GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Starting at 5 a.m. on Thursday, the basement auditorium space at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church on Blake Avenue was the scene of hectic activity as organizers got going with the church’s 16th annual celebration of the news that, on Dec. 9 in 1531, Our Lady of Guadalupe, or the Virgin Mary, appeared on a hilltop near Mexico City and later performed miracles at the same location.
By mid-day, the parking lot outside was packed with vehicles. Later in the afternoon, moms trying to pick up their children at St. Stephen’s school vied with patrons of the celebration for parking spaces and maneuvering room.
Inside, hundreds of people thronged the room over the course of the day, eating food purchased with donations from the community and prepared by volunteer cooks, greeting family and friends, and dancing the traditional dances brought to the U.S. from Mexico.
From as far away as Denver, or as near as Rifle and Carbondale, people came to relish what has become a lively local tradition ever since Aracely Villela (pronounced vee-yeh-la) of New Castle moved to Colorado from the state of Chihuahua in the late 1990s and put together the first Our Lady celebration at St. Stephen’s.
Prior to that, she had been involved for two decades in mounting the same celebration in her home state, she said.
According to the official Catholic accounts, on the morning of Dec. 9, 1531, Juan Diego observed the apparition of a young girl on the hill of Tepeyac, whom he recognized as the Virgin Mary. When the local archbishop demanded miracles to prove her identity, the girl first healed Diego’s uncle of an illness. Tradition holds that she then made flowers bloom atop the barren hill where she had first appeared.
One of Villela’s nephews, Edgar Montes, 21, of Glenwood Springs, said he had been dancing at the Our Lady celebrations at St. Stephen’s since he was about 5 years old.
He explained with pride that three generations of his family have been dancing and playing music at similar celebrations ever since, decades ago, his grandfather, Jesus Jose Villela, brought the tradition to the remote ranch in Chihuahua where he lived and worked. His grandfather, Montes went on, was a guitarist in the band playing at the very first Our Lady celebration at the ranch.
The food served at the event is traditional Mexican, including menudo, beans and rice and barbacoa, a Mexican style beef brisket, and it is served up free to all comers starting at 5 a.m. and continuing until the last dancer drops and the last reveler packs up the family and heads out the door, sometimes as late as 9 or 10 p.m.
The dancing was accomplished by different groups, including one from Rifle draped in peacock-feathered headdresses and black attire below, exhibiting the traditional style of dancing from the state of Agua Caliente. The St. Stephen’s dance group, dressed in long red robes with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the back, and topped off with equally fancy headdresses, displayed the traditional dances from the state of Chihuahua.
“It’s 63 dancers that dance all day,” said Villela, speaking through a friend who speaks English, adding that the festivities were to pause for a special Mass at 7 p.m., offered by Father Bill Smith, according to church volunteer Bev Zanella.
Zanella was staffing the Hearts and Hands Gift Shop, which, while not normally open late on a Thursday afternoon, had been opened especially for the attendees of the Our Lady event.
“They have such beautiful head pieces,” said Zanella, a native of Glenwood Springs. “I think it’s neat.”