Jennett Alcantar has been coming to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines with her family for years.
She's now 15, but she remembers the pilgrimages her family would make when she was a little girl -- by foot, and often in the cold -- from their home in Prospect Heights to the shrine on the campus of Maryville Academy.
There, every year during the evening of Dec. 11 and into the early morning of Dec. 12, they've come to pray and satisfy their mandas, or promises, made to the Virgin Mary for considering their wishes.
This year, Alcantar played the role of Mary during a performance of the story of Juan Diego, the Mexican peasant Catholics believe spoke to Mary on Dec. 12, 1531, on a hill outside Mexico City. They believe Mary asked him to build a church there in her honor.
"When I was little, I didn't think much of it," said Alcantar, a sophomore at Wheeling High School, who performed with eight members of her confirmation class during a Mass Wednesday night. "But when you're acting it out, you understand better what a miracle actually is."
Thousands of worshippers were expected to descend upon the Maryville campus overnight to celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A 12-foot tall replica statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe sits in the shrine, which is the only place in the world outside of the Basilica in Mexico City where people can satisfy their mandas, according to the church.
People started arriving at the shrine on Wednesday afternoon, though the crowds grew progressively larger in the evening. Many brought candles and bouquets of flowers to be placed near the shrine.
A total of 11 Masses were scheduled over the course of the two-day celebration, both at the shrine and inside a nearby gymnasium.
At 10 p.m., members of Catholic parishes throughout the Archdiocese lit torches and were expected to run back to their churches as part of a Guadalupe Torch Run.
At midnight, the worshippers began singing "mananitas," the traditional serenade to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
"For us Catholics, it's like Mother's Day," said the Rev. Marco Mercado, rector of the Our Lady shrine and the archbishop's delegate for Hispanic ministry. "It's a day to thank God for sending her to bring us hope."
Many of those who come to the shrine say their faith is made stronger by praying there. Many come with other family members.
"Every time I come here, I come to pray for my family," said Maira Murguia, 18, of Round Lake Beach. "She helps me when I'm in a struggle. I come here to say thank you."
Yajaira Flores, 15, of Bensenville came to the shrine with her parents and two brothers.
"It unites our family," she said. "It brings us love and peace."
Krystyna Castro, her husband Jorge and their two children brought with them a small statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which they intend to permanently place in their backyard in Schiller Park. She says the event "underlines my beliefs."
"There's so many problems in the world," she said. "(But) this makes my heart shine."
The shrine in Des Plaines dates to 1988, when former director, the Rev. John Smyth, agreed to take in a statue of the Patroness of the Americas. It came from Mexico City, delivered by Joaquim Martinez, a parishioner from a church in Northbrook.
Only 10 people showed up for the first feast day Mass at Maryville, but over time, word spread and now some 100,000 attend the celebration.
"This ceremony has grown tremendously. I never anticipated these crowds," Smyth said Wednesday night as he prepared to celebrate Mass. "One year, it was raining. I thought maybe two people would show up, but thousands did. I thought, there's something going on here.
"It shows their devotion. They're really tied to their faith."