Tag Archives: Catholic

La Virgen de Guadalupe

Ann Seeley pewter bracelet with the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe that I bought in Albuquerque, New Mexico several years ago.

Ann Seeley pewter bracelet with the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe that I bought in Albuquerque, New Mexico several years ago.

A few years ago, I found this beautiful and unusual Virgen de Guadalupe bracelet on my way back from a Zuniga family reunion in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  It was made by artist Alice Seeley, the same artist who made the petroglyph pins I wrote about a few posts back.  I didn’t buy the bracelet at the same time I bought the pins and so I was surprised that it was made by the same artist.  It’s a heavy bracelet, made of pewter, and some might say its a little chunky.  However, every time I wear it, it doesn’t weigh me down…it brings me comfort.

La Virgen de Guadalupe/ Virgen of Guadalupe has brought comfort to so many people for so many centuries.  The story of how she came to be the Patron Saint of Mexico begins in the year 1531 – on Dec 12th to be exact – in northern Mexico City.  An indigenous Indian boy by the name of Juan Diego was walking toward the Hill of Tepeyac when the Virgin Mary appeared to him.  She told Juan to go to the Archbishop and request a church be built at the Hill of Tepeyac.  Of course, when Juan went to the Archbishop, he didn’t believe the boy.  Instead, he told Juan to return to the hill and ask for a miracle to prove the lady he was seeing was indeed the Virgin Mary.

So, Juan went back to the hill and Mary appeared to him again.  She told him to gather flowers from the top of the hill.  Now, this was December and this hill was rocky and no flowers ever grew there.  But when Juan reached the top, he found beautiful flowers!  Actually, he found Castilian roses which are not native to Mexico.  He gathered the flowers in his “tilma” (a cloak) and promptly ran to the Archbishop.  Juan gave the cloak of flowers to the Archbishop and as they tumbled to the ground, the cloak revealed a miracle – the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe imprinted on the fabric.

The image of the Virgin Mary that was on the "tilma" or cloak that Juan Diego wore. The actual tilma hangs at the altar at La Basilica de la Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico City. It is over 500 years old. (photo from Catholictradition.org.)

The image of the Virgin Mary that was on the “tilma” or cloak that Juan Diego wore. The actual tilma hangs at the altar at La Basilica de la Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico City. It is over 500 years old. (photo from Catholictradition.org.)

There is quite a bit of history about this Marian appearance that involves Spain, the indigenous people of Mexico and the Catholic Church, if you care to read more about it.  There is even doubt that Juan Diego existed by some.  But like many things we don’t understand or don’t have faith in, we doubt.  We want proof of existence.  I was raised Catholic and we talked a lot about the Virgin Mary when I was growing up.  Attending Catholic school helped!  In my case, it was Sagrado Corazon catholic school in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico.  I remember the Benedictine nuns talking about prayer and one even said “you should pray to Mary for intercession because after all, she is Jesus’ mother and how could He say no to her!”  Hummm…that was an interesting concept to all of us little 4th graders at the time!

I choose to believe and to honor the Mother of Jesus.  Her image is exquisite in the renderings and art I’ve seen over the years.  I also am fascinated by the other stories of the Virgin Mary’s appearances around the world.  When I think back to biblical times, miracles were written about and discussed quite a bit!  There are plenty of miracles that happen today too, but sometimes we just don’t believe the impossible is possible.  It may not be the Virgin Mary appearing before you on a rocky hill, but miracles DO happen in present day.

Juan Diego’s miraculous tilma hangs protected above the altar at the Basilica of La Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico City for all to see.  If you read more about the tilma, it has been the subject of much investigation, experimentation and scrutiny to see how it has survived for over 500 years, even when ammonia was spilled on it and a bomb damaged the altar in 1921.  In fact, the tilma seems to repair itself when damage occurs!  It’s rather fascinating!  In 1936, a biochemist analyzed the fabric and stated that the pigments used on the tilma were of no known source – meaning they weren’t of animal, mineral or vegetable.

Pope John Paul II was very devoted to the Virgin Mary.  In 1999, he named Our Lady of Guadalupe as the patron of the Americas.  She has long been revered in Mexico.  Her image is everywhere and I have seen it more and more over the past 15 years in Alabama.  She is particularly present at the local Birmingham Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos event. It’s always so beautiful to see her image surrounded by marigold on altars remembering lost loved ones.

El Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe became a national holiday in Mexico in 1859.  It is a day of much celebration and pilgrimage to the Basilica.  It isn’t unusual to see people walking on their knees all the way up to the altar while praying in order to pay tribute to the Virgin Mary.  When I visited Mexico City and the Basilica as a senior in high school, I witnessed this.  It left quite an impression on me and I couldn’t imagine how difficult it must be to walk on your knees all that way.  I walked into the Basilica with my tour group and made my way up to the altar where the tilma hangs.  I remember thinking how beautiful it was and I stood there amazed along with so many other people.  I hope one day I can go back and experience this again.

A look at the clasp on my Virgen de Guadalupe bracelet. Such a unique piece and I'm so glad it found me!

A look at the clasp on my Virgen de Guadalupe bracelet. Such a unique piece and I’m so glad it found me!


