Day of the Children: St. Leonard Parish in Pelican Rapids celebrates beloved tradition

A  Mexican tradition since 1924, el Diá  de los Niños, or Day of the Children, found its way to St. Leonard Parish in Pelican Rapids.

“We are thinking about the kids,” event coordinator Gloria Villa Gomez said. “Children in Mexico are celebrated on April 30 every year and we wanted to bring this tradition to our parish community.”

The children were invited to choose a rosary to keep. (Dianne Towalski / The Central Minnesota Catholic)

Villa Gomez fondly recalls celebrating el Diá de los Niños  as a child while growing up in Mexico.

 “At school, the teachers would tell us to bring a plate, cup and spoon, and we would get excited as children because we immediately knew something special was happening. The teachers would provide a small gift of food each year,” Villa Gomez said.

“In our neighborhood, all of the moms would get together and, even without much money, they would buy a cake and split it among the families.”

In Pelican Rapids, they face similar challenges.

“It is a bit expensive but we want to have an event that is free to attend,” said Villa Gomez.

To defray some of the costs, volunteers sell snacks at the soccer games during the summer. The local Knights of Columbus and some local businesses also provide support.

This year’s celebration began in the church with a blessing of the children and their parents by Deacon Mario Mancilla. Once the blessing was complete, over 50 children led by a band, sang and danced throughout the church praising God and celebrating their faith.

After the blessing and music in the church, the children and their parents were invited downstairs for activities, games and food.

“The beauty of this tradition is that it has been very well received by our children, most of whom were born in the United States and do not recall the traditions in Mexico,” Deacon Mancilla said.

Upon entering the basement of the church, participants were delighted in the brightly-colored decorations, variety of carnival games, photo booth, prizes and treats. Dinner of macaroni and cheese and pizza was served.

Villa Gomez, a mother of three, has coordinated the event for the last 10 years with many volunteers from the parish, including her parents. Her sisters and their families have also pitched in.

“Everyone comes together to use their talents. Some people decorate, some prepare the food, some created balloon animals, others volunteer to operate the games or with setting up or cleaning up. It takes many people.”

She added, “It is worth all the work when I see the excitement in the faces of the children and how they praise God with their singing and dancing.”

Meet Deacon Mario Mancilla

This January, the Diocese of St. Cloud expanded its reach for its Multicultural Ministries Office by adding a satellite office in Pelican Rapids in alignment with Bishop Patrick Neary’s priorities to explore and honor the Latino presence.

Deacon Mario Mancilla began serving part time for the diocese, and in July, his position as Latino ministries manager will expand to full time.

Deacon Mancilla and his wife Alejandra have been living in Pelican Rapids since 2001. They have three children and two granddaughters.

“God brought me to Pelican Rapids for reasons I am still trying to fully understand.  I have recognized everything God has done in our community and that helps me and encourages me to move forward,” Deacon Mancilla said.

As a child, Deacon Mancilla lived with his family in Guatemala City.  He witnessed his mother praying daily.  Although they did not attend Mass regularly, he fondly remembers traveling three to four hours to the Bascílica de Esquipulas annually, a tradition he continues each time he returns to Guatemala.

“When I was a kid, I did not attend a faith program,” Deacon Mancilla said.  “My priorities were working and going to school.”

He aspired to become an electrician in Guatemala, but God had other plans for him. When he was 16, he moved with his mother and stepfather, three sisters and two brothers to join his brother already living in California.

“My focus was on learning English and finding work,” he said.

For many years he worked in a factory in California but, encouraged by his sister who had already moved to Minnesota, he moved to Pelican Rapids to work in the turkey plant.

At that time, he and Alejandra alternated work shifts to care for their children. He was working nights, and she worked a day shift.

“Alejandra started going to church and invited me to go to Sunday morning Mass. It was difficult because I used to sleep during the day,” Deacon Mancilla said.  “Soon, I began to make an effort to go to Mass with her on Sundays and was invited by the priest to attend a Koinonia retreat.”

He was reluctant, but Alejandra convinced him to go.

“That’s where it all started,” he said.  “I had an encounter with Jesus there.”

The Mancilla family yearned for more within their parish community.  Although there was Mass in Spanish, there were no additional programs.

“We started Bible studies and Holy Hours but initially, we didn’t know how to do those activities, and we asked people to help us,” he said. “That’s how everything started. I was learning and teaching at same time and my faith grew.

“One day I promised if it was God’s will, I would serve as a deacon, and doors began to open for me.”

After his ordination in 2022, Deacon Mancilla walks forward in faith, with the rosary and his dedication to the Eucharist, hoping to make a difference in his role.

“Our community needs to keep instructing the faith and evangelizing adults. I hope to encourage vocations, but most of all, I want all to recognize that they can become their best selves by knowing, serving and loving God.”

Author: Amber Walling

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