Luis Ruiz, a fourth-grade student at St. Josaphat Parish School is accustomed watching his mother, Maria Flores Ruiz, create elaborate decorations in their home for most of the major Catholic holidays. She creates detailed table-scapes and vignettes in their home, utilizing fabric, paint, statuary, relics, candles and other items. When Luis proudly showed some photos of her decorations to his principal, Karen Strasser, she was eager to utilize the woman’s talents in the school.
“On Christmas Day, I went to Mass at Holy Hill and received a relic from the statue of Our Lady of Good Success in Quito, Ecuador. The relics are few and far between, but it was given to me after Mass by a friend. I was so amazed and grateful to receive it,” Strasser said. “The Feast of Our Lady of Good Success is Feb. 2, which is also the Presentation of Jesus. I wanted to see if Maria could find a way to display the relic beneath a 15-foot image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that we had painted over the summer.”
Strasser contacted Maria and explained what she wanted to do on the school’s stage with the image and the relic. Flores Ruiz created the display using the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a backdrop. She strung lights around and behind the image, and used ribbons, candles, roses and more.
“It was extraordinarily beautiful,” said Strasser. “She did this all with no direction and then told me, ‘Wait until you see what I am doing for Lent.’ I told her she was hired. She doesn’t get paid anything, but she was hired.”
Naturally creative, Flores Ruiz explained that her ideas come from the many decorations her mother and grandmother used to do in their homes in Mexico.
“I enjoy doing this and try to do something in our home for every holiday,” Maria said. “I don’t normally do it as big as I did for the school, but smaller for our home. On Valentine’s Day, I set up candles in the shape of a rosary, and displayed pictures of my dad and brother who had died. I like to shine the light on moments that are faith-filled or Catholic holidays and spiritually connected to our own life.”
Luis is very proud of his mother and appreciates the great effort she goes to for their family.
“We prayed rosaries for my grandpa and uncle, who both had died, and it was the anniversary of their deaths because they both died within a couple of days of each other,” he said. “She does lots of beautiful things for the holidays in our home for us.”
One of the more beautiful aspects of Flores Ruiz’s creativity, explained Maureen McCourt, sixth-grade homeroom and middle school ELA teacher, is her influence in helping the school hold on to Mexican culture.
“Our school is 98 percent Hispanic, and she is helping to keep their heritage alive by educating us in Mexican traditions,” McCourt said. “Maria embraces the faith and helps it come alive in our schools. I hadn’t known many of the Mexican traditions, but Maria is teaching all of us; so we can keep it going for our students.”
To create the school’s Lenten display, Flores Ruiz garnered the assistance of her brother, who helped her create the three massive wooden crosses. She also had him help her bring in large rocks for the display, something Strasser was shocked to see on the school’s security camera.
“I wasn’t sure when everything would be delivered and saw these guys coming in to the school on the camera with these huge wooden crosses and massive rocks,” Strasser said. “It shocked me a bit at first. I was thinking, ‘What the heck?’”
The colorful display also features yards of fabric in purples, pinks, beige, blues and peach, which Strasser said came from the gift store across from the Basilica.
“It was closing, so I brought Maria over there and while we were looking through items that might work for the display, we found a big box of fabric with lots of purple in there, so we are happy that part of this display comes from the Basilica gift shop,” she said.
Flores Ruiz said she hopes the schoolchildren, teachers and staff feel happy and learn more about their Catholic Faith.
“Some who come here may not believe in God or may not know a lot about our faith, so I hope the kids will talk about the display with their families and through some act of the Holy Spirit, ignite the faith they had forgotten and bring them back to Church,” she said. “I know it might be a long shot, but if the kids get excited, it might begin a conversation at home and maybe their moms and dads will come back to the Church.”
For McCourt, whose three middle school classes currently meet in the gym next to the stage, she is certain the children will bring the discussions home to their families.
“The kids were absolutely amazed, and I was amazed and moved by the beauty of this Lenten display. I got tears in my eyes and almost cried for all this school mom did for us,” McCourt said. “This is so beautiful and speaks to who we are as a school and as a strong family community.”
The celebration of Christ’s Passion are the three most important days in the Church calendar, said Flores Ruiz. She wants to ensure that Mexican families don’t check their faith at the door to assimilate completely into American culture.
“It is important to us to keep the faith alive,” she said. “I like being able to share our culture and am happy St. Josaphat School is welcoming and celebrating it.”