On December 12, tens of thousands of people will gather at the Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Catholic church made of red brick and limestone at the corner of Ross Avenue and Pearl Street. Buses will drop off worshippers on pilgrimages from all over the country. Children will don indigenous Mexican costumes. Matachines, traditional Hispanic dancers known for their colorful costumes and large headdresses, will perform, “doing exactly what they have done for centuries,” says rector Jesús Belmontes. Folks will leave roses as the sound of drums send them on their way. And the cathedral’s 140 bells will ring out in concert.
December 12 is the feast day for Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of the church and of Mexico. The day’s masses are always magical, Belmontes says. The event regularly draws crowds of up to 30,000 people. But this year will be special. In late September, the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops officially designated the cathedral as a national shrine. This year’s feast day will serve as a special celebration for the news.
Established 121 years ago, Cathedral Guadalupe “is the very heart of the Diocese of Dallas,” says Bishop Edward Burns. It is his official bishop’s seat, or his position’s home church in the diocese. The church has also attracted worshipers from across Dallas and the U.S., as well as Latin American immigrants, inside its doors as congregants for decades. Its services are still delivered in English and in Spanish. That, along with a special image behind the altar of the Lady of Guadalupe—who is also called the Virgin of Guadalupe—and the church’s long history in downtown Dallas, were the impetus for the recognition of a national shrine, Belmontes says.
There are 71 Catholic national shrines across the country, and only two others in Texas, neither of which are dedicated to Virgin of Guadalupe. Because of this new designation, Belmontes and Burns expect even more crowds to the cathedral, which is now officially called National Shrine Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The title is “a big honor for our congregation and for our community to know that this church is known as a shrine in the entire country,” says Belmontes.
The Cathedral’s History
The church was founded with a different name. The Catholic Diocese of Dallas was established in 1890, about 21 years after the founding of its first parish church, called Sacred Heart. In the late 1890s, construction began on the new red-bricked Cathedral of the Sacred Heart on Ross Avenue. It was designed by renown local architect, Nicholas J. Clayton, who designed many churches across Texas and Louisiana. Because of its original name, Clayton included heart imagery inside the sanctuary and out, like the stained-glass windows and columns. The cathedral was officially dedicated in October 1902.
“I knew I had to take historic steps for the future of the diocese.”Diocese of Dallas Bishop Edward Burns
At the time, the downtown church’s congregants were mostly Irish and German Catholic, says local historian Sol Villasana. The various churches in nearby Little Mexico catered more to the city’s Latin American residents. In 1914, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish was established on Harwood Street to accommodate the many immigrants escaping the violence of the Mexican Revolution, which had begun four years earlier. The church held masses in Spanish and offered social services for its congregants.
The fate of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish mirrors the story of Little Mexico. The neighborhood thrived, but it began getting chopped up in the 1960s and 1970s. Highways and new commercial buildings replaced the old shops, restaurants, and houses. Residents and local businesses moved out to the suburbs. “I can remember where about the 1970s where people were leaving downtown,” Villasana says. “Gradually, piece by piece, all the churches in Little Mexico had to move.”
Sacred Heart was suffering, too. “The congregation was literally disappearing,” Belmontes says. So, the bishop at the time, Thomas Tschoepe, suggested the two churches merge in 1975. Two years later, the cathedral was formally renamed Cathedral Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, or Catedral Santuario de Guadalupe. The name change “was a big acknowledgement of the role that the church has played in the Mexican American community in the city,” Villasana says.
The merger and new name brought renewed life to the cathedral. “It started injecting new energy, and more families and kids,” Belmontes says. Over the years, it’s stayed true to its Little Mexico roots. It still offers services in Spanish. The cathedral attracts many new-to-Dallas Hispanic immigrants as a refuge from culture shock. “[When] they’re missing their country and missing their families,” he says, “this is the only place where they feel at home.”
In the early 2000s, a group of parishioners took a folded-up print of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Rome and asked then-Pope John Paul II, who’s since been canonized as a saint, to bless it. That print now hangs behind the altar.
The Virgin of Guadalupe
Belmontes says the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe begins with an apparition of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, nearly 500 years ago, near modern-day Mexico City. It had been a decade since the Spanish conquistadors conquered the Aztec Empire, but there were still conflicts between the two groups. The Aztecs were angry about the destruction of their culture and history. Then one day in December 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared to an indigenous Mexican man, Juan Diego. She wore indigenous dress, spoke to him in his native language, and told him to build a church on Tepeyac Hill.
