When worshipers filled the pews for the dedication of the new St. Joseph Chapel at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines on April 21, they offered praise and worship in an environment unlike any the shrine has ever seen. The chapel, created from what was a gymnasium on the Maryville Academy campus, seats 1,100 people in an open, airy space, with high-tech lighting and audio, said Father Esequiel Sanchez, the shrine’s rector. Liturgies can be live-streamed from anywhere in the world, or watched later. It’s a far cry from the conditions for people going to Mass at the shrine for the past year, worshiping outdoors in the heat or cold, or sometimes in a large tent. Before renovations started, the shrine hosted Mass in the gym itself, starting to set up some 1,200 folding chairs at 5 a.m. to be ready for a 10 a.m. Mass. At the end of the day, everything had to be taken down again. A small chapel that already exists was entirely inadequate for the shrine’s needs, Sanchez said. “We get 10,000 people on a weekend,” he said. The shrine hosts what is believed to be the largest celebration of the Dec. 12 feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe outside Mexico City, regularly drawing more than 200,000 pilgrims over two days of services. Roberto Espinosa, chairman of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s finance council, said the gym was never a permanent solution for a place to have Mass indoors. Not only did using the gym mean setting up and taking the altar, chairs and other liturgical furnishings, he said, sometimes the altar would not be in the same place, or something would be missing. It simply was not a conducive environment for regular worship. “A gym is a gym is a gym,” Espinosa said. The chapel, on the other hand, will feature a permanent sanctuary and altar with a large retablo, or altarpiece. There are pews and kneelers and confessionals, separate sacristies for altar servers and priests to prepare for Mass and a large entrance area — with audio from the main body of the chapel — so that parents with restless children can still hear. The design of the chapel recalls a workshop, with quarry tile and polished cement floors, lots of exposed wood, and exposed metal truss work under the skylights. The idea is to remind worshippers of the work of St. Joseph, a carpenter by trade. While the inaugural Mass was celebrated by Bishop John Manz April 21, Sanchez is planning to ask Cardinal Cupich to formally dedicate the main chapel in the summer, once the main pieces of art are installed. There will be images of saints along the walls, and a large altarpiece depicting St. Joseph. Facing the sanctuary will be an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary on her throne. Sanchez said the decision to dedicate the chapel to St. Joseph — indeed, the decision to renovate a gym into a chapel rather than building a large, basilica-style structure to the Virgin of Guadalupe — came down to meeting the needs of the people who worship at the shrine. They include a core of regular worshipers, who come week after week and attend religious education and other programs there, even though the shrine is not a parish and does not have actual members. They also include visitors from the Chicago area, the Midwest and all over the country. Espinosa, who has been worshiping at the shrine for eight to 10 years, said the people need a place out of the elements. “I can’t tell you how cold it has been, but it has been very cold,” he said. “It was necessary.” Even the tent, which the shrine used while the gym was being remodeled into a chapel, was not warm enough, he said. Before Sanchez was assigned as rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe two years ago, there were plans for a large church to be dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and money had been collected to start such a church. Sanchez and Espinoza said the leadership of the shrine changed course because the people needed a place to worship sooner than they would be able to raise the money for a large church. “It took over a year to raise $2 million,” Espinosa said. Overall, the project cost about $5 million, Sanchez said. Elia Rivera, the director of development for Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, said about 400 people donated to the project. That doesn’t necessarily count those who may have given money for a larger church in previous years. The most important thing, Sanchez said, is that the shrine now will have a suitable place for pilgrims — of all ethnicities and coming from all over the United States — to worship. All are welcome, but the creation and the building of the shrine and its community has mostly been the work of Latino Catholics, many of them immigrants, Sanchez said. He wanted to give them a place to encounter St. Joseph, the patron of families, because “in this culture, immigrant families are being torn apart.” Besides, Sanchez said, gesturing out his office window to where a replica of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe from Mexico City stands in an outdoor grotto, “She is comfortable having St. Joseph around.” For more information about the shrine, visit www.solg.org.