La Storia…Birmingham’s Italian Community Exhibit

IMG_7794When I first moved to Birmingham in 1980, I was asked by several people if I were Italian.  I would say “no, why?” …and the person asking would say something like, “well, you have such dark eyes and dark hair.”  I had no idea at the time that there was a large Italian community in Birmingham and that this community has been present since the turn of the last century.

IMG_7807About a month ago, I received an invitation to attend a media event at Vulcan Park and Museum for an exhibit called “La Storia – Birmingham’s Italian Community.”  This exhibit tells the story of Italian immigration to Birmingham from the late 1800s to the mid-20th century.  Naturally, I was intrigued and anxious to learn more.  So on Thursday, Nov 13th, we gathered in the Linn-Henley Gallery and heard incredibly touching stories by Dr. Phillip Ratliff, Vulcan Park and Museum Director of Education and Mary Jo Gagliano, Chair of the Exhibit Steering Committee.  The gallery was filled with photos, storyboards and artifacts from the Birmingham Italian community – pulled together by the Italian American Heritage Society.  I couldn’t get enough of this exhibit!!!

IMG_7795We quickly heard where the Italian community settled in Birmingham and how quickly it grew. The population was at about 130 in 1890 and grew to over 2,000 by 1920, settling mainly in Thomas and Ensley (steelworkers), Blocton (coal mining), and East Lake (farming).  As is the case with most immigrant stories, the Italian immigrants were looked down on and took the lowest paying positions.  Because of this, they formed their own close-knit communities building their own churches and schools.  The Vatican sent Father John B. Canepa to Birmingham to help the community build three churches.  In fact, he preached his first sermon at Our Lady of Sorrows church in Italian when he arrived in 1904.  The Catholic faith was an integral part of their lives and continues to be today.


Short explanation of St. Joseph altars

Another story that really peaked my interest had to do with religion and was the history of the St. Joseph altars.  I have to admit, when I heard “altars,” it had me thinking about the Day of the Dead altars from the Mexican community.  Mary Jo shared a different type of altar story with us and as a Catholic, I was surprised I had never heard of this tradition before.  Each year on March 19th,  the Feast of St. Joseph, Italian families prepare special foods to place on altars in their own homes. This tradition came from Sicily when after a serious drought, the Sicilian people prayed to their patron Saint Joseph for rain.  When the rains came, they pledged to distribute food to the less fortunate.  The tradition continues today and many believe that having a St. Joseph’s altar can bring good fortune!

I wondered why Vulcan Park and Museum would be hosting this exhibit and found out quickly that the statue (Vulcan) was designed by Italian immigrant Giuseppe Moretti.  In addition, the stone tower where Vulcan currently stands was crafted by Italian stonemasons when the statue was moved to Red Mountain 75 years ago.  The impact of the Italian immigrant community is felt all around us in our city beginning with the of the most visible icons – Vulcan.

As I listened to these stories, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the state of the current Hispanic immigrant community in Alabama. The struggles and yearning to draw acceptance is a common thread to these communities.  It’s common with any newcomer.  I had a chance to speak one on one with Mary Jo after the tour and she shared a few more personal stories that re-emphasized this point.  We both agreed how important it is to tell our stories and keep them alive.  We have so much to learn from one another…

This exhibit will run through September 2015 and there is a small admission fee for non-Vulcan Park members.  Along with the exhibit, there are a number of events that will be featured through next June.  I’m particularly interested in the March 12th Cooking Southern Italian – An Evening in a Sicilian Kitchen, where Mary Jo Tortorigi Gagliano of La Tavolo Sicilian cooking school and Chef Vizzina of The Vizzina Group will demonstrate techniques of Sicilian cooking.  If it’s about food, it’s going to be good!  Admission is $10 for this event.  May 31st will feature a Sunday Afternoon Tour of Italian Catholic Churches along with two cemeteries dedicated o Italian immigrants.  This event is $30 and will be presented by Dr. E. E. Campbell and world-renowned sculptor, Signoro Carlo Roppa.  There are several other events that can be viewed on the Vulcan Park and Museum website.  I hope I can get to all of them!

Meanwhile…here are a few shots from the exhibit…


Dr. Phillip Ratliff, Director of Education at Vulcan Park and Museum leads the tour of the La Storia exhibit.


Mary Jo Gagliano, Chair of the La Storia Exhibit Steering Committee added personal stories during the tour.


Dr. Phillip Ratliff explains the importance of Father John B. Canepa to the Birmingham Italian community.


Sculpture of Father John B. Canepa


The significance of religion – the Roman Catholic faith – was a feature of the tour.


Quotes of prominent Birmingham Italian Americans are featured throughout the exhibit.


Italian neighborhoods in Birmingham are explained in this section of the exhibit.


Documents of new immigrants are a part of the exhibit.


A name that is well known around Birmingham is Brunos…this part of the exhibit showcases the different professions Italian Americans have had over the years.


Outside the exhibit is a recognition piece dedicated to the Italian American members of the community who contributed to this exhibit. Tina Verciglio Savas (pictured here) remarked that it was like reading her high school yearbook – she recognized so many names.


Photographing a photo of Giuseppe Moretti, the Italian immigrant sculptor who created Vulcan, the largest cast iron statue in the world that stands prominently over Birmingham from Vulcan Park and Museum.