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Arson damages largest US Guadalupe shrine

Guadalupe shrine Illinois

OSV News screenshot/courtesy of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe

A woman is facing an arson charge alleging that she set the fire early on May 23, 2023, which caused significant damage at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, Illinois, police announced the next day.

Gina Christian - published on 06/08/23

"We can't just repair it as if nothing happened. We've got to wait for a minute, let people talk about it. There is a violation that happened here."

An arson attack at a beloved Marian shrine in Illinois has left a community “deeply wounded,” the shrine’s rector told OSV News on May 26.

A May 23 blaze destroyed the Chapel of the Resurrected Christ at the outdoor Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, Illinois. The 60-acre+ shrine, which is closely connected to the Basílica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, was formally established in 2013 by Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George. According to its website, the shrine is the world’s second most visited site honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe, drawing thousands year round.

Video surveillance showed a female — later identified by law enforcement as 41-year-old Virginia Roque-Fermin of Arlington Heights, Illinois — setting the fire just after 2:30 a.m.

Roque-Fermin was arrested as she attempted to walk away from the scene, and she has been charged with one felony count of arson, according to a May 24 statement from the Des Plaines Police Department. No information regarding a possible motive has been released by the department.

A GoFundMe page has been set up to cover repairing the shrine, which sustained some $78,000 worth of damage, shrine rector Father Esequiel Sanchez told OSV News. As of June 8, they are about half way to the goal of $50,000.

More than a building

The blaze seared the souls of the thousands who regularly visit the shrine, the rector said, particularly since the attacker worked methodically.

Pilgrims — who visit the shrine at all hours and who called police from their cars as the blaze was set — observed that Roque-Fermin “seemed to wait for everybody to leave the area,” said Father Sanchez.

Roque-Fermin then began “piling up” shrine statues and religious objects “in one spot,” he said.

“Chairs, candles, rosaries — anything flammable around her, she was trying to reach for to build a fire as large as she could and to do as much damage as she could,” said Father Sanchez. “Our statuary is made of fiberglass, which burns rather quickly.”

Providentially, “the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was untouched,” he said. “The Lord took care of his mom.”

But the blaze did consume hundreds of “mementoes, photographs, intentions, and notes” left by pilgrims at the shrine, he said.

Repairs on the chapel will have to wait until after June 10, when the shrine will mark its 10th anniversary as a canonical shrine with Chicago Cardinal Blase J. Cupich and Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes of Mexico City, said Father Sanchez.

Out of ashes

For now, Father Sanchez is giving his community time to mourn.

“We’ve cleaned up the area so it isn’t scandalous, but I think it is important that people meditate on this burned structure,” he said. “We can’t just repair it as if nothing happened. We’ve got to wait for a minute, let people talk about it. There is a violation that happened here.”

The sorrow is all the greater for the profound love pilgrims have for Our Lady of Guadalupe and the shrine, said Father Sanchez.

“People come here every day with fresh roses to see (Mary),” he said. “It could be the worst blizzard in the world, and still the flowers come. Even police officers are out here praying before their shifts.”

Asked what he would say to Roque-Fermin, Father Sanchez responded, “I hope you get better. Violent acts are normally a sign of great trauma. … I pray whatever she is dealing with, that she gets better.”

The trauma experienced by the shrine community — which shows that the church is ultimately “not made of stone or wood, but the people” — will also heal, he said.

“Out of the ashes, good things can come,” said Father Sanchez.

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