Immigrants bring special feast of St. Francis of Assisi to Diocese

By Suzanne Koziatek
Staff writer

In Cherán, a small town in central Mexico, residents hold a special reverence for St. Francis of Assisi, celebrating his feast day Oct. 4 with a Mass, music, dances and food.

As people migrated north to the United States, they took their tradition with them, and now Mexicans living in southern Illinois hold an annual celebration designed to express their love of the Italian saint, says Father Uriel Salamanca, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Cobden and St. Mary Parish in Anna.

“They love St. Francis – many people carried the image of him with them to the U.S.,” Father Salamanca says. “We use this time to unite ourselves and our families and keep this tradition alive.”

Across Mexico, many towns and cities have traditionally adopted a saint as their own. Cherán claims St. Francis as its patron, to the point that many inhabitants refer to him as “San Francisco de Cherán.”

The celebration in Mexico includes dancers in traditional dress, food and music to “serenade” the saint. The observance culminates in a special Mass.

Over the years, residents of Cherán have spread across the United States, and many American towns now hold some sort of observance of St. Francis’ feast day.

Father Salamanca, in coordination with the diocese’s Office of Hispanic Ministry, began leading a southern Illinois observance about five years ago.

“People (from Cherán) came to me and asked me to help them celebrate,” he says.

Among those people was Maria Ambrocio, who says the goal was to bring families from that region together and to help pass their traditions along to a new generation.

“We’re showing these traditions to our kids, so they don’t lose it,” Ambrocio says.

Father Salamanca says it’s also an opportunity to reach beyond the traditions surrounding the feast and connect people more deeply with their faith.

“It is a great thing, especially because the children are involved,” he says. “We want to teach children to help keep these traditions alive, while learning more about our faith.”

This year began with a special novena held over the nine Saturdays before the feast day. Each week, about 30 people with ties to Cherán have come together from towns such as Marion and Du Quoin. They meet at the homes of participants.

“We read the Bible, share a meal and learn all about the life of St. Francis – there are a lot of things that people don’t know,” Father Salamanca says. “It is a way to prepare people’s spiritually.”

He says Bible study is an important aspect of this preparation. “We want people to read the Bible, know the Bible and live the Bible.”

While the Mexican tradition is to hold these nine days of preparation right before the feast day, here in southern Illinois, they were spread out over nine weeks, in part to make it easier for working families to attend, Ambrocio says.

Because of the large size of the group, the novena was often held outside in a yard, or in a park. “It depends on the family; some people have bigger backyards,” Ambrocio says with a laugh.

For the feast day itself, a large group filled St. Joseph Parish in Cobden on Oct. 4. In addition to the choir, a Mexican band traveled to the event from Kentucky to provide traditional music associated with the feast.

“They sang songs to St. Francis of Assisi,” Father Salamanca says. “People offered flowers and fruit (another traditional aspect of the Cherán feast day).”

After Mass, the group met in the church hall for a celebration featuring pozole, a traditional Mexican stew. The band performed at this party as well.

Topping off the celebration was an even larger party Oct. 7 in Murphysboro, complete with multiple bands, dancing, and a variety of traditional foods.

But the most important part of the annual observance, Father Salamanca says, is to help people understand the reasons behind the celebration.

“When we explain to people why we’re doing this, it allows us to live better our faith, to know more about our faith,” he says.

Ambrocio says the event grows larger each year, as more and more residents learn about it and want to be involved.

And the organizers are hoping to take the momentum from the St. Francis feast day and extend that fellowship throughout the year.

“We don’t just want to do this once a year,” Ambrocio says. “We want to get together about once a month, to be together and bring our kids together.”