SAN JUAN — Thousands flocked to an evening mass here in celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe last Thursday.

Held at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, the celebrations began Dec. 11 with bands, mariachis and choirs from local parishes performing in front of a Virgen de Guadalupe painting near the main altar. Also making appearances at the Basilica were traditional matachines dancers, who wore feathers and danced with maracas.

“The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of our main celebrations here in the Valley, not only in the Basilica, for the Catholic community,” explained the Rev. Jorge Gomez, who has been a priest at San Juan for just over two years.

The celebration is centered around Dec. 12, which is when the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have appeared to an indigenous man named Juan Diego in 1531.

“The Spanish missionaries had come before, and they were not very successful in converting (native peoples) to Catholicism. But then Guadalupe comes and she’s speaking in their language,” Gomez said. “She didn’t speak Spanish, she spoke Najuatl. She appeared as one of them with a brown face and speaking their language with their symbology.”

Gomez explained that when the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared, the natives were able to understand her message. In a matter of two to three years, over 7 million native people had converted to Catholicism.

“That’s why she is called the greatest evangelizer of the Americas,” Gomez said. “Ever since, she has been the one to unite the two continents, Europe and America. Now I think she is the one who unites all of the Americas, from Canada to Brazil to Argentina. Guadalupe is present in every country in the American continent.”

The celebrations at the Basilica began at 7 p.m. last Wednesday with performances from the many bands, mariachis, choirs and matachines dancers.

At 11:15 p.m., the standing room only congregation prayed the Rosary and the Basilica’s mariachis performed “Las Mañanitas.” Then a midnight Mass, or Miso de Gallo, was held. At 1 a.m., the music and dancing continued until 2 a.m.

The festivities continued with Masses at 6:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 5:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Thursday.

Patricia Everlein of Edinburg visited the Basilica on Thursday with her husband. She said that celebrating the Virgin of Guadalupe is something that has been instilled in her from a young age.

“We came to pay homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe because it’s dear to me as a Catholic and a Mexican. It’s just something that we — my mother — taught me, to venerate the Virgen,” Everlein said. “I think it’s important because it’s like a gift that God has given us his mother. So it’s important for us to recognize her as God’s mother. I think it’s just important. It’s just part of our life.”

Also visiting from Edinburg was John Paul Cantu, who said that he visits the Basilica on a regular basis. He said that it is true faith that brought him there Thursday evening.

“It just reaffirms why we’re here on this earth,” Cantu said. “Our sole purpose is for loving and for helping others, and to thrive in eternity together.”

Gomez said that the large number of participants in the festivities is reflective of the faith that people have in the Rio Grande Valley.

“I feel great. When people say that the faith is dying in the Valley, come to the Basilica on a Sunday, on Ash Wednesday or Christmas and you’ll see that we are part of the country that still prays and believes,” Gomez said. “There’s still people that still believe. You still see the devotion of the people, coming with their candles. To me, it’s not me who is evangelizing them, it’s the devotion of the people that evangelizes me. I think that the faith of the people of the Valley is amazing.”

“We’re just trying different things not to attract people just for the sake of attracting them, but just to make them feel part of the church,” Gomez added. “They are not strangers. Even if they only come once a year, this is their home.