Friday of last week was a special night. Olga Ardila, a woman I met through the Latino Enrollment Initiative in our Catholic schools, invited my children and me to celebrate a night of candles for the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Although I am Latina, in the Dominican Republic, my country of origin, this is not a tradition. So with the desire to learn and understand its significance, I accepted the invitation.
When I arrived at Olga’s house, the lights and the beautiful atmosphere she had prepared for this celebration struck me. I expected that the event would be only a few children lighting candles, but the tradition is more than that. The evening included hors d’oeuvres, dinner, wine, sweets and gifts for children, celebration and above all, the great joy of being together.
“The idea is to meet and enjoy this family tradition that began in honor of the virgin,” said Olga.
When I told Andres Arango, director of Hispanic ministry, about my experience, he said “This is maybe one of the days of the year that I miss the most and in which I feel more nostalgia for not being in my land, Colombia. I have great memories of my childhood celebrating this day in honor of the feast of the Immaculate Conception.”
The night of candles has been a vigil celebration in Colombia since 1854 when Pope Pius IX proclaimed Dec. 8 as the feast of the Immaculate Conception. The entire country is illuminated with lights and lanterns on the streets, trees, windows and even in the sky.
After moving to the United States, most Latinos try to keep our traditions and our faith alive and pass them on to our children, and that is what this celebration epitomized for me. Olga, with only three years in the country, has managed to connect with many Latino families through her school, parish, theology study group and English classes. The impressive thing about the night was seeing how she managed to unite women who did not really know each other, but who had such a pleasant time sharing their stories and cultural traditions.
Even more rewarding was meeting Latinas with children in different South Jersey Catholic Schools with whom I have interacted in some way or another through the work I do in the Camden Diocese. Represented were schools such as Resurrection Catholic School, Cherry Hill; Saint John Paul II, Stratford; Guardian Angels, Gibbstown; Paul VI High School, Haddonfield; Holy Angels, Woodbury, and Our Lady of Hope, Blackwood. It is heartwarming to see the growing Latino community in our Catholic schools. We come from many countries and we are passionate about nurturing cultural traditions and values in our children and sharing them with others.
I was surrounded by highly educated women at Olga’s. Some of us came to the United States young enough to complete our degrees in American colleges and universities and pursue careers here. Others, who had professional careers in their home countries, arrived more recently and are hindered by language barriers. We all want our children to excel academically and be raised with strong Christian values. Our dioceses, churches, and Catholic schools have much to gain by opening doors and hearts to the growing Latino population in the United States.
Marianela Nuñez is field consultant, Latino enrollment, Office of Catholic Schools, Diocese of Camden.