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Article updated: 12/11/2012 3:58 PM

Catholics converge in Des Plaines for Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration

By Madhu Krishnamurthy

As many as 100,000 Catholic pilgrims are expected to converge on Des Plaines today for the annual Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration, the largest gathering of its kind in the Northwest suburbs.

The festival honoring the Patroness of the Americas begins about 4 p.m. and ends with the closing Mass at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, 1170 N. River Road, adjacent to the Maryville Academy campus in Des Plaines.

The first celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines was held 25 years ago. The event marks the anniversary of the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531 to an Aztec Indian in Mexico.

Many followers consider the Des Plaines shrine a branch of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, visited by millions yearly. The celebration is expected to draw diverse crowds of largely Latino Catholics, as well as people from the Polish, Filipino, Korean and Hindu communities, according to organizers.

Managing the crowds of pilgrims expected to walk, run and, in some cases, ride horses, from area churches is the biggest challenge for local officials, Des Plaines Police Chief William Kushner said.

"Any time you are dealing with public safety where you are trying to keep pedestrians safe, it's a challenge," Kushner said. "This is the only shrine outside of Mexico. It is definitely a big thing and it's notoriety for the city of Des Plaines, and we're going to handle it as professionally and as properly as we do everything else."

Des Plaines' weather forecast for today is expected to be 37 degrees during the day, dropping to a low of 28 overnight with little chance of precipitation.

"It's going to help the crowds swell," Kushner said. "The nicer the weather is the more people come out always with events like this."

Kushner said police discouraged a group of believers that wanted to arrive on horseback from using roadways.

"We convinced them rather than make a long ride, they would be better served just parking their trailers with the horses on the Maryville property and to just make the symbolic pilgrimage (to the shrine)," he said.

Kushner said in his 35-year career with law enforcement he has never seen or managed an event of this magnitude. No other suburb in the area draws this many people for any festival, he said.

Kushner said the only suburban event that comes close is Berwyn's annual Feast of Maria SS Lauretana Festival held over Labor Day weekend. The combination carnival, food festival and pilgrimage draws roughly 50,000 people yearly.

Yet, that event is held indoors and does not affect local routes or tie up traffic the way the Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration does, he said.

"I would much rather deal with this than with an angry mob," Kushner said. "It is a religious event. It's a very devout crowd that's drawn. And I'm sure the wildest part of it is going to be the fireworks on Tuesday night."

A short fireworks display will begin at 9:30 p.m. on the north end of the Maryville Academy campus.

Des Plaines police will be closing Central Road at Des Plaines River Road to vehicular traffic starting at 3 p.m. Tuesday until 6 a.m. Wednesday for the celebration. Central Road also will be closed at East River Road to westbound traffic. Central Road at Wolf Road will be closed to eastbound traffic.

Central Road again will be closed at those same intersections from about 6 until 10 p.m. Wednesday.Limited parking will be available at the Maryville campus, and at various off-site locations with shuttle bus service.

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