The local bishop did not believe him. “They rejected him because he didn’t have a sign,” Belmontes says. So, Juan Diego asked Mary for guidance, who told him to gather roses, despite it being winter, from the hill. When he presented the roses to church officials, an image of her appeared on his cloak. A church was built, and the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the outskirts of Mexico City is now one of the most popular Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world.
Her speaking in Juan Diego’s native language was powerful, Pope Francis said in an audience talk last August. Her appearance to an indigenous man “was a significant bridging of the Spanish conquistadors and that culture with the Native American culture in Mexico at the time,” Villasana says. Catholics of Latin American descent have gravitated toward her ever since, praying to her for protection and intersession in their lives.
“I can’t overemphasize the importance of her as the patron saint of Mexico and the cult-like status she has among Latin Catholics,” Villasana says. “She is the pinnacle of all.”
On her feast day in December, the busloads of pilgrims who arrive at the cathedral come to see the image of her blessed by John Paul II. They want to connect with her and their culture, Belmontes says, “like what they do in the Basilica of Mexico City.” A “river of people” file behind the altar to look at the image. A carpet is placed on the floor for people to kneel on, and many leave roses. Musicians serenade with tributes.
What’s the difference between a shrine and a cathedral? We break it down.
A church building can only be called a cathedral when it’s the seat of the bishop, literally and figuratively. It houses the cathedra, or the chair in which the bishop sits. It is also his seat of power in the diocese, like a state’s capitol building. From that chair “it’s been understood the teachings come from,” Burns says.
A national shrine is a shrine that’s been designated as such by its country’s conference of bishops.
If a church has been recognized for its international influence, or draw of pilgrims from across the world, then it can be elevated to the status of “basilica.” But that designation can only be handed out by the pope.
The National Shrine Designation
According to church canon, all those people coming on pilgrimage to the cathedral meets the criteria for the building to be considered a shrine. But to receive the national shrine designation, it had to check off several more boxes. Visitors must come for a specific purpose, like to see the image of the Lady of Guadalupe on her feast day. And they must come from all over the country, which they do, Belmontes says. The church in question must also host a certain number of daily ministrations and services. Cathedral Guadalupe offers confessions twice and two Eucharist masses, one in English and the other in Spanish, each day.
Burns, who came to the Diocese of Dallas from Alaska in early 2017, says the pandemic spurred his decision to apply for the national shrine designation.
“I never would have thought that I, as a bishop, would have to go through the most excruciating decision of having to close my churches,” he says. “So that on Sundays, the pews were empty, the pulpits were silent, and the altars were bare.”
It was a historic moment, and “I knew I had to take historic steps for the future of the diocese,” he says.
The application process began earlier this year. The diocese gathered all its documents and a summary of its history, plus recommendations from other Texas bishops, and summitted their petition to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In early summer, a conference representative, Bishop Mark Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso, came to visit, “and with it, an examination, thorough investigation, as well as interviewing parishioners of the cathedral,” Burns says. Seitz talked to Burns and auxillary bishop Greg Kelly. He talked to current and retired priests at the church. And he talked longtime parishioners of the church, who’d been there since before Sacred Heart became Our Lady of Guadalupe. Then, he took his findings back to the conference to deliberate. Finally, in late September, Burns learned the application had been accepted.
“I was so very pleased,” he says. “When that word comes, that your cathedral is now raised to a national shrine, it’s phenomenal and a true blessing.”
“I was very happy, very excited,” Belmontes says.
Burns announced the news to the cathedral’s congregation not long after, but he will announce it again at a special mass on December 12. Clergy from churches across the diocese will be in attendance, and they will ring the church bells in a special concert that day, too. “It’s going to be most festive celebration on that day,” says Burns.
The national shrine designation “underscores the importance of that congregation to the Hispanic community in the city,” Villasana says. “It’s been literally the backbone, I think, of the growth in the Catholic church for a long, long time here in this area.”
Moving forward, Belmontes believes Cathedral Guadalupe will continue to grow. He hopes the national shrine designation will inspire the diocese to take even better care of the building and beautify it further. “It has to be like the jewel” that they share with Catholics across the country, he says.
He and Burns expect even more pilgrimages to the cathedral. It could boost tourism in downtown Dallas, but it will also attract those “on their pilgrimage through life, in their pilgrimage through faith,” Burns says. It could also give people an opportunity to venerate the Virgin of Guadalupe here in Texas, instead of going all the way to Mexico City.
But the cathedral will continue to do what it’s always done. It will provide a refuge for Hispanic immigrants. It will hold mass twice a day. And it will celebrate December 12 with singing and dancing, drums and bells, and thousands of parishioners. And the national shrine will be “a big gift that we have for our diocese,” Belmontes says, “and also for our community.”