ROCHESTER — "Quisqueya, the land
Of my loves,
Of cool breezes,
Of beautiful flowers."
Thunderous applause broke out from the nearly 300 people gathered for the annual Mass in honor of Our Lady of Altagracia after Carmen Olmos finished singing the hymn "Quisqueya," about the beauty of the Dominican Republic.
And befitting the festive tone that such a large crowd evoked, the Jan. 21 Mass in honor of the protectoress of the island nation was filled with "música and alegria" ("music and joy") noted Brother Juan Lozada, the diocese’s coordinator of Hispanic Family Life.
Our Lady of Altagracia is worthy of such celebration, noted Brother Lozada, as the first sanctuary built in the Americas was in her honor. A basilica in Altagracia’s honor now stands in Higüey, Dominican Republic, where her image is believed to have first appeared in 1502, explained Deacon Bienvenido "Benny" DeJesús. That was the same year two brothers from Spain brought a portrait of Altagracia to the Dominican Republic, he said, and many miracles since have been attributed to her intercession.
"The adoration of Altagracia that began in Higüey has evolved into a national belief system that has ingrained itself into the fabric of Dominican identity and serves as a rite of pilgrimage for so many people," remarked Deacon DeJesús.
People from all over the island not only walk to the basilica for promises made to Our Lady of Altagracia, but they also will sleep on the grounds, concurred Larissa Rosario, who moved from the Dominican Republic to Rochester three years ago to study.
"Today is a holiday on the island," Rosario said of the Jan. 21 feast day.
Rosario and her husband of eight months, Luis Peña, carried the framed image of Altagracia for the opening procession of the Mass at Our Lady of the Americans Church. They placed the portrait on the altar on an easel surrounded by red poinsettias and votive candles. About 20 children and teenagers also walked single file, and one carried a rose that was placed in a vase in front of the image.
Deacon DeJesús explained the different facets of that image during his homily.
"The image represents the scene of Jesus’ birth in the manger in Bethlehem, which highlights the virgin’s maternal being," he explained.
The image also shows the star that the Magi followed to find Jesus, he said. And Mary is shown with a crown of 12 points to represent the 12 tribes of Israel as well as the apostles.
"The Virgin of Altagracia wears a crown on her head as the queen of heaven, and a veil because she is married to Joseph," he said.
"The Virgin Mary teaches us all, in her sublime way, the love of a mother," he added. "Mary leads us to Christ and shows us how he is teacher and savior. She invites us to meditate on those mysteries and live them out in our own lives."