With thick, wet snow falling and live mariachi music to greet them, around 400 riders on horseback arrived at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines on Dec. 4 to pay homage to Mary. Some wore ponchos bearing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Other riders carried their cellphones and recorded 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 Father Esequiel Sanchez. The priest himself entered the shrine on horseback and wearing a traditional Mexican sombrero. This is the fifth year for the pilgrimage, which is organized 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 Dec. 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” program, 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,” said Anguiano. Having the riders and horses visit the shrine is fitting to the history of the church in the United States, said Sanchez. “All the evangelization in America happened on horseback, so as we bless the horses today we remember that tradition,” said the priest. “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 the evening of Dec. 4, a group of tractor-trailer drivers rode their rigs to the Des Plaines shrine for their own pilgrimage. The two pilgrimages are held before the Dec. 12 feast day because more than 120,000 pilgrims usually visit the shrine over Dec. 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 on the feast day, which commemorates Mary’s appearance to St. Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill near modern-day Mexico City. Mary appeared to St. Juan Diego for the first time at dawn Dec. 9, 1531 and said she wanted a church built in her honor on that hill. St. Juan Diego went to the bishop to share this news, but was put off by the prelate. She appeared again, and the saint — who was called by name by the apparition — again approached the bishop. The bishop asked for a sign from this lady of St. Juan Diego’s and Mary produced enough roses in December to fill the saint’s cloak, or tilma. When he emptied the roses in front of the bishop, he found that the lady 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. For a schedule of events at the shrine for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, visit www.santuarioguadalupe.org.