DENVER – When relics of St. Thérèse toured the United States in 1999 they drew enormous crowds of pilgrims in lines that stretched around cathedrals and churches.

Now Americans will have a chance to venerate part of the tilma of St. Juan Diego, the recently canonized Aztec Indian, as the Tilma of Tepeyac Tour visits 17 cities in the United States.

The piece of the burlap cloak on which the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared is being called a special blessing for Latin American Catholics.

“It's a wonderful gift to the people of our archdiocese to be the first stop on the pilgrimage, particularly since we're opening the new Centro San Juan Diego this summer,” said Auxiliary Bishop José Gomez of Denver, referring to a new outreach center for Hispanic immigrants. “I know our growing Hispanic community – and the entire Catholic community – will feel blessed to see up close a piece of St. Juan Diego's miraculous tilma right here in Denver.”

Latin American Catholics such as Carolina Medina, who is from the state of Chihuahua in Mexico and lives in Denver, say they are proud that Americans will see this piece of their culture.

“It is marvelous that [the relic] will be here because it is very, very holy for all Mexicans, Latin Americans and Americans,” she said.

The tour is sponsored by the Association for Holy Relics, a group that is dedicated to raising public awareness of saints and their relics.

“At this event we will place Our Mother in the hearts and minds of the faithful, and for a brief moment, through the love of her children, connect heaven and earth,” said Thomas Serafin, the association's president.

“Especially during this tumultuous time in our history,” he said, “we hope that this pilgrimage will give those people who cannot go to Mexico City an opportunity to share in the graces and blessings bestowed by Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Mother of God and the Empress of the Americas.”

Our Lady of Guadalupe also is patroness of the cause of life and of the unborn.

The Knights of Columbus is helping with printing and financing for the tour and is providing an honor guard at each stop. In fact, the relic is scheduled to be at the Knights’ Museum in New Haven, Conn., June 6–15.

The Family Rosary Society in Easton, Mass., which will be sending 1,000 rosaries to each venue, is co-sponsoring the tour, and the Association for Holy Relics is encouraging dioceses to have time set aside during the visit for the recitation of the rosary.

“The tilma tour is a way of reminding people of Father [Patrick] Peyton's saying, which centers on the recitation of the rosary,” said Father Thomas Feeley of the Family Rosary Society. “The family that prays together stays together.”

Information Apostolate for Holy Relics (818) 522-2005 www.relictour.org

Important Gift

The relic, the only one in the United States, is a half-inch square swatch from St. Juan Diego's tilma. It will be displayed hanging from the neck of a 17th-century statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

It was a gift from Mexico City Archbishop Luís María Martínez to Los Angeles Archbishop John Cantwell in 1941 and has been kept in the archdiocesan archives under the care of Msgr. Francis Weber since 1981.

But its history stretches back much further.

Mary's appearance in the Americas had a significant impact on the spread of Christianity in the New World, said University of Dallas Spanish Catholic historian Alexandra Wilhelmsen.

“Our Lady of Guadalupe's appearance was extremely important for the conversion of the Indians,” she said. “When Our Lady appeared to them, it validated what the Spanish explorers were saying about the new religion. From then on, the conversions were massive.”

The year was 1531 and the bishop of Mexico, Don Juan de Zumarraga, had been ardently petitioning Our Lady to send him Castilian roses as an acknowledgement that she had heard his prayers for peace between the Europeans and Aztecs.

Then, on a cold December morning, 57-year-old Juan Diego would witness the first of four apparitions just as he was embarking on his 24-mile trek to a suburb of Tenochtitlan, modern-day Mexico City, to attend Mass.

When Our Lady appeared to him at the foot of Tepeyac Hill, it was near the temple ruins of the Aztec's blood-thirsty mother goddess, where thousands of lives had been sacrificed, and she asked him to pick flowers that had mysteriously popped up and take them to Bishop Zumarraga and say that she was “the Mother of the true God” and wanted a church built there.

The Indian obediently gathered up the roses in his tilma and went to the bishop.

When he unfurled his burlap cloak and the roses fell to the floor, the miraculous image of Our Lady was emblazoned there.

Artists say only a miracle could explain how the exquisite image could have been painted on such a coarse and porous surface.

And to this day, scientists cannot explain how the tilma, which would normally last only 10 to 15 years, has survived for close to five centuries.

“It brings tears to my eyes that I will have the privilege of seeing a piece of the tilma,” said Lucy Martinez, a Mexican-American parishioner at the Cathedral Santuario de Guadalupe in Dallas and vice-president of Las Guadalupanas, a women's group devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe that promotes her devotion. “We're very honored, very proud and very happy.”

Michael Zachowicz, a member of Queen of Martyrs parish in Cheektowaga, N.Y., said the tilma tour will help remind Catholics that “all of us are capable of becoming saints like St. Juan Diego.

“Relics such as the tilma remind us and inspire us to imitate the lives of the saints,” he said. “We only need to use the spiritual tools that God gave us – the sacraments and the rosary – to help strengthen us to overcome our sinful nature.”

At the end of the tour, the tilma will return in time for the standing-room-only, four-day-long festive celebration at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles that celebrates the feast days of St. Juan Diego on Dec. 9 and Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12.

Whether the relic returns to the archives or has a special shrine created for it hasn't been determined yet, said Carolina Guevara, spokes-woman for Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles.

But whatever happens, she said, “the Virgin has a very special place here in the archdiocese and we look forward to welcoming back the tilma upon its return.”

Lisa Makson is based in Alexandria, Virginia.