DES PLAINES, Ill. (WLS) -- For the first time in six years, Cesar Figueroa was able to come to Des Plaines to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe.
His reason for staying away? He was in prison.
"Every night, I would go to bed praying and wishing I could get out and come to the place I want to be," he said Wednesday night as he stepped before the Virgin Mary on her feast day, with tears in his eyes.
Figueroa braved the cold as one of thousands of Catholics who gathered in the northern suburb to celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The Shrine at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines is the largest outside of the church and basilica in Mexico City where Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared in 1531.
The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which got under way Tuesday, is a celebration of the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of Mexico.
"I just thank God and thank Virgin Mary that I'm out and they give me the strength to get this far," Figueroa said.
Then he walked to mass with his wife and joined hundreds of pilgrims in prayer.
"My heart, my heart, I can feel my heart. It's healed," he said.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is a major icon of immigrants, and not only those of Hispanic origin. The feast draws between 200,000 and 300,000 Catholic pilgrims from around the world.
For Jonathan Macedo, it's an annual tradition.
"You get connected with your religion," he said. "It's really beautiful because you connect with a lot of families and this is going on from tradition to tradition and it's passed on and it's one of those things that you continue on and you just hope to God that it helps you and also gives you more energy and it just brings you up, you know. And as a family, it's a beautiful thing to have and come together."
Pilgrim Maria Perez was caught up in the moment.
"Right when I got in the front and I saw the candles and all those roses, I got the chills," she said.
There was also heightened security here this year for the celebration after recent attacks on religious centers across the country. The church said there were no incidents and believe increased security was a key reason why.
Thousands gather in Des Plaines for annual Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe