EMBOSCADA, PARAGUAY - Hundreds of Catholic parishioners in Paraguay donned bird-like costumes and paraded down the streets this week to honor a 16th-century saint said to possess miraculous powers.
The celebration in the municipality of Emboscada, some 45 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of the capital of Asuncion, paid tribute to St. Francis Solano, who was born in Spain in 1549 and died in Peru in 1610. He was canonized in 1726.
Wearing a suit made from the feathers of six hens, Maria Estela Pereira said she had come to show thanks.
"I suffer from arthritis and after praying four years ago to St. Francis Solano to allow me to move from one place to another without pain, he granted me a miracle," said the 52-year-old widow, a mother of 11 children.
Modesto Martinez, a parish priest in the nearby city of San Bernardino, said there was no scholarly explanation for the procession, but birds were believed to have sung to St. Francis Solano as he lay on his deathbed.
"It is likely that the story, if real, has given parishioners the belief that St. Francis Solano is a protector of birds," he said.
There is no record of the saint ever visiting Paraguay.
Pedro Balbuena, a 71-year-old chapel musician, said the modern-day tradition grew in popularity due to the work of Dominga Machuca, a villager who promoted the saint's image.
But Balbuena said the feathers actually symbolize Guaicuru Indians who would attack smaller tribes and Spanish colonizers to prevent them from stealing their food and weapons.
"Since they were superstitious, the villagers disguised themselves as birds to scare them away, and that's how they stopped being bothered by them," he said.