BROCKPORT — Twelve-year-old Juan Padilla stood alongside youth-group members from neighboring towns as he mixed his bowl of sugar, water and meringue in preparation for molding calaveras. Making the sugar skulls is one of several rituals that are part of annual Day of the Dead celebrations.
Juan said he was more than happy to be helping teach others how to make the skulls during an Oct. 15 cultural-exchange workshop in the parish center at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church.
“I think it’s great, better than just us (the migrant community) doing it,” Juan said, adding how glad he was that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Hamlin and St. John the Evangelist Church in Spencerport chose to celebrate the Day of the Dead through the Mexican customs they learned about at the workshop.
In diocesan churches with Mexican parishioners, Day of the Dead — which celebrates All Saints Day Nov. 1 and All Souls Day Nov. 2 — is marked by customary altars decorated with such flowers as magnolias or chrysanthemums, calaveras, fruit, candles and papel picado, which are intricate cut-paper decorations.
“It’s better to have (the Anglo community) experience it,” Juan added. “I think they’ll find it very enjoyable.”
The workshop was one of several events held around the diocese in preparation for and as part of Day of the Dead celebrations. The migrant community at Nativity also set up a stand at Brockport’s Farmer’s Market Oct. 29 to teach others how to make calaveras, masks and papel picado. The community also sponsored a Mass and dancing by Corazon Mexicano later that day.
Holy Family and Holy Apostles churches in Rochester presented an All Saints Day costume party on Oct. 29. At the Roman Catholic Community of Geneva, children in the faith-formation program were taught how to make sugar skulls and set up an altar. A rosary service and reflection hour also took place Nov. 5 following the 1 p.m. Spanish Mass at St. Francis de Sales Church, according to Xiochitl Palacios, coordinator of migrant ministry in Geneva.
Barbara Legere, youth minister at St. John the Evangelist, said the Oct. 15 workshop served as a way for the Anglo and Hispanic communities not only to learn about each other but also to support each other. Migrant ministry has long been a tradition at the northwestern Monroe County churches, and getting youths more involved is just another component, she added.
Teenagers who attended the workshop took the information back to their parishes and, using Mexican traditions, set up altars in their churches for deceased parishioners, according to the youth ministers. The altars were to stay up for several days, added Lisa O’Brien, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s youth minister, so people could see them and embrace them.
Barb Riddell, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s liturgical minister, added that the parish’s Day of the Dead service Nov. 2 was to include using song or recitation to list the names of those who have died. Parishioners were asked to place on the altar pictures or mementos along with the names of deceased family members and friends. A pamphlet was to explain the significance of the service and the altar design, she added.
During the Oct. 15 workshop, several Mexican natives who belong to Nativity’s migrant community shared information about how the memories of those who have died are joyfully celebrated through the ancient customs of Day of the Dead.
Preparations for Day of the Dead begin days before All Saints Day and All Souls Day, explained Do√±a Felipa Soreque of Morelia, Michoacan, adding that children dress up and go house to house on Halloween. People give out candy or money, and home altars — decorated with bread, milk, candles and the foods that the deceased had enjoyed in life — are set up for family members who have died, she added.
Soreque explained that families decorate gravesites with flowers on Nov. 1. Then, on Nov. 2, families fill the cemeteries and many priests celebrate Masses there, Soreque added. The names of those who died are put on slips of paper and are read out loud and prayers are said for them, and later families hold picnics at the gravesites.
Sandra Rojas, coordinator of the diocese’s migrant ministry in Brockport, said the Day of the Dead has three components: the Catholic tradition, the spiritual tradition and the cultural tradition.
“This celebration comes from our ancestors, the Aztecs, the Mayan, the Incan,” she said. “It’s how we express our love to the people who died, that they will always be in our memories from generation to generation.”
At the Oct. 15 workshop, 15-year-old Donny Riddell said he recalled hearing about Day of the Dead during Spanish class at Kendall High School, but that the hands-on experience of preparing for the celebration gave him a frame of reference beyond the more superficial idea of Halloween.
“It makes that connection to celebrate life,” he noted.
Val Kauffman, 17, a fellow member of the youth group at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, agreed.
“I think it’s cool,” she said. “They accept (death). A lot of times Americans deny it or don’t want to believe it.”
Because her father had died just three weeks prior to the workshop, Legere said the significance of the customs carried even more weight for her.
“For me, it’s the healthiest, holiest way to integrate the belief of life,” Legere said. “If you believe in the resurrection and life after death, you know (the deceased) are with us. It’s about the communion of saints. They were with us before now and with us after.”