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Thornton packed as thousands pay homage to Fatima

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Gary Ricafrente

Posted: Monday, October 17, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 6:47 am, Mon Oct 17, 2011.

As is the norm for a week in October, Thornton is transformed from a small, quiet, isolated community off Interstate 5 into Grand Central Station Portuguese style.

North Sacramento Boulevard, the street that houses two of Thornton's most prominent locations — New Hope School and Mater Ecclesiae Catholic Church — was transformed into a walkway during the weekend with vendors selling souvenirs and other items.

The church was busy with several Masses for a solid week as visitors payed homage to Our Lady of Fatima, a title given to the Virgin Mary as she appeared in apparitions reported by three shepherd children at Fatima in Portugal. These occurred on the 13th day of six consecutive months in 1917, starting on May 13.

According to The Fatima Network website, Fatima came with a message from God that the whole world would be at peace and that many souls would go to heaven if her requests were listened to and obeyed.

Fatima said that war is a punishment for sin and that God would punish the world for its sins by means of war, hunger, persecution of the church and persecution of the Holy Father, the pope, unless people listened to and obeyed the commands of God, according to The Fatima Network.

The 41st annual festival in Thornton is also a joyous time, with young ladies becoming queens and princesses, a free meal for attendees, parades, an auction, music, dancing and two bullfights in St. John's Arena, located behind the Portuguese Hall.

Dozens of buses lined Sacramento Boulevard, with visitors coming from as far as San Diego, Artesia and Canada, said festival President Mary Jo Meirinho, of Modesto.

"It's a beautiful little city," she said of Thornton.

Thornton's Portuguese festival is one of the biggest because a statue of the Virgin Mary reportedly shed actual tears and moved 20 feet or more to the altar — all by itself.

In 1981, reports of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima moving, untouched by human hands, came from several parishioners at St. Anne's mission church in Thornton, Mater Ecclesiae. It put Thornton on the map in a big way.

"They hear about the miracle — that's why they come," said Gary Ricafrente, who attends Mater Ecclesiae and serves Communion and Eucharistic ministry each Sunday.

Due to the crowds, Masses are held outdoors, just north of Thornton's Catholic church. The tall Fatima statue, which is kept safely inside the church all year, comes outside for the festival. Dozens of people stood in line on Sunday to pay homage to the statue. It was taken back inside on Sunday night.

Ricafrente didn't say the statue actually moved in 1981, but he believes there's something to it.

"I believe that because of my faith, her spirit is here," Ricafrente said. "Some who are sick pray here, and some got cured. That's what I heard."

Ricafrente was busy on Sunday selling special candles and making sure it didn't get too crowded inside the church. Two women asked for holy water, but festival officials ran out. As Ricafrente said, water isn't holy unless a priest blesses it.

Meirinho, the festival president, said the weather was perfect for the festival. A lovely singer from New Jersey, Natalie Pires, performed the Fado, which is kind of like opera to the Portuguese, at Saturday's bullfight. A matador from Spain, Vera Sanchez (despite the female-sounding name, Vera is a man, Meirinho said), performed with his 15-year-old son.

Sunday morning was highlighted with a parade full of cows and oxen brought in from all over the Central Valley, Meirinho said.

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