Our Lady leads a parish to peace and prosperity

DANBURY—Forty years ago on a cold winter night, Alberto Boyer and his wife Hilda showed up at the rectory of Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in Danbury, holding a battered statue of the Blessed Mother. The 300-pound lead statue of Our Lady of Miracles had been damaged and defaced … and discarded in a garbage dump.

Father Jose Fernandez took the statue for his small faith community, who promised to build her “a little house.” In the history of his parish, he later wrote: “The fact is that Mary in her image was crucified as her Son was. He on the cross, and she in a dump.”

At the time, the Spanish-speaking community celebrated Mass in the lower-level chapel of St. Joseph Church in Danbury. Their first collection took in $67.

The mission was named after Our Lady of Guadalupe because, as Father Fernandez wrote: “The Virgin of Guadalupe was our guide and patron, the Mother of the Americas, who appeared in 1531 to Juan Diego and said, ‘Go to the bishop and ask him to build a chapel on this very spot from which I can demonstrate my maternal vigilance and give compassionate assistance to those who ask for it.’ Maybe the echo of Mary’s petition was heard here after 450 years. Perhaps Mary wanted to have a sanctuary in this town.”

Many believe Father was correct. They had given a home to the Virgin, whose statue had been tossed aside in a garbage dump, and she in turn has blessed them. Eventually, families from the surrounding communities, who came from Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Peru, El Salvador and Ecuador began to join them.

Today, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish has its own church and rectory. Six weekend masses are packed with worshippers from towns in Fairfield County and Westchester and as far away as the Bronx.

The fourth pastor, Father John Perez, who is a native of Colombia, says the attendance is so overwhelming that the parish’s greatest need is a larger parking lot. That first collection of $67 has increased immeasurably through the generosity of the people. The original goal for Our Lady of Guadalupe in the We Stand With Christ capital campaign was $542,000, and thus far they have raised more than $1.1 million, with one man giving Father a check for $12,000. More than 50 parishioners helped him with the campaign, reaching out to others to spread the word.

“They did this because they love their parish and they love their community,” Father said. “They show an amazing faith in God and the Blessed Mother. The campaign helped me to see clearly that there are so many people who love the Church in the midst of difficult times. They believe in the Church, in the priests, the bishops and the pope. They are a faithful people.”

Father Perez, who has been pastor for six years, previously served at St. Benedict-Our Lady of Monserrat Parish in Stamford. He is from a family of 16 children and felt a vocation to the priesthood from the time he was young, but it was difficult for him to enter the seminary in Colombia so he went into the food services industry. God, however, led him back to the priesthood and through the efforts of Monsignor Christopher Walsh, he came to Connecticut. In 1999, he entered Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland and was ordained in 2003 by Bishop William Lori.

His parents, Jaime and Rimirez are very proud of him, and he says, “For my mother, it is the greatest marvel in the world to have somebody in the family who is a priest. And now, one of her grandsons is also studying for the priesthood.”

Father Perez says the commitment and devotion of his parishioners are the secret of his parish’s success. Most of the 1,500 families are from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic with a number from several other Latin American countries. Almost 600 children are enrolled in the catechism program and that the enrollment increases every year. The parish has groups devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and Our Lady of Good Success from Ecuador, along with people who are charismatics and Cursillistas.

“This is a very vibrant church,” Father Perez said. “I have 250 volunteers who help me — Eucharistic ministers, lectors, choir members, ushers, 62 catechists and almost 40 altar servers.” He is assisted by Father Edicson Orozco, the parochial vicar, and Deacon Rafael Regus.

“We have a lot of services here, and people invite others to come,” he says. “When people find a church that has its doors open for their needs, they feel comfortable. People from Ecuador have very pious lives and if they decide to have a procession, especially dedicated to the Blessed Mother or Baby Jesus, they know our doors are always open to them.”

In his history of the parish, Father Fernandez, who later retired to New Jersey, wrote, “In the beginning, most of the men worked 70 to 80 hours a week in diners and restaurants without health insurance, paid vacations or other benefits. Life was a bit hard. The mission fostered finding better jobs, fomenting small businesses and especially urged them to purchase their own homes. By 1989, there were about 50 families who lived in their own homes. In 1990, there were 21 businesses run by Spanish-speaking residents. The parish also promoted scholastic and occupational learning.”

The faithful began a campaign to build their own church with the slogan, “WITH GOD WE CAN.” Several woman approached Father Fernandez and said, “Father, if we all put a dollar in each time we enter the church, something can be done.” Each month, people donated an additional $5, $10 and $15 and held other fund-raising activities. “Even with all this, faith and God had to complement our human limitations,” Father wrote.

In 1983, they found a 5-acre parcel of land, which they purchased for $70,000, and on June 3, 1985, Bishop Walter W. Curtis blessed the cornerstone, and Father Fernandez was named pastor. A year-and-a-half later, the church was completed. Some companies worked for reduced fees, many parishioners donated their time and talents, and one contractor let them use excavators free of charge.

The church was finished on December 12, 1986, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and on Sunday December 14, the first Mass was celebrated.

Ten years after Alberto and Hilda Boyer brought the damaged statue of Our Lady to the priest, the parish fulfilled the promise to build her a shrine called “Little House of Mary.” On June 25, 1989, Bishop Edward Egan joined the faith community and blessed the shrine, which had the inscription, “Mary, Mother of Peace.”

Father Fernandez recalled the event in his history and wrote: “There are many faithful who on their way to work or at lunch hour stop a few moments before the image to find in her powers, consolation, help, a place among humans or tranquility in their families or peace of the souls … because Mary is the Mother of Peace.”