The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops announced this month that it will publish a ritual blessing for the quinceañera, but some Mission District residents said the coming-of-age celebration for Latinas on their 15th birthday is more about the party than the church.

“I guess it should be about the religious aspect, but it isn’t,” said Patty Alvarez, who works at Dore Studio on

Sixty percent of Doré Photography Studio's customers come for quinceañera portraits.

Sixty percent of Doré Photography Studio's customers come for quinceañera portraits.

Mission St., where she estimated that 60 percent of the customers come for quinceañera portraits. “It’s about the dress. It’s about the makeup. It’s about the hair, and the jewelry, and the pictures, and just the party.”

But it hasn’t always been this way.

The tradition was born in ancient Aztec culture, but when Spanish settlers arrived in the territory that comprises present-day Mexico, they adopted the celebration as a Catholic ritual. As explorers and missionaries spread Catholicism throughout Latin America, they also spread the quinceañera. The mass service became a traditional part of the celebration, and for many, it remains significant, church representatives and Mission District residents said.

“It is the most important thing,” said Gloria Martinez, who celebrated her own quinceañera as a girl in Mexico and threw one for her daughter three years ago in San Francisco. Martinez said that while her daughter’s event was far more extravagant than her own, they shared an emphasis on the role of the church.

The bilingual ritual book, which was published on Sept. 19, lists standard customs for the religious aspect of the event. While the book emphasizes that practices may vary, it outlines a liturgy by which the girl may commit herself to living a Christian life, with the priest and the congregation confirming her commitment. About one-third of U.S. Catholics are Latino, and their numbers are increasing. The book’s publication is an attempt to officially recognize a specifically Latino Catholic tradition, church representatives said in a press release.

But one look at the numerous Web sites dedicated to the parties or a flip through the pages of Bay Area Quinceañera magazine shows a different side of the celebration. There, advertisements for caterers, photographers, disc jockeys and limousines sit next to Spanish-language tips on how to prepare for the ceremonial first dance and what to wear to “shine like a princess.”

This was the part of the party that enraptured Alejandra Lluberas when she turned 15 two years ago.

“I just wanted it to be the best party,” said Lluberas, who had a small mass with her family before the main festivities. “I wanted everyone to have fun.”

But quinceañeras regularly begin with a Catholic mass, said Father Ulysses D’Aquila, who has performed many as the priest of Mission Dolores Basilica.

“It looks like a mini wedding,” said D’Aquila, who left Mission Dolores two months ago and is now at St. Kevin’s Church in Bernal Heights. “It’s this incredibly expensive coming-out party, but we do think the mass should be an important part of it.”

While at Mission Dolores, D’Aquila imposed restrictions on who the church would allow to celebrate the quinceañera, mandating that the girls have already been baptized and received their First Holy Communion. The policy, which has remained in place since D’Aquila’s departure, also requires proof of mandatory mass attendance.

“You have the girl kneeling in front of the altar, being blessed during the mass, but if she doesn’t really go to church, then what’s the significance of it?” D’Aquila said. “If the girl doesn’t really know what’s going on, then it’s just a party. And if it’s just a party, then who cares?”

D’Aquila said he knows some priests who prohibit their churches from being used for quinceañeras, but others have no restrictions on who may use their church for the celebration. He said that despite his concerns, the tradition has an important place among Catholic rituals.

Alvarez said that in her native Nicaragua, the celebrations are often more religiously-centered, sometimes because families simply don’t have enough money to throw an elaborate party. But she doesn’t think that the official ritual blessing will subdue the festivities. “Latinos are always looking for any excuse to party,” she said.