Growing up in Our Lady of Guadalupe parish, church was the center of life for the six girls and two boys of the Arellano family on St. Paul's West Side.

On Thursday, hundreds of mourners from their families and the broader community returned that devotion, helping lay to rest sisters Mary Preciado and Genevieve Arellano Arias, who died just over two weeks apart.

"They were always together. They were always at church, and then everybody went to Grandma's house," said Marylouise Montez Stewart, whose mother, Rebecca Montez, is one of two remaining sisters.

"They started the enchilada dinner here at the church" — a fundraiser held on Fridays during Lent — "but the church eventually took it over because it got so big."

As nieces and nephews, children and grandchildren gathered by the baptismal font, smiles and hugs were exchanged. So was grief, as tears flowed over the loss of two members of one of this historic church's foundational families.

Preciado, 82, died May 25 after being struck by a hit-and-run driver while she was gardening in her Mounds View yard. Aunt Jenny, as Genevieve Arellano Arias was known — she had no children of her own but was a surrogate mother to dozens — died May 9 of health complications. She was 89.

A third sister, Consuelo "Connie" Arellano Carrillo, died in February. Her daughter, Sylvia Carrillo, said that her mother is awaiting burial at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.

"She was a spitfire. These sisters all were," she said. "They were the first to volunteer. They were always the first to show up. They came on Saturdays to help clean the church."

The church was founded on the West Side Flats in 1931. Rosemary Campos, president of the Society of Our Lady of Guadalupe — which raises money for the church and provides honor guards at parish gatherings — said the Arellano family "has been integral to this church for many years," starting a women's church organization called Guadalupanas.

They also started the Lenten fundraiser many decades ago, spending their own money on supplies and equipment. They decided on cheese enchiladas as an alternative to fish.

"They did it on their own," Campos said. "And it grew from there."

Greeting well-wishers nearby and holding hands were the two surviving Arellano siblings, Montez and Aurora Frelix. As Aurora rested her head on Rebecca's shoulder and smiled, the decades seemed to melt away.

Growing up, the six girls did everything together. They never fought, Frelix said. And if they did, they made up the next day. Rebecca, they agreed, was the best cook.

"I have a lot of specialties," Montez said. "Enchiladas, refried beans, chorizo with huevos, pork with peppers."

She still makes her homemade tortillas. Flour, though, not corn.

"Years ago, in the '30s, there were very few Mexicans here," she said. "So there were no corn tortillas. We made flour tortillas."

Why was her family so devoted to this church?

"This parish was our home," Montez said. "I mean, we made all the novenas in May and December. Easter Thursday, we would go visit all the churches. This was our social life. This was it."

Our Lady of Guadalupe pulled the entire community together, she said.

"My husband lived across the street from me. I've known him my whole life," she said. "That's 70 years. Seventy-one this September."

A sixth sister died several years ago, and now that only two of them are left, what comes next?

"Oh, we'll be together," Rebecca said. "They'll probably come over for dinner."

James Walsh • 612-673-7428