Topeka parish kicks off yearlong celebration to mark centennial
by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — When Jim Garcia’s grandfather became a member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish here, the War to End All Wars was still raging.
Since then, five generations of Garcia’s family have called Our Lady of Guadalupe home.
“My dad was born in 1909, and he came to the parish when he was just eight years old in 1917,” said Garcia. “That would mean the parish was just three years old then.”
“My dad was a devout Catholic. I don’t think he ever missed Mass. He was really involved in the parish, too,” Garcia continued, adding that among the many ways he remembers his father volunteering his time was by counting the weekly collection.
Garcia’s family history is among those being celebrated during a year of activities to mark the parish’s centennial, a project for which Garcia serves as co-chair.
To kick off the yearlong celebration, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann and pastor Father Jerry Arano-Ponce were joined by former pastors and associates in celebrating a Mass of thanksgiving on Nov. 1.
The bilingual Mass celebrated the parish’s Mexican culture and honored all those instrumental in the parish’s history, including the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, who served as the first teachers in the parish’s grade school (now combined with Sacred Heart and known as Holy Family School) and the Augustinian nuns who continue to serve the parish in youth and adult formation. A sombrero, a native dress and a guitar (among other items) decorated the altar at the Mass, and a parish potluck-style supper followed.
Wearing a chasuble featuring an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the archbishop began Mass by telling those in attendance that it was “a joy to be with you to celebrate this 100th anniversary” and encouraging everyone “to continue the legacy that has been given to you.”
In 1914, Pedro Lopez, a member of 20 families who migrated from Mexico in 1910 to Topeka to escape poverty and the Revolution, recognized a priest from Mexico at the train station. He struck up a conversation with Father Epifanio Ocampo, and expressed the families’ wish to have its own parish.
The next day, the two approached Father Francis Hayden, pastor of Topeka’s Assumption Parish, about the possibility. On Nov. 4, 1914, the parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe was formally established in honor of the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. Juan Diego in what is now Mexico City in 1531.
The growth of the railroad industry before and after World War I helped the parish grow in size. Further growth stemmed from the 1917 Mexican constitution, which sought to reduce the role of the Catholic Church by outlawing monastic vows and orders, forbidding worship outside church buildings and declaring church property to belong to the government. Although the constitution’s provisions were not enforced until the 1920s, the rising anticlericalism led many families to leave their native land.
Work was easy to find in the railroad shops. Although many families found their way to Topeka from Mexico, they did not forget their roots. In 1933, the parish began what is now a weeklong celebration of Hispanic culture known as Fiesta Mexicana. The event is a tradition for the parish, the neighborhood and the city, as well as a major fundraiser. During the Mass, this past summer’s fiesta royalty — Johnna Lea Herrera, queen; Magdalena Mercedes Gallegos, princess; and Xavier Rodriguez, king — served as lectors, a fact which the archbishop reflected upon during his homily.
The goal of every Catholic, the archbishop said, should be to evangelize and make disciples of others, helping others to realize their worth as children of God. The fiesta, complete with its royalty competition, helps the youth of the parish to “realize their dignity,” as well as to remember that they are “part of a royal family” — the family of God, with Christ as its king.
Later in his homily, the archbishop discussed St. John Paul II’s particular love for Mexico and Our Lady of Guadalupe. In 1979, despite the fact that the Mexican government did not recognize the church in law and had no formal relations with the Holy See, the Mexican faithful turned out in droves to greet the Holy Father during his first international visit.
This, in turn, the archbishop explained, led to his second trip in June 1979, nine days in the pope’s native Poland. Also, St. John Paul II later shared that, while he was in Mexico, he realized his papacy would be missionary in nature.
The archbishop also said that the early parishioners also wanted God to be the center of their lives, but they recognized the importance of sharing their faith, a fact that current parishioners should not forget.
“You and I are called upon to be missionary disciples,” the archbishop said, adding that sharing the Gospel means living it with joy.
For Garcia, that joy culminated in a particular way during the Mass of thanksgiving.
“I did get emotional because I witnessed my life,” he said, explaining how seeing all of the former pastors moved him.
As a young boy, Garcia was an altar server, mostly assisting at Mass for then-pastor Father Ramon Gaitan, OAR. In college, Garcia admits he stopped going to Mass. Then, he met his wife Jolene, who helped him to find his way back home.
As he sat near the front on Ash Wednesday one year, Garcia said the next pastor, Father Dan Gardner, pointed to him and indicated he wanted to talk after Mass. That conversation led to Garcia’s involvement in Renew 2000, a faith-sharing movement that helped parishioners to prepare for the Jubilee Year.
“That’s when my life changed dramatically,” he said.
Garcia signed up for other ministries. And when Father John Cordes took over as pastor, Garcia continued his involvement.
Now, with Father Arano-Ponce serving as pastor, Garcia finds himself partially in charge of the parish’s centennial, a role he is enjoying.
Many other events are planned for the centennial year, including a parish mission, Marian consecration and the release of a DVD featuring several congratulatory messages by influential church leaders in the United States, including Father Mitch Pacwa, SJ, who calls on the parish to recall the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe herself — that of being people consecrated to Jesus through Mary.