign of the cross before the image adjacent to the altar. The portrait shows a young woman whose own hands were folded in prayer, bordered by roses of all colors.
The flowers are a tribute to one of the miracles Mary displayed to help Juan Diego establish the Basilica of Guadalupe in modern-day Mexico City, which launched the spread of Catholicism in the region, according to tradition.
Madre Imelda says las mañanitas a la Virgen de Guadalupe — the celebration of those miracles, the founding and the continued importance of Mary — welcomes all people.
“It is open to all of humanity,” she says in Spanish. “There are no limits.”
But the early-morning festival and the evening mass also hold a special significance to the local migrant community, she says.
“You forget a little bit of the loneliness that’s involved with leaving your environment and coming here. ... And always with uncertainty about what’s going to happen to me,” she says.
At 3:50 a.m., Madre Imelda offers the first official welcome, kicking off what would be a three-hour ceremony, including the story of Diego’s revelation by Mary on Dec. 12, 1531. The narrative tells that Mary instructed Diego to build a church in her honor at Tepeyac, later providing the miracles as proof of the divine mission when Diego faced pushback from his bishop.
The image adorned with roses at the front of the Sacred Heart sanctuary is a simulacrum of the tilma displayed in the Basilica of Guadalupe, another miracle recounted in the story.
Throughout the next hour and a half of mariachi, church leaders and the band’s vocalists repeatedly call the congregation’s attention back to the Virgin. If Madre Imelda feels the crowd’s energy beginning to falter, she approachs the microphone to rally it in a chiquitibum, a kind of Mexican cheer often shouted at soccer games — but tailored to venerate Mary instead.
“María! María! Ra, ra, ra!” echoes under the gracious arches of the ceiling.
As at any religious service, the crowd encompasses both the barely awake and those who cry real tears during a song or prayer. In general, older attendees sing along with more gusto than most of the younger service-goers.
The traditional and the modern rub elbows throughout the morning. Teens in Adidas sweatshirts are seated near men and women in traditional Mexican ponchos or skirts. When Itzamaray Bencomo and the other dancers come out in ancestral garb to perform Las Danzas Guadalupanas, parishioners whip out their smartphones to record the memory.
Itzamaray Bencomo says gratitude fuels her when she dances at the service, and this year more significantly than others. Her mother, Marcia, who volunteers to train the dance troupe, had been given two months to live when they came and prayed for Mary’s intercession a year ago.
“The Virgin Mary has helped us through a lot,” Itzamaray Bencomo says. “My mom — she’s actually sick, and we prayed and prayed.”
Tears well in her eyes. For a minute or more, she doesn’t speak.
“Praying to her, dancing for her, shows that we thank her for what she’s helped us through,” she says. “Dancing is our way to show her that we appreciate what she’s helped us through.”
Marcia Bencomo says that passing traditions from indigenous ancestors down to younger generations is “very emotional” for her. It’s a sentiment echoed by other community members such as Madre Imelda, who have seen both the event and the size of the Hispanic community change over time.
“It’s something very beautiful,” says Marcia Bencomo in Spanish. “To see our young people learn our traditions, our roots, after no one has been able to support a project of this kind (in the past).”
Many attendees place flowers and candles at the foot of the Virgin Mary’s portrait before leaving. With prayers of thanksgiving or a supplication said and the first hint of morning light creeping into the sky, they head off to work.