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The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe at 1170 N. River Road in Des Plaines is the most visited monument of its kind in the United States. Each year on Dec. 12, when the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, hundreds of thousands of people travel to the site — on foot, by horse, via semitrucks, on bicycles or as part of a race — to pray, light candles, place flowers and offer their gratitude to her.
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Known as the patron saint of the Americas, the religious icon has traditionally been admired by the people of Mexico, where her image was first seen in 1531. But, in recent years, her image and symbolism have been embraced by other ethnicities and non-Catholics too.
Here’s a look at the history of one of the world’s most famous apparitions and tips on how to visit the shrine for this celebration.
Though some question its authenticity, the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe was written in Nahuatl, a native language, some time after 1556 by a scholar named Antonio Valeriano. In short, here’s what it says:
On a hill called Tepeyac near Mexico City, the Virgin Mary appeared several times in 1531, to a poor, Christian convert named Juan Diego. She asked Diego to visit the archbishop of Mexico City and ask him to build a shrine to her on the site.
The archbishop didn’t believe Diego’s story about the woman’s apparition and refused his request.
Several days later, Diego returned to Tepeyac, where the Virgin Mary told him to climb to the top of the hill and gather flowers to take to the archbishop as a sign of her presence. There, Diego found Castilian roses — not common to Mexico — in bloom during the winter. He picked the out-of-season flowers and gathered them in his cloak, or tilma.
Upon presenting the roses to the archbishop, both men discovered a colorful imprint of the Virgin Mary upon Diego’s tilma. The image, named Our Lady of Guadalupe, is considered one of the most sacred objects in Mexico and has been preserved for almost 500 years.
Pope John Paul II — who in 1979 became the first pontiff to visit Mexico — beatified then canonized Diego as a saint. On Jan. 23, 1999, during the pope’s fourth visit to Mexico, he announced that Catholic churches throughout the Americas would celebrate the Virgin Mary’s feast day, on Dec. 12.
The same image imprinted upon a man’s tilma almost 500 years ago hangs today in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Millions of visitors observe it in person each year, though a livestream video that allows anyone to view it via their electronic devices. Here are some explanations for symbols found within the image:
- Clouds: The background of the image, which is reportedly made of cactus fiber, suggests the Virgin Mary is descended from heaven.
- Discoloration: The image was not placed under glass until 1647. A silversmith was cleaning its frame with acid in 1784 when some accidentally spilled onto the right side of the image. Though the spill is still apparent, no deterioration has followed.
- Head: With her dark hair and eyes, the woman’s appearance mirrors those of the native people who lived in the area. Her head is bowed down to indicate humility.
- Cape: The woman’s mantle is turquoise, denoting royalty, and includes 46 stars — the same that were in the sky on Dec. 12, 1531, when she appeared to Juan Diego.
- Hands: Instead of being clasped, the woman’s hands are joined together in prayer at the palms. Some have suggested her fingers point upward to a cross-shaped brooch worn around her neck.
- Maternity band: The woman’s pink with gold detail tunic is belted just above her waist to show she is pregnant.
- Knee: Notice the bend of her knee, which could indicate movement. Natives believed in reciting prayers while dancing.
- Rays of the sun: Light and warmth emanate from behind the woman, suggesting her prominence.
- Crescent moon: By standing atop the darkness of night, the woman triumphs over evil.
- Angel: Some believe the outstretched arms of the angel suggest the woman’s appearance carries with it a new era.
People from Mexico began to settle in Chicago in the early 1900s. Attracted by steel mill jobs, many settled in South Chicago, bringing their religious traditions with them.
The need to create a church for these new immigrants was recognized in 1923, byChicago Cardinal George Mundelein. A small frame church, made of an old Army barracks transported from Michigan, was erected at 9024 S. Mackinaw Ave. It was named Our Lady of Guadalupe Church — the first Mexican parish established in Chicago. The church moved to 91st Street and Brandon Avenue in 1928 and is still welcoming congregants.
Guadalupe celebrations at this parish and others in Pilsen, Little Village and around the Chicago area have included a special series of Masses known as novenas, dances, parades, dinners, blessing of roses, plays and other social activities.
A committee dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe helped bring an 800-pound replica of the famed Mexico City image — the first of its kind to be placed outside Mexico — to Des Plaines in 1996. A year earlier, Maryville Academy, a home for troubled children, agreed to house the bronze-framed image on its grounds. Donations were accepted with plans to place it in an outdoor shrine, replicating the Tepeyac hill, for anyone to see.
Today, the site includes not just an outdoor shrine, but also an alcove for prayer candles, altar, life-size figures of Juan Diego and the Virgin Mary atop a rocky hill, a brick-paved plaza and a new, 1,100-seat chapel.
