'All evangelisation in America happened on horseback,' says rector at Illinois shrine

With thick, wet snow falling down and live mariachi music to greet them, around 400 riders on horseback rode up to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines on Sunday to pay homage to Mary.

Some wore ponchos bearing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Other riders carried their mobile phones and were recording the ride. Once in front of the outdoor shrine, each rider handed over a red rose for Mary and was blessed with holy water by shrine rector Fr Esequiel Sanchez. The priest himself entered the shrine on horseback and was wearing a traditional Mexican sombrero.

It’s the fifth year for the pilgrimage, which is organised by Club Los Vaqueros Unidos (United Cowboys Club) in Wadsworth. The horseback pilgrimage is the unofficial kickoff of celebrations at the shrine that culminate with 24 hours of Masses and visits to the outdoor shrine on Monday (December 12) for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The pilgrimage usually includes a three-hour ride through the forest preserve in Lincolnshire and ends at the shrine, but this year that portion was cancelled because the forest preserve was conducting a “deer management” programme, said club member Maria Anguiano.

Despite the wet and heavy snow that soaked the riders and horses, there were many smiles as the riders made their way past the shrine.

“What everyone really wants to do is thank the Virgin for the blessings throughout the year and acknowledge her presence in their lives,” Anguiano told the Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Having the riders and horses visit the shrine is fitting to the history of the Church in the United States.

A member of Club Los Vaqueros Unidos (United Cowboy Club) makes his way to the the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines (CNS photo)

A member of Club Los Vaqueros Unidos (United Cowboy Club) makes his way to the the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines (CNS photo)

“All the evangelisation in America happened on horseback so as we bless the horses today we remember that tradition,” Fr Sanchez said. “The key element in the life of a lot of people was a sturdy horse, to be able to make a living and get around. Now it’s become a symbol of a way of life that is very much still treasured and valued.”

On Sunday evening a group of tractor-trailer drivers went to the Des Plaines shrine for their own pilgrimage. The two pilgrimages are held before the December 12 feast day since more than 120,000 pilgrims usually visit the shrine over December 11 and 12 and accommodating the horses and trailers would be difficult.

In Mexico City, it’s a tradition for groups or clubs to make a pilgrimage to the Guadalupe shrine there on the feast day, which commemorates Mary’s appearance to St Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill near modern-day Mexico City.

Mary appeared to Diego for the first time at dawn on December 9, 1531, and said she wanted a church built in her honour on that hill. Diego went to the bishop to share this news, but was put off by the prelate. She appeared again, and Diego – who was called by name by the Lady in the apparition – again approached the bishop. The bishop asked for a sign from this lady of Diego’s and Mary produced enough roses in December to fill Diego’s cloak, or “tilma.”

When he emptied them in front of the bishop, he found that she had left her image on the tilma, which remains today in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

The local shrine in Des Plaines began in the mid-1980s. The shrine is officially connected to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City and is the only place in the United States where pilgrims can receive the same special indulgence that is offered to pilgrims visiting the basilica.