EL PASO, Texas — The growing memorial for victims of the El Paso massacre reflects the city’s deep roots in Catholicism: A painting of the Virgin Mary sits among teddy bears and candles embellished with religious imagery. White crosses are adorned with countless rosaries.
Founded by Catholic missionaries, the largely Hispanic city has 75 Catholic churches, including many that are pillars of their communities. Their fundraising bazaars known as kerméses are treasured events that draw hundreds of people with homemade food, music and games. In this time of tribulation, many of El Paso’s people turn to religious traditions for comfort and strength.
At Wednesday morning mass in St. Mark’s Catholic Church, 57-year-old Margarita Segura said the sermon about persevering in one’s faith resonated with her.
“That’s what I’m drawing on right now,” Segura said, explaining that the community and the nation can’t let the shooting “break our faith.”
Hundreds of people come and go at the memorial just north of the Walmart where a gunman opened fire on Saturday, leaving 22 people dead and about two dozen wounded. The white shooter reportedly targeted Hispanics, and eight Mexicans were among the dead.
The visitors drop off flowers, balloons, teddy bears and religious items. Sometimes large prayer circles are formed. Others sit vigil and pray the rosary, a string of beads with a cross at the end. The rosary includes several prayers that take at least 20 minutes to finish.
Maria Tovar was alone as she silently prayed the rosary for the victims.
“So many things happen every day, and this is the way I find peace,” Tovar said.
The missionaries who founded El Paso mixed their traditions with those of indigenous peoples, said Father Arturo J. Bañuelas, a lifelong resident who heads St. Mark’s. That “created a vibrant new expression of faith, where faith was not associated any longer with just an institution, but a way of living that influenced people’s way of life and their values.”
Pope Francis’s visit to neighboring Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, three years ago drew tens of thousands of El Paso residents who crossed the border to see him. Those who couldn’t get in stood in line for hours to pack an El Paso university football stadium, where the pope’s message was livestreamed. They cheered when his face came on giant screens.
So although many El Paso families might not necessarily be active in the church or even Catholic, they participate in old traditions like quinceañeras — the celebration of a girl turning 15— and baptisms and weddings.
The role of religion in American life has diminished over the last decade. While roughly 77 percent of Americans identify with some form of religion, the percentage of them who consider religion important has dropped in significant ways, according to research conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014, the latest available data.
Pew found that 53 percent of people surveyed found religion to be important in their lives, compared with 56 percent seven years earlier.
Bañuelas faces that challenge every day. He says it’s hard to attract young people who are unhappy with organized religion. But he also sees a lot of young people looking for meaning in their lives and turning to the church to find it.
“I see that very strongly. There’s a deeper hunger among young people,” he said.
For 43-year-old Heather Leos, religion is a major part of her everyday life. A Catholic, she walked with her daughters and did the sign of the cross in front of every victim’s cross at the memorial. Standing on the asphalt under a brutal sun, Leos said she prayed not just for victims but for the shooter’s family. She only wished she could have shown the young man love and hospitality.
Isela Munoz, a 50-year-old mother of four, is a non-denominational Christian. At the memorial, she joined a spontaneous prayer circle with her two daughters, leaning her head against their shoulders.
“I just believe that now is the time for us to know the lord, know his word, to reach out to people that have never heard of his mercy and grace,” Munoz said.