Participants in an Oct. 25 liturgy honoring “El Señor de los Milagros” (“The Lord of the Miracles”) prepare to process into St. William Church in Northeast Philadelphia. The annual October devotion to Christ’s passion, which originated in Peru, took on additional significance for Peruvians worldwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Sister Rose Patrice Kuhn, I.H.M.)

At one area parish, a beloved autumn remembrance of Christ’s passion took on a deeper meaning due to COVID-19.

“I feel this brought the Peruvian parishioners close to the shared suffering of their families and friends in Peru,” said I.H.M. Sister Rose Patrice Kuhn, director of Hispanic ministry at St. William Parish in Northeast Philadelphia.

For the past 22 years, those parishioners have gathered every October to venerate an image of El Señor de los Milagros (“The Lord of the Miracles”).

Originating in 17th-century Peru, the devotion centers on an image of the crucified Christ beneath the Father and the Spirit, with Mary and John at the foot of the cross. An Angolan slave living in Lima painted the scene on the wall of a storeroom where a prayer group met. The image inexplicably survived two devastating earthquakes in 1655 and 1687, as well as a misguided attempt by authorities to destroy it in 1671.

In gratitude for the image’s preservation, devotees began to process through the streets of Lima with a replica of the painting, whose original is housed in the sanctuary of Lima’s Las Nazarenas Church.

Typically, annual El Señor de los Milagros processions through Peru’s capital have drawn up to 3 million participants. Due to COVID, the Lima celebration was moved online, with Las Nazarenas livestreaming an Oct. 28 liturgy and churches throughout the Lima Archdiocese ringing their bells afterwards.

At St. William, organizers swapped the traditional neighborhood procession – which draws hundreds – for a simple walk up the aisle during the parish’s regular Spanish Mass this past Sunday.

A replica of the original image of El Señor de los Milagros (“The Lord of the Miracles”) was used in an Oct. 25 celebration at St. William Parish in Northeast Philadelphia, where a second replica of the image is permanently installed in the church sanctuary. (Gina Christian)

The Oct. 25 liturgy was celebrated by Peruvian native Father Remigio Morales, a priest of the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (Sodality of Christian Life) order who is now in residence at St. Agatha-St. James Parish in Philadelphia. Concelebrating the Mass was St. William pastor Father Alfonso Concha, assisted by several seminarians from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood – including Alfredo Tuesta, who like Father Morales hails from Peru.

The gathering capped a month-long series of novenas, rosaries and other prayers as part of el mes morado, “the purple month,” as October is known in Peru. The color symbolizes the penitential, humble supplication to Christ that characterizes devotion to El Señor de los Milagros.

Those prayers have become even more urgent as COVID has resurged globally. To date, close to 45 million have been infected throughout the world, with the international death toll topping 1.1 million. Peru, now under a strict lockdown and state of emergency through Oct. 31, has counted over 892,000 cases and more than 34,000 deaths.

The suffering behind those statistics was on the minds of El Señor de los Milagros devotees, said Sr. Rose.

“The traditional hymn for (the procession) includes the line a ti venimos … implorar tu bendición, ‘we come to you to beg your blessing,” she said. “Now, we are very aware that we need the Lord’s blessing.”