How Some LA Churches Use Día De Los Muertos To Honor Those Lost Due to COVID-19

Local LA churches are finding special ways to observe the day of the dead during a pandemic

This year, as Los Angeles celebrates El Día de Los Muertos, the day of the dead, there is no way to escape the weight of the pandemic.

Day of the Dead, as it is celebrated in Mexico, in parts of Latin America and in LA, has ancient native roots. It also has strong ties to Catholicism and coincides with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, respectively. November 1st and 2nd

“When the Europeans arrived, that celebration was Christianized,” said Ernesto Vega of the Office of Religious Education for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

While individual parishes have long celebrated Día de Los Muertos, the archdiocese began celebrating it officially in recent years, following the appointment of Archbishop Jose Gomez, Vega said.

Gomez will preside over the seventh annual Archdiocese of Día de Los Muertos prayer service Monday night at Calvary Cemetery in eastern Los Angeles. The event will not be public, but will be virtual and live streamed, Vega said because of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, some local Catholic churches are marking the celebration this year with special memorials and services in honor of those who died during the pandemic.

People place marigolds and other flowers in graves in a grassy cemetery.

Preparations for the Dia de Los Muertos at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles.

(Brian Feinzimer

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LAist)

A ‘photo mural’ and an altar

A large plaque hangs on the wall at Our Lady of Rosary in Talpa Church in Boyle Heights, not far from the altar.

On it are pictures of several dozen people. Some are older, some are younger. There’s a man standing in a park. Another man in a cowboy hat. A woman wearing pearls. A young man with a small child.

Church volunteer Elizabeth Gallardo pointed to the pictures of two men one recent afternoon.

“They are brothers,” she said in Spanish. “I knew them. They grew up in this community. They went to [parochial] school here when they were children. ”

Both died of coronavirus. The same thing most people did in the pictures on the church wall.

Pictures of people who died during the pandemic, on a blackboard mounted on the wall of a church.

The “photo mural” in Our Lady of Talpa Church contains photographs of parishioners and their loved ones who died during the pandemic.

(Brian Feinzimer

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LAist)

Our Lady of Talpa, a predominantly Latino parish in a pandemic-stricken community, lost several parishioners and family members, as did congregations throughout the city.

In the church sanctuary, Gallardo points to several faces on the wall: A man attending her wedding. The mother of her sister-in-law who died in Guadalajara without her daughter being able to see her. A woman who was a colleague of Gallardo’s husband.

The pastor of the Church, Father Jorge Chalaco, said that all this loss led to the idea of ​​creating what he calls the photo mural.

“These are not just people who died of COVID,” he said, “but people who died during this time of COVID.”

Although most people represented here have contracted the virus, Chalaco said those who did not, along with their families, also suffered because of it. People who became ill were separated from their loved ones who could not visit them in the hospital, or travel to see them or even give them a proper burial.

Chalaco earlier this year asked parishioners to submit photos to the memorial; Gallardo, who works with catechism students, put it together with his class.

Both said the idea is to help families grieve and heal.

“For a family member or for me, it means a lot to see the picture here,” Chalaco said, pointing to a few pictures: one of his uncle, another of his prescription sponsor, both of whom succumbed to the virus. “When I pray, I can see them.”

The photo mural went up in the spring, in the spirit of Easter, Chalaco said. So, all last month, he collected several pictures of his loved ones from parishioners, these for a Día de Los Muertos altar.

A priest stands in front of a traditional Dia e los Muertos altar.

Father Jorge Chalaco with the Dia de Los Muertos altar at Our Lady of Talpa in Boyle Heights.

This is the first time the church has had one in several years, he said. Unlike the photo mural, the altar is not specifically tied to the pandemic – anyone was welcome to bring a picture. But Chalaco felt it was something his parishioners, most of whom have roots in Mexico, needed and wanted.

“This is a very Mexican tradition,” said Chalaco, who is from Ecuador, which has different Day of the Dead traditions, “but it is now ours, the whole community.”

The altar and photo mural will be part of Our Lady Of Talpa’s Day of the Dead services on Tuesday.

‘A small cemetery’ in a church

Across the city in West LA, another parish that has lost members planned to unveil and bless its own pandemic memorial during a special Mass Monday night.

The COVID-19 Memorial at St. Sebastian Church contains 40 photographs arranged in carved circles within a giant metal frame, which will hang indefinitely inside the church.

A large COVID-19 memorial in a metal frame hangs on the wall of a church.

Covid-19 Memorial at St. Sebastian Catholic Church in West Los Angeles.

(Courtesy of St. Sebastian Catholic Church)

One recent afternoon, a couple of parishioners gathered there to look at photocopies of the work in progress.

George Martinez found the picture of his father, Jorge Martinez, a longtime resident of the community who, along with his wife, Maria, had long been involved in the church.

He said his father did not have COVID-19 but had a heart attack while being treated at the hospital for other health problems. Due to the pandemic, the family was separated.

“We could not be with him,” Maria Martinez said in Spanish through tears. “That’s the hardest part, because we saw him die during a video call.”

The family is still broken up over it. When their pastor suggested the idea of ​​a memorial for the Day of the Dead, George Martinez submitted his father’s picture.

“I think just taking this day of Día de Los Muertos to really reflect on his life, the legacy he left behind, is something we can truly cherish,” George Martinez said.

St. Sebastian is a unique parish: Among its members are families like Martinezes, who have roots in Mexico, along with many French immigrants and other French speakers. The priest, Father German Sanchez, is from Colombia, but he lived in France for several years and speaks the language. Trade fairs are offered in English, Spanish and French.

The COVID-19 memorial was built by one of the parish children, Jean-Christophe Poulain, who worked with Sanchez to design it.

Poulain understands the grief of his parishioners: His mother died in France during the pandemic for other reasons – and he could not travel there to bury her.

“I was stuck here,” Poulain said. “It was so sad. I saw the video of the funeral and it was just my brothers and sisters. It was a very big cathedral with only three people, and my mother in the little coffin. It was super, super sad.”

Father Sanchez comforted both families – and many others in his parish. Sometimes he did final rituals over Zoom. When he was unable to hold funerals in the church, he accompanied them to funerals.

“Many times we could do no more than one blessing and it was only eight or ten of us,” he said. “It was something very difficult for the families, and also for me.”

That is why Sanchez wanted to create a memorial that people can visit often, to have their own place to mourn and reflect. The plan is to have it up for at least a year, maybe longer.

“Like a little graveyard in our church,” said Sanchez, “as a little reminder in our church of all the suffering which these families endured in this time… as a little medicine to soothe the deep pain of these families.”

But it is a memorial to something more: to the life that the people represented in it lived, and to love and family ties, all that is celebrated during Día de Los Muertos, where the souls of lost loved ones are welcomed back to visit.

Sanchez felt the holiday was the perfect time to bless the memorial.

“It’s a way of saying they did not disappear,” he said. “That they are in another life, that they are still alive.”

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