When it came to picking the right place to ask his girlfriend to marry him, Donnie Miller had a pretty good idea.

Little did he know his patron saint had a better one.

The 33-year-old parishioner of St. Agnes Church in New York City had first gotten to know Marian Joyce on a hike with mutual friends in Runyon Canyon during a visit to LA. On their first date days later, Joyce drove him between scenic sights around the city. 

“I think I met the one,” Miller texted his father that day. “I’m gonna go for it.”

A few years later, as he mulled the right place to pop the question, he liked the idea of going back to where it all started: Mulholland Drive.

But Miller wasn’t comfortable making life-changing decisions — including, at the time, whether to enter business school — without a little divine consultation. So last fall he began a 54-day novena to his confirmation saint, Juan Diego.

Shortly after finishing on Dec. 9 — the indigenous saint’s feast day — Miller’s spiritual director approached him and challenged his proposal plans. There’s a pilgrimage to Mexico City next summer, he told him. Why don’t you do it there?

Miller had gotten his answer. He would have to keep it to himself for six months.

And that’s where he found himself after joining a Saturday morning Mass July 8 celebrated by Archbishop José H. Gomez inside the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City with fellow St. Agnes parishioners and some 230 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Donnie nervously invited Joyce on a walk through the gardens of Tepeyac Hill, along the same path where the Blessed Virgin Mary caught his patron saint by surprise five centuries ago.

Donnie Miller proposes to his girlfriend, Marian Joyce, at the top of Tepeyac Hill overlooking the Guadalupe basilica on July 8 after a Mass with pilgrims. Miller bought the engagement ring months ago after completing a 54-day novena to his confirmation saint, Juan Diego. (John-Henry Keenan)

Miller didn’t know exactly where he should do it, but something inside told him to continue up the stairs that lead to the top of Tepeyac Hill. There, in front of a small church with a spectacular view of Mexico City marking the spot of the first Guadalupe apparition, Miller got down on one knee and made his move.

The answer, thankfully, was an unflinching yes. As onlookers began to notice, a mix of surprised gasps, exclamations, and finally, applause, built up to a delightful crescendo around the couple.

“It just was very relieving to be able to ask, receive, get a yes,” confessed Miller.

Signs of an important journey

Most of the fellow pilgrims didn’t come to Mexico City with plans as ambitious as Miller’s. But all, it seemed, felt they’d been called to the holy place to ask, receive, and give thanks.

Becky Salgado, a parish secretary at St. Lorenzo Ruiz Church in Walnut, had plenty of things on her prayer list, including asking for the grace to forgive and for the intentions of her five children, all adults. But it was the death of her husband nine months ago from colon cancer that prompted her to make the trip.

“I was hoping that I’d be able to get some healing, peace, some kind of calmness in my life and be able to slowly move on,” said Salgado.

Her prayer was answered, she said, in the span of a few seconds at the basilica. As she stood on the slow-moving conveyor belt that brings visitors closest to the Guadalupe tilma, she was suddenly overcome by the smell of roses.

“After that, I just got really emotional,” said Salgado. “That’s what I had been asking for, for me to feel her presence.”

Salgado took the experience as a direct message that the Virgin Mary “is there with me” in her suffering.

Ricardo Escueta of Holy Trinity Church in Atwater Village receives holy Communion during the Saturday, July 8 Mass at the Guadalupe basilica from Father Leo Ortega. Ortega teaches at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo and helps out at Holy Trinity. (Pablo Kay)

Ricardo and Regina Escueta, parishioners of Holy Trinity Church in Atwater Village, figured this would be no ordinary trip when a series of strange events struck in the days before leaving home: a short-circuiting garage door, a boiler leak, and Regina tearing her rotator cuff.

“The evil one was trying to stop us,” said Ricardo after a Friday evening Mass with Archbishop Gomez at the Mexico City hotel where his group stayed. “It was little things that irritate you, but you know somehow you’re going to a place where you’re gonna meet God. So somehow, we felt that the enemy was trying to remove that balance in our lives.”

