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Moving faith: Mexican town’s saint feast lives in Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS – In Midwestern boots or bare feet in sandals, the faithful walked in procession down a snow-covered street here, keeping the rhythm of festive music and carrying paintings of St. Paul, the patron saint of their hometown of Axochiapan, Mexico.

For the thousands of migrants from the south Mexico town 2,200 miles away who have built new lives in Minnesota over the last two decades, throwing a wild, two-day bash for St. Paul’s Catholic feast day in January is a crucial way to celebrate their roots and feel a bit more at home, closer to the families they left behind.

“It’s even more important because we brought it here,” says Apolinar Morales, this year’s steward of the celebration, who left Axochiapan in 1989. “The meaning is not to lose our traditions, so that they can be kept alive, even though we’re far. And we want our kids and grandkids to remember this.”

People in Aztec clothing take part in a dance at the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus church in Minneapolis, for a two-day celebration for the patron saint of the Mexican town of Axochiapan and nearby villages in the state of Morelos.

He estimates that more than a third of Axochiapan’s residents migrated to the United States, most of them about 20 years ago, when the celebration started here. The festival here is especially important for those participants who can’t go home for the monthlong celebration in Axochiapan because of their immigration status.

Most are raising U.S. children for whom this feast is the biggest chance to be immersed in the Mexican part of their identities. It helps them learn to live the faith of their ancestors, instead of just sticking the venerated painting of St. Paul in a corner, as Morales, 50, fears the younger generations would do.

“Our families (in Axochiapan) are happy because we’re enjoying the same celebration in the same way as they are – well, except it’s hot there,” said a grinning Silverio Camilo. On the feast’s vigil, he stirred with a yardlong wooden spatula some 120 pounds of corn dough slowly cooking in Morales’ suburban garage as flurries fell steadily outside.

Steward Apolinar Morales leads a procession with a shrine representing the church of St. Paul inside the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus church in Minneapolis. Morales and others held a two-day celebration for St. Paul, the patron saint of their Mexican hometown of Axochiapan and nearby villages in the state of Morelos.

Volunteers like him didn’t sleep for a few days to prepare the chicken tamale and mole dinners they would serve to the 1,200 people who participate in Masses, processions and dances at the Church of the Incarnation/Sagrado Corazón in south Minneapolis. To sacrifice time and money as an offering of faith is just as central to honoring St. Paul as the exuberant dancing, many said.

“Faith is to believe that you make an effort and in return get joy and maybe a blessing” such as work, said Camilo, who was a teen when he came from Axochiapan 22 years ago.

Among the most time-consuming efforts is creating the processional 3-foot candles, each studded with a dozen wax pink and yellow flowers. The faithful began pouring, painting and decorating the wax in September, and this summer, they’ll start over in whatever colors the next steward picks.

The candle tradition dates back at least 60 years, but the celebration itself has far longer roots across continents and even beliefs. In 1542, the Spanish conquistadors took over an Aztec settlement and renamed it in honor of St. Paul – who persecuted the first Christians until a revelation on the road to Damascus turned him into the “apostle to the nations,” taking the new faith beyond the Middle East. It’s his conversion that’s celebrated on Jan. 25 and represented in the paintings venerated in Axochiapan and Minneapolis.

Three-foot tall handmade wax candles studded with pink and yellow flowers are shown inside the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus church in Minneapolis. The wax candles were made by people celebrating the patron saint of their Mexican hometown of Axochiapan and nearby villages in the state of Morelos as a way to recognize their roots and feel closer to the families and home they left behind.

Legend has it that the painting miraculously refused to go to Axochiapan unless carried in a procession of dancers, Morales said. So now, even in 27 degree weather, bare-chested Aztec dancers preceded a replica of the image down a quiet Minneapolis street, their leg bracelets made with dozens of large ayoyote seeds rattling at the beat of tambourines accompanied by a conch shell horn.

The rattle was a bit muted when dancers, having left their ornate 6-foot feather headdresses on the pews, made their way to receive Communion at Mass inside the 101-year-old church. Or perhaps it was just drowned out by the trumpets and strings of the mariachi band that was playing “Pescador de Hombres,” one of the best-loved modern Catholic hymns in the Spanish-speaking world.

For several members of the Aztec troupes, indigenous dancing was yet another form of devotion to St. Paul – and a way to find peace in inevitably mixed identities.

“It means a lot to see the sacrifice, the level of respect toward the regalia, the prayers, the dance itself that identify us as Mexicans,” said dancer Karla Cortez-Ocampo, 29, who grew up in Minnesota. “Many kids don’t speak Spanish well, but they respect what it takes to stay in the dance circle.”

People in traditional Aztec clothing ascend the steps of the Sagrado Corazon de Jesus church in Minneapolis for a two-day celebration of St. Paul, the patron saint of their Mexican hometown of Axochiapan and nearby villages in the state of Morelos. The celebration is a way to recognize their roots and feel closer to the families and home they left behind.

“Religion provides one of the few culturally familiar and deeply rooted places available to them,” said the Rev. Kevin McDonough, the priest of this diverse parish. He started his homily by telling the several hundred faithful his counterpart in Axochiapan had phoned to wish them a happy holiday.

On the last night, incense smoke from smoldering embers of copal, a tropical tree, wafted among the giant candles as the procession returned in the darkness to the church, where more hours of dancing followed in front of a massive altar festooned with banners celebrating “San Pablo Apóstol” and “Minneapolis patronal feast.” The banners, the copal, even most of the dancers’ handmade regalia came from Mexico for the occasion, but one man solemnly carrying a candle wore a Vikings cap.

“People feel comfortable, at home,” said Morales of this celebration that migrants like him took with them. “We’re proud that we brought it here to Minneapolis. I brought the best that I could.”