Children dressed in traditional costumes with masks wait to enter the church. Sunday December 9 2012 Celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Nicholas Church in Egg Harbor City. (The Press of Atlantic City / Ben Fogletto)

Ben Fogletto

EGG HARBOR CITY — Hundreds marched through the streets and filled the pews at St. Nicholas Church on Sunday for the annual Our Lady of Guadalupe festival.

The tradition celebrates a major Mexican holiday during which millions descend on Mexico City to mark the Virgin Mary’s appearance before St. Juan Diego in 1531, an event that contributed to Catholicism’s spread throughout the country.

“The faith these people have is unbelievable,” said Kathy Garcia, a volunteer and organizer, referring to how much the holiday means to Catholics in Mexico.

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About 500 people attended Sunday’s celebration, which began with a caravan of more than 80 decorated cars driving from Egg Harbor Township to Egg Harbor City. As they passed the church on St. Louis Avenue, priests sprinkled holy water on their windshields.

Most of the attendees came from throughout Atlantic County. With a growing Hispanic population in the region, the event continues to grow, as well.

“Every year, more people come,” Abel Espinoza, of Egg Harbor Township, said.

After arriving, the congregants paraded around the block. At the front, men carried a statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and behind them were several groups in traditional Mexican attire.

Women in light blue dresses shook maracas in rhythm with a pounding drum beat. Children dressed as chinelos, wearing colorful robes, masks and elaborate hats.

A Spanish language Mass followed, and as the dancers entered a mariachi band played from the rear balcony. The crowd cheered and took pictures, and the music and applause echoed outside the building and into the neighborhood.

Erika Ramirez, 12, dressed as Mary to re-enact her appearance before Juan Diego, who was played by 9-year-old Irving Delgado.

The celebration continued into the evening, with more dancing and music as well as cultural cuisines in the adjacent cafeteria.

The holiday is held on Dec. 12 in Mexico. Several other churches in South Jersey plan to have special services Wednesday to mark the day.

Garcia, of Pleasantville, said that much of Sunday’s celebration was modeled on what is done in Mexico City. To further inform local residents about their culture, especially those born in America, she hopes to start organizing trips to the Mexican capital.

Garcia said visiting Mexico City in the past showed her how important religious life is in that country.

“These people are very, very dedicated,” she said.

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