It is one of the world’s most visited and beloved religious venues – the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, with a circular, tent-shaped roof visible from miles away and a sacred history that each year draws millions of pilgrims from near and far to its hilltop site in Mexico City.
Early December is the busiest time, as pilgrims converge ahead of Dec. 12, the feast day honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe. To Catholic believers, the date is the anniversary of one of several apparitions of the Virgin Mary witnessed by an Indigenous Mexican man named Juan Diego in 1531.
The COVID-19 pandemic curtailed the number of pilgrims in 2020. Last year, even with some restrictions still in place, attendance for the December celebrations rose to at least 3.5 million, according to local officials. Bigger numbers are expected this year.
For many pilgrims, their journey to the site is an expression of gratitude for miracles that they believe the Virgin brought into their lives. Around the basilica, some people light candles while praying in silence. Some kneel and weep. Others carry statues of the Virgin in their arms as they receive a priest’s blessing.
Among the first-time pilgrims, this year was Yamilleth Fuente, who entered the basilica wearing a yellow scarf decorated with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Fuente, who traveled alone to Mexico City from her home in El Salvador, said that she was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 and recovered after praying to the Virgin. Her husband and two children encouraged her when she suggested making the pilgrimage.
“I’ve loved the Virgin my whole life. I even used to dream about her,” Fuente said. “My daughter’s name is Alexandra Guadalupe because she’s also a miracle that the Virgin granted me.”
For the Catholic Church, the image of the Virgin is a miracle itself – dating to a cold December dawn in 1531 when Juan Diego was walking near Tepeyac Hill.
According to Catholic tradition, Juan Diego heard a female voice calling to him, climbed the hill, and saw the Virgin Mary standing there, in a dress that shone like the sun. Speaking to him in his native language, Nahuatl, she asked for a temple to be built to honor her son, Jesus Christ.