Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish
How did religion and immigration intersect in South Omaha?
The Growth of the Mexican Community and Retention of Culture in South Omaha
Religion and Community in South Omaha
The rich history of the Mexican-American community in South Omaha is paralleled by the growth of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, located at 23rd and O streets in 2013. Home to immigrant communities since its incorporation, South Omaha’s Mexican population grew from only 50 families in 1910 to more than 30,000 inhabitants by the 1990s. Though Protestant denominations have grown rapidly in recent decades, the vast majority of Mexican immigrants in South Omaha practice Catholicism. Unwelcome amid the local, primarily Irish and Eastern European parishes, Mexican Catholics were also encouraged by the Catholic Church to practice in a more “American” style; the early Catholic families longed for a parish of their own.
A 2013 video interviewing Father Damian Zuerlein, past priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe; Father Bernard Starman, current priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe; Loretta Ramirez, long time member; and Bill Gonzales, whose family were long time members.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish
In 1918 the small Mexican community in South Omaha tried to petition the bishop for their own church. They were unsuccessful because the Catholic Church wanted them to become more American in their religious practices. In response, the Mexican community started fundraising by selling tamales, cake and other foods. At the same time, they held raffles and dances. Finally, they raised enough money to rent a bakery on 21st and Q. The parish stayed in the bakery for just a few short years before they ran out of money, lost the lease, and had to start all over again. Fortunately, in 1928, the growing parish was able to rent a storefront on south 24th Street. Remaining in their rented home for a number of years, the parish flourished with the addition of new immigrants to the city. Our Lady of Guadalupe parish began a capital fundraising campaign in 1944 to establish a free-standing church of their own. It took 5 years to raise enough money and break ground on a permanent church. The cornerstone laying was in 1950 at 23rd and O, the present location of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and it opened in 1951. Since then, the parish has combined with St. Agnes and Assumption Catholic parishes. Finally, the church has expanded and remodeled the façade since the 1950s. The church has grown along with the community and has become a place called home to many. It is significant to Omaha’s Mexican Catholics for everything the parish has done.
This is a mosaic of our lady of Guadalupe, located in the apse of the church. It’s significant to the Mexican Catholic identity because it represents the story of Juan Diego. In December of 1531, Juan Diego, an Indian, was walking to church in Colonial Mexico City. He heard strains of music and as he looked he saw a beautiful young lady who was calling out his name. It turned out to be the Virgin Mary presenting herself to him. She told him to tell the bishop to build a church for her. The bishop didn’t believe him and asked for a sign that could prove he was speaking the truth. Juan Diego spoke to Guadalupe and she told him to go pick out roses and take them to the bishop. During that time, roses were not in season and should not have been in bloom. Diego did what he was told and took the roses to the bishop. When he opened his tilma, where he was wearing his roses, the bishop saw the gorgeous roses, but he also saw the beautiful image of Our Lady of Guadalupe impressed on his shirt. He then believed Juan Diego. Days later, they constructed her a church. The name Guadalupe means Gracious Lady in the Aztec tongue.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Annual Fiesta
The Our Lady of Guadalupe summer fiesta is a way parishioners maintain a connection between their Mexican and modern heritage. The parishioners of Our Lady of Guadalupe started this fiesta in 1966. The church has a big celebration with food, dancing, music, beauty contests, and fireworks. In the early years, the celebrations were several days long, but as the years progressed, it downsized to a one-day festival. But by the turn of the last century, it had been revitalized into a multi-day event. It is held at the church and the whole community is welcome. They usually have Aztec dancers at fiestas, who wear traditional costumes, headdresses and seed leggings called “Chachatotls” like in the picture shown. The leggings make a noise when they start dancing. The beating of the drums is supposed to represent a heartbeat. It ties religion to ancient culture.
For much of South Omaha’s early history, the area’s distinctive ethnic enclaves were indistinguishable from the churches that anchored them. For the Czech immigrants of Brown Park and the Polish community to the north of the stockyards, Assumption and Immaculate Conception respectively served as the cultural centers, schools, meeting-places, and preservers of Eastern European customs and traditions.
In the modern-day, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe) Parish serves an identical function, serving as a beacon for newly arrived immigrants and a spiritual center for generations of South Omaha Latinos. As the Spanish-speaking community has grown throughout the last few decades, so too has Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, which has recently absorbed Assumption and St Agnes (now St. Agnes-St. Inez), reflecting South Omaha’s shifting patterns of immigration. Our Lady of Guadalupe has also proudly played, and continues to play, an integral role in preserving uniquely Mexican cultural and religious practices for generations of parishioners, from the most recent arrivals to third or fourth-generation Mexican-Americans. The church has also played a role in advocating for immigrant rights, dispensing advice to parishioners, promoting ESL education, and supporting community leadership.
Despite our focus on Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, it would be misleading to suggest that the Catholic identity and Mexican-American identity are one in the same. In recent decades, evangelical Christianity has made significant inroads across the traditionally Catholic nations of Latin America, a trend that is clearly reflected in South Omaha as well. Denominations such as the Assembly of God and Jehovah’s Witnesses have developed a strong presence in South Omaha within recent years and are continuing to grow steadily, altering religious dynamics within the community. In the first two decades of the 21st century, South Omaha’s religious life remains in a constant state of evolution.
by: Quin Slovek and Katrina Jacobberger
2013 MIHV Project
"During my time in this program, I focused on the fiestas held at Our Lady of Guadalupe. The most significant thing I learned is that the church uses the fiestas to bring the community and their culture together."
— Antwan M.
"During this project, I focused on the story of our Lady of Guadalupe and its significant to the Mexican Catholic identity because in this community she represents the reaching out to the indigenous people and the poor."
— Arelis P.
"During my time in this program, I studied the construction of our Lady of Guadalupe and how the parish was able to raise the money for construction. The most significant thing I learned is how they struggled as a community to raise money in order to build a church that would help preserve their Mexican identity."
— Jordan W.
Arbelaez, Maria (2007). Religion and Community: Mexican Americans in South Omaha (1900-1980). OLLAS Special Report No. 4. Omaha, NE: Office of Latino/Latin American Studies (OLLAS) at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Erickson, D. (2000) E Pluribus Omaha: Immigrants All. Omaha, NE: Historical Society of Omaha and Lamplighter Press.
Douglas County Historical Society Clipping Files; Omaha World Herald
Durham Museum photo archives
Father Damian Zuerlein; oral history
Father Bernard Starman; oral history
Loretta Ramirez; oral history
Bill Gonzales; oral history
Project by: Antwan M., Arelis P., and Jordan W.