When the Escuetas invited Regina’s sister, Victoria, and her husband Jose Baltasar to join the pilgrimage from Sacramento, they seemed unlikely to make it. They’d just returned from walking the Camino de Santiago in Portugal and Spain, and the enrollment date had already passed.

“We were told it was closed,” said Jose. “But we didn’t give up, and the coordinator said ‘wait a minute,’ and after like eight minutes on the phone, she said ‘OK, we can take you in.’ ”

Less than three weeks after ending one pilgrimage, they were on another. What was that like?

“Heaven,” Victoria replied.

“We told mother Mary, this is for you, to give thanksgiving and if you want us there, we will be there,” she said.

More than a dream

Although both of her grandmothers in Mexico had instilled a devotion to Guadalupe into her, Leslie Gomez had never been to the basilica.

“It was always a dream, but it was just a thought,” she remembered.

So this year, she and her husband, Octavio, both lectors at Presentation of Mary Church in South LA, joined a parish group led by pastor Father Fredy Rosales. They also brought their two youngest daughters, 15 and 9, who are both altar servers at Presentation.

Heavy on her mind was her “abuela” Lucila, who had died of COVID-19 in Mexico during the pandemic.

“This pilgrimage was a connection to something my grandmother left me, and that I’ve transmitted to my daughters through our Catholic faith,” said Gomez.

Like Salgado, Gomez was also given a surprise at the basilica that she took as a sign from the Virgin Mary.

Archbishop Gomez was joined by a dozen priests celebrating Mass for some 4,000 people — including pilgrims from LA — at the Guadalupe basilica July 8. (Sarah Yaklic)

Moments after the Mass with Archbishop Gomez began, a basilica employee went into the pews frantically looking for a lector to read the first and second readings in Spanish. A few of her fellow Presentation parishioners pointed to Gomez.

“Can you read?” he asked her.

By the time Gomez had said yes, Archbishop Gomez had already sat down after finishing the opening prayers of the Mass. The packed basilica waited patiently as she was led up to the ambo, wearing her light blue pilgrimage T-shirt.

“I could never have expected that they’d choose me to proclaim the word in the basilica,” she said. “When I got to the lectern, I was so overcome with emotion that I felt like I couldn’t speak, I was missing my breath. Being up there touched me profoundly.”

An essential mission

Every summer, another Gomez family would make the 12-hour drive from Monterrey, Mexico, to the country’s capital.

Before visiting his grandparents, who lived in Mexico City, Archbishop Gomez remembered their first stop was always at the Guadalupe shrine to attend Mass.

Later, as a college student studying in Mexico City, the future priest would join the crowds of people making the long walk to the basilica on the Dec. 12 Guadalupe feast day. From Mexico to Spain to Texas — and all the places in between — Archbishop Gomez said he’s felt her “deep protection” first as a layman, then as a priest and bishop.

The night before his ordination as an auxiliary bishop in Denver in 2001, he entrusted his ministry to “la morenita” (“the brown lady”) — as she is affectionately called in Mexico — and encouraged devotion to her wherever he went.

“For me, it’s essential to bring people to Our Lady of Guadalupe,” he said in an interview during the pilgrimage. “This is not something that just happened somewhere out there. Knowing that she’s taking care of us, it’s very personal.”

Pilgrims from LA and New York joined a Sunday Mass at Santa Maria Tulpetlac Church outside of Mexico City July 9. The church marks the place where Our Lady of Guadalupe miraculously appeared to and healed St. Juan Diego’s uncle, Juan Bernardino. (Tania Estrada)

That Saturday morning, the archbishop stood feet away from the tilma as he celebrated Mass for some 4,000 people, including the LA pilgrims. In front of the altar sat a basket filled with thousands of written prayer requests to the Blessed Mother from Angelenos back home. 

“As we pray today in the presence of this sacred image, we know that she is with us, and that she is so happy that we have come to worship her Son, who we love with all our hearts and all our strength,” he said in his homily.

Just as Mary rejoiced in God for having done “great things for her” in the Gospel of the visitation, “the Lord has done great things for us, as well,” said the archbishop.

