Editors’ Note: From 2009 until 2017, Fr. John Baran wrote a regular column for Commonweal under the pseudonym “Fr. Nonomen.” The column was devoted to Fr. Baran’s experiences as the pastor of a parish in suburban Connecticut—to trends he welcomed or lamented; to pastoral experiments that worked well, or less well; to the changing spiritual needs of American Catholics, and to the needs that didn’t change. When Fr. Baran died last year, we decided that, after a decent interval, we should ask a priest serving in a very different kind of parish to continue the column. This is the first of a short series of columns by Fr. Incognitus, who has worked in parishes in the Southwestern United States that serve immigrants from Central America, Mexican Americans, and Euro-Americans.
The call came in the spring of 2006. A group of people from the small town of Toyahua, Zacatecas, Mexico, wanted to use our parish church on a Friday evening to celebrate the arrival of a replica of the Virgin of their pueblo. The priest of the town would be there, as would the town’s band. It was just the sort of event that delighted me, so I said yes, thinking a few people would show up.
The church was packed. There are probably more people from Zacatecas living in the United States than in Mexico, and it seemed a good percentage of them came to our church that Friday night. The Virgin, no more than eighteen inches tall, wore a cowboy hat, and the toddler Jesus in her arms was crowned with the tiniest cowboy hat I had ever seen. The music was raucous and heartfelt, the procession to see the Virgin at the front of the church was long, and the people stayed to celebrate and visit.
I was transfixed. After more than twenty years of ministering to Mexican people, I, a European American, realized that my ministry was leaving out much of the devotional life of the people. We Euro-American priests were under the impression that if we focused enough attention on la Virgen de Guadalupe, we would meet the devotional needs of the Mexican people. It was true that la Virgen de Guadalupe occupies a special place in the hearts of all Mexicans, but that night taught me that Mexican Catholics had room for, and needed, more devotions than we were offering in the United States.
I was transferred to another parish in another state shortly after the event for the Virgin of Toyahua, but before I left, I asked friends of mine to get me a replica of the Virgen de Zapopan because I knew that there was a great devotion to her in western Mexico. I was told in no uncertain terms that their family had a devotion to Our Lady of the Rosary of Talpa de Allende and that would be the Virgin that I got—or none at all. There was, I discovered, a barely suppressed rivalry between the devotees of a number of these Virgins of western Mexico.
A few weeks later, now living five hundred miles away at my new assignment, I was told to call a phone number in the San Fernando Valley. So I did, and the person on the other end of the line told me I would be able to pick up the Virgin a few days later. Almost as contraband, she would come disassembled to avoid custom duties and the sister of the priest of Talpa would put her back together. When I arrived at a nondescript apartment complex to pick up the statue, the priest of Talpa was there and he described Our Lady of the Rosary of Talpa de Allende as the most powerful of the Virgins in western Mexico. I left for my new parish with her eighteen inches of spiritual force belted in the back seat of my car.
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