Arson fire at beloved Illinois shrine leaves community ‘deeply hurt,’ rector says
An arson attack at a beloved Marian shrine in Illinois has left a community “deeply hurt,” the shrine’s rector told OSV News May 26.
A fire on May 23 destroyed the Chapel of the Risen Christ at the Outer Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, Illinois. The more than 60-acre shrine, which is closely tied to the Basílica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, was officially established in 2013 by Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George. According to its website, the shrine is the second most visited site in the world honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe, attracting thousands of people throughout the year.
Video surveillance showed a woman – later identified by law enforcement as Virginia Roque-Fermin, 41, of Arlington Heights, Illinois – setting the fire just after 2:30 a.m.
Roque-Fermin was arrested as she tried to drive away from the scene and she was charged with one count of arson, according to a May 24 release from the Des Plaines Police Department. No information regarding a possible motive has been released by the ministry.
A GoFundMe page has been set up to cover repairs to the shrine, which suffered damage worth $78,000, the shrine’s rector, Father Esequiel Sanchez, told OSV News. By noon on May 26, $15,648 of a goal of $50,000 had been raised.
The fire burned the souls of thousands of people who regularly visit the shrine, he said, especially since the attacker worked methodically.
Pilgrims – who visit the shrine at all hours and who called police from their car when the fire broke out – observed that Roque-Fermin “seemed to be waiting for everyone to leave”, the father said. Sanchez.
Roque-Fermin then began “piling” shrine statues and religious objects “in one place”, he said.
“Chairs, candles, rosaries – anything flammable around her, she was trying to reach to make as big a fire as possible and do as much damage as possible,” Father Sanchez said. “Our statuary is fiberglass, which burns out quite quickly.”
Providentially, “the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe remained intact,” he said. “The Lord took care of his mother.”
But the fire consumed hundreds of “memories, photographs, intentions and notes” left by pilgrims at the shrine, he said.
Chapel repairs will have to wait until after June 10, when the shrine celebrates its 10th anniversary as a canonical shrine with Chicago Cardinal Blase J. Cupich and Mexico City Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes, Father Sanchez said.
For now, Father Sanchez is giving his community time to mourn.
“We cleared the area so it wouldn’t be outrageous, but I think it’s important for people to reflect on this burnt structure,” he said. “We can’t just fix it like nothing happened. We have to wait a minute, let people talk about it. There is a violation that has occurred here.
The pain is all the greater because pilgrims have a deep love for Our Lady of Guadalupe and the shrine, Father Sanchez said.
“People come here every day with fresh roses to see (Mary),” he said. “It could be the worst blizzard in the world, and the flowers are still coming. Even the policemen are here praying before their shift.
Asked what he would say to Roque-Fermin, Father Sanchez replied: “I hope you are feeling better. Violent acts are normally a sign of great trauma. …I pray for whatever she’s dealing with, that she gets better.
The trauma suffered 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.
“From the ashes, good things can come out,” said Father Sanchez.
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