More than 1,000 horseback riders journey to shrine for start of pilgrimage




  • In Business
  • 2021-12-07 09:00:00Z
  • By Chicago Tribune

Central Road in Des Plaines, Illinois, normally whizzing with fast cars, was empty just after noon Saturday, save for the police cars blocking entry. There was only the sound of honking geese.

Then, soft clomps came from the east, steadily growing in volume and soon accentuated with neighing. Over the horizon, a cadre of horseback riders slinked toward its destination, some snapping photos on their phone and others proudly placing their arms akimbo.

That was the first sighting of at least 1,000 equestrians who rode through a Cook County Forest Preserve in Wheeling to pay homage to Our Lady of Guadalupe, or the Virgin Mary. Saturday marked the 10th kickoff of the tradition in which mostly Latino Catholics from across the tristate area and even the U.S. made the pilgrimage to Des Plaines to visit the Guadalupana's shrine, the most visited monument of its kind in the United States.

Many make the annual journey to the shrine to mirror the pilgrimages done in Mexico to fulfill a promise - a manda ― or give thanks to the Virgin Mary for blessings and protection. Others do it as a sacrifice as they pray for a specific need or concern.

Arturo Gante, 48, said he traveled from Lake Station, Indiana, for his first pilgrimage to the shrine. While fixing the equipment on his horse named Colorado, he spoke of excitement over paying respects as well as praying for his family and his job.

"We're just here to celebrate," Gante said while tending to Colorado. "I'm Catholic, so that's part of the church."

Jenni Ochoa, a freshman at Eastern Illinois University, traveled to the shrine as a volunteer, fixing up the roses and other arrangements around the shrine. The visit has special meaning to Ochoa, who was baptized at the shrine's church, but also to her elders, she said.

"It's great just seeing everybody out here practicing their faith," Ochoa, who grew up in Round Lake Beach, said. "Most churches were closed through the pandemic. The majority of the older Hispanic community, I feel like their faith is stronger, so it brings joy to them to be here."

Last year, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the first replica of the sacred cloak with her image in Mexico's basilica, was taken down and stored away to deter people from congregating for a special day known as the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which draws more than 200,000 devotees each December.

Before the journey began in the morning, Napoleon Abella Calzada, 16, watched as his father guided his horse to waltz back and forth on the grass. It was the boy's first pilgrimage of this size, and he was in awe at the crowd that was prepared to join his father.

"Just being here is important to me and my family, especially since this is pretty much how you do it in Mexico," Abella Calzada, from Appleton, Wisconsin, said. "It's really important for us to come and just celebrate our religion."

For Jesus Gonzalez, the event's organizer, the pilgrimage is a family affair, done with the help of his children and wife. His brothers all own horses and year after year join the sacred journey.

In Gonzalez's native town in Mexico, he grew up surrounded by horsemen in traditional Mexican rodeos and other equestrian sports.

"We've always been grateful for our health and the love that surrounds us," said Gonzalez.

Equestrians and their families from all over the Midwest partake in the pilgrimage. There are young children and women who also ride their horses.

Though Maria Vargas has attended hourslong pilgrimages to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, also known as the Patroness of the Americas, for several years, in 2016 she and her brother organized a caravan with their semi-trucks offering it as prayer for their family business.

"We wanted to thank God for keeping us safe, but we also wanted to pray for all of our drivers and truckers in the city," Vargas said.

On Saturday's pilgrimage, more than 50 semi-truck drivers and their families also joined the devotees that paid a visit to the Guadalupana, a week before the annual feast at the shrine that will resume this year after last year's pause.

The drivers adorned their trucks with images of the Virgen De Guadalupe, lights and tinsels.

The wives and children of the drivers also joined the driver for the journey. While the mariachi played at their meeting spot at a parking lot near Pilsen, the families ate tamales.

"It's a gathering of love and community," said Vargas. "It's a demonstration of love for Our Lady of Guadalupe, but also for the people that you pray for."

She said that the devotion for the Virgin Mary breaks barriers and for a few hours - whether on the caravan, pilgrimage by foot or on horseback - people forget their differences and join each other for Our Lady Of Guadalupe's blessings.

The past years haven't been easy, Vargas said. One of their driver's died of COVID-19, and they intend to honor him with the caravan.

"Pilgrimages renew faith," Vargas added. "If people are willing to walk miles, braving the cold, sacrifice so much, you realize the power of faith."

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