It felt like a secret gathering, though some people drove for hours to get here. Hundreds of people stood on the steps of the Mission Dolores Basilica, most holding sleepy children and roses wrapped in plastic.

A Virgen de Guadalupe celebration has been held in that location every December 12, since the Mission Dolores was founded in 1797. The services this year were gorgeous and theatrical, with a little boy acting out the role of Juan Diego and a shower of confetti falling from the ceiling to symbolize the rose petals the Virgen gave him. Volunteers at the church made 1,200 little statues of the Virgen out of wood as mementos for people who attended the service.

This year, because December 12 falls on a Sunday, the church will lead a procession down Dolores to 18th Street at the end of noon mass.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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