In the early 2000s, people began to walk to the shrine in Des Plaines — from the city and beyond — as part of the feast day celebration. About 60,000 showed up in 2006. The site expects 200,000 pilgrims or more on Dec. 11-12 this year.
Those who show a deep faith in Our Lady of Guadalupe are known as guadalupanos. It’s common for people to travel in groups or processions to the shrine:
- On foot: There are at least 20 pilgrimages and processions registered this year, departing from different parts of Chicago and with devotees from neighboring states, making it the second-largest celebration for Our Lady of Guadalupe after Mexico City, according to the Rev. Esequiel Sanchez, rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
- Horseback: The Archdiocese of Chicago organizes more than 100 riders from the United Cowboys Club (Club Los Vaqueros Unidos) for a three- to four-hour ride from Northbrook to the shrine.
- In semitrucks: Since 2006, a caravan of semitruck drivers has departed from St. Blase, a church in Summit, for Des Plaines. The truckers’ vehicles are blessed with holy water during a special Mass in honor of them and their families.
Parking: Though a limited number of parking spaces are available in a field on-site, organizers recommend pilgrims park in one of three nearby remote lots at
- Oakton Community College, 1600 E. Golf Road, Des Plaines
- St. Emily Catholic Church, 1400 E. Central Road, Mount Prospect
- Plaza Palwaukee, 664 Milwaukee Ave., Prospect Heights
Shuttle service: People will be transported from the three remote parking lots to the shrine on free, heated buses. Drop-off is at the plaza on Maryville Drive. Continuous service starts at 6 p.m. Dec. 11 and continues through 3 a.m. Dec. 12.
Public transportation: Plan your trip using Regional Transportation Authority’s Trip Planner tool. Metra’s Union Pacific Northwest line departs downtown Chicago from Ogilvie Transportation Center and stops in downtown Des Plaines at Miner and Lee streets. Connect to Pace Route 208 bus and depart at Oakton Community College. Hop aboard a shuttle bus from the east parking lot for drop-off on Maryville Drive at the shrine.
Ride-share: Since public transportation might not be available late into the evening, Uber or Lyft might be good options for returning home.
Road closures: The Des Plaines Police Department will provide traffic direction near the shrine site from 4 p.m. Dec. 11 through 9 a.m. Dec. 12, and advises motorists to allow extra time when driving through the area.
- Central Road: Closed to all traffic — except for shuttle buses — from Wolf Road east to River Road beginning at 5 p.m. Dec. 11. The closure will then expand east of River Road to Oakton Community College.
- River Road from Euclid Avenue south to Algonquin Road: Expect heavy traffic congestion starting at 5 p.m. Dec. 11.
- River Road through downtown Des Plaines: One lane in each direction due to construction.
A novena, or nine consecutive days of worship, are planned at the shrine:
Dec. 3 through Dec. 10 (except for Dec. 4)
- 7 p.m. nightly: Mass (in Spanish).
- 6 p.m. Sunday Mass with Celebrant Cardinal Blase Cupich.
- 8 p.m. Opening Mass in the plaza, weather permitting (in English and Spanish).
- 9:30 p.m. Fireworks.
- 11 p.m. Las Mañanitas, the traditional serenade of Our Lady of Guadalupe (in English and Spanish).
- Midnight: Mass in the plaza, weather permitting (in English and Spanish).
- 5 a.m., Noon and 4 p.m. Mass to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
- 7 a.m. Las Mañanitas (in English and Spanish).
- 7 p.m. Closing Mass (in English and Spanish).
Click here to see a full list of planned events.
The National Weather Service’s Chicago office expects highs in the 40s and lows in the 30s Sunday through Monday with a chance of rain.
- Be patient: Traffic congestion will be an issue since thousands will be traveling by car and foot to the shrine.
- Arrive early: Want to attend midnight Mass on Dec. 12? Organizers recommend you arrive at the shrine by 8 p.m.
- Dress for the weather: Since most of the event’s activities take place outside, make sure you dress in layers. Many families attend the overnight events together, so children should also be bundled up and prepared for the cold.
- Leave alcohol at home: Organizers say alcoholic beverages are not allowed on the grounds.
- Park off-site: The shrine offers some on-site parking in a grassy field, which can get muddy. Des Plaines police recommend most vehicles — especially those without four-wheel drive — be parked in one of the remote lots to avoid getting stuck.
- No drones, pets or weapons allowed
Sources: Chicago Tribune and Hoy reporting; Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe; Des Plaines Police Department; Archdiocese of Chicago; The Holy See, National Basilica of Santa Maria de Guadalupe; U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Encyclopaedia Britannica; Archdiocese of Saint Paul & Minneapolis; Catholic News Agency