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Sonoma County faithful celebrate Virgin of Guadalupe in predawn procession

Hundreds of worshipers descended onto Windsor early Wednesday, conch shells sounding as they entered Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church after an hourslong trek from Santa Rosa.

They arrived at the church in time for a 5 a.m. mass to celebrate the Catholic holiday devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

At the front of the procession, a group of men carried a 4-foot statue of Guadalupe, carefully placing her at the front of the crowded church. About a dozen Aztec dancers followed closely behind, the tall feathers in their traditional regalia swirling around as the performers danced.

The 600 worshipers began their journey at midnight at Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square. The 10-mile trek along Mendocino Avenue and Old Redwood Highway was intended to show their gratitude and devotion to the brown-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. She’s considered by many a symbol of the country’s identity and Catholic faith - said to have appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous Mexican, in December 1531.

Today, the virgin’s apparition is celebrated annually throughout Mexico on Dec. 12, where processions similar to the one held Wednesday in Sonoma County are common, said Edith Castro, an Aztec dancer who has performed in the celebration since 2004.

“You feel connected, not only with the religion but also to Mexico,” said Castro, who was raised in Mexico City, where she observed the holiday as a child. “It’s amazing to see people do the same thing here that they do in Mexico.”

The local celebration started about two decades ago, recreating the tradition for many of the area’s Mexican immigrants.

As many as 1,000 people have attended the predawn procession in the past, though this year’s crowd was smaller, Castro said.

Those in the procession Wednesday crammed into the church’s sanctuary and nearby event room, where the mass was streamed live on a screen for the overflow crowd. Parishioners who had arrived at the church earlier already had filled the wooden pews.

Esther Herrera and her husband, Salvador Figueroa, of Santa Rosa, attended the service. They wanted to give thanks to the Virgin of Guadalupe for Figueroa’s health, Herrera said.

In April, a ruptured vein sent her husband to the hospital for several days. He was unable to work for about five months as he recovered, Herrera said.

“(Doctors) told us it was a miracle,” said Herrera, who has celebrated the holiday since she was a child. “That’s why we’re here.”

Mexican pastries, spiced coffee, tamales and pozole - a traditional Mexican soup - were served for free. Attendees, many wearing ponchos and sweaters with the image of the Virgin, brought roses to place in front of the her altar.

Wednesday’s procession took slightly longer to get to Windsor than in previous years, when it began at St. Rose Catholic Church on 10th Street in Santa Rosa. Rev. Gabriel Barrera, who started working there earlier this year, said the church asked event coordinators to begin the procession elsewhere after receiving noise complaints from neighbors.

“We have apartments on all four sides,” Barrera said. “We talked to the people over there in Windsor, and we decided the procession would leave from downtown.”

Michaelraj Philominsamy, pastor at Windsor’s Our Lady of Guadalupe, said the church was happy to host the event, calling it an important display of faith among Sonoma County’s Mexican community.

“I admire you very much,” he said to the group. “Whatever happens, don’t ever lose your devotion.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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