Celebrating a miracle legacy

Hundreds turn out in Fells Point, carrying on Peruvian Catholic ritual

maryland journal

November 05, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

Hundreds of Peruvian-American Catholics reinforced ties to their religious heritage yesterday as teams slowly carried an image of Jesus that is revered in their native country for its miraculous powers through the streets of Fells Point.

The procession, organized by the Catholic Community of St. Michael's and St. Patrick's, commemorates El Senor de Los Milagros, or the Christ of the Miracles, a Peruvian devotion to Jesus.

Every October, groups of Peruvian-Americans have gathered at East Coast cities such as Washington, Wilmington, Del., and Clifton, N.J., to remember the survival of this image through natural disasters and their belief in its miraculous powers. The Baltimore procession, held last, usually draws the most people, organizers said.

The processions mirror similar gatherings in Lima and other parts of Peru, attended by hundreds of thousands of people and followed by a marching band.

William Coronado, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Hermandad del Senor de Los Milagros, the fraternity that organizes the procession each year, said the devotion is important even for those who no longer live in Peru.

"We try to bring it here," the Joppatowne resident said. "A lot of people can't go there for different reasons."

"It's an extremely popular devotion throughout Peru," said Curt Cadorette, religious studies professor at the University of Rochester and a Maryknoll priest who spent about 20 years in Peru.

Devotions such as these are an example of popular religiosity - Catholics could pray to the Christ of the Miracles for intervention, just as they would to saints.

"This is such a central part of Peruvian religious culture," Cadorette said. "Lima shuts down for the Lord of the Miracles."

The painting shows Jesus hanging on a cross with God, represented as a father, above and two women below.

According to a brotherhood Web site, a freed African slave named Benito was inspired to paint the image on a wall in the 1600s. The image remained intact after an earthquake in the 17th century and later a tidal wave.

"It was considered a miracle, because apparently everything in the immediate area crumbled," Cadorette said. Since then, people have attributed miracles to the image.

The image, of a darker-skinned Jesus, also bridges identities between people of African, European or indigenous descent.

"The Lord of the Miracles acts like this glue despite our differences in race and class," Cadorette said. "That's why this devotion is so popular - the bulk of the population can identify with this image. It looks like them."

In Lima, as in the United States, lay organizations coordinate the annual processions. A Baltimore chapter formed in 1999; that year, about 200 people joined the procession.

Now that number has swelled to several hundred people, many of whom started with Mass at St. Michael's Church at Lombard and Wolfe streets, and the brotherhood has about 300 members.

The Baltimore chapter had decorated the image with gold and silver, including hearts representing miracles attributed to the Christ of the Miracles. It had been placed atop a litter that was crowded with flowers, colorful candles and angels.

Teams of several dozen men, dressed in purple robes, took turns shouldering the litter and taking rhythmic shuffling steps. A Peruvian-American band played a festive march behind the group. When the band stopped playing, the teams would take a break or switch off, pausing to pray before lifting the float.

Although the group's destination, St. Patrick's Church at Broadway and Bank Street, is less than half a mile away, it takes them about six hours to complete the trip, said the Rev. Robert Wojtek, the pastor.

Gloria Ruiz of Remington described the processions as a "kind of release."

She remembers her father carrying the image with the brotherhood before she moved to the United States 18 years ago. Now her son Alexander, an 18-year-old freshman at Loyola College, has been a member of the Baltimore brotherhood for several years.

He described the event as an "expression of faith" as well as a cultural legacy.

"It's just a part of your heritage, even if you're in a new land ... just to keep the heritage alive," the college student said.

The Baltimore procession was pushed back to November this year to accommodate scheduling of processions in other cities. Members of the Baltimore group traveled as far as Connecticut to participate in their celebrations. People from Washington, New York and New Jersey also attended the Baltimore event.

Members of brotherhood chapters wore purple robes, called abitos, that were adorned with miniature copies of the painting and sometimes flowers and ribbons. Most also wore a heavy white rope that Coronado said represented the image's origins in slavery.

Women, many also wearing purple, held burning incense in censers at the front of the procession. In Peru, women would sing to accompany the procession, but in the United States groups of women also carry the litter.

Cadorette said these celebrations are meant to be fun. "It's a way of affirming their point of origin," he said. "They're in some ways reminding themselves of fond memories of Peru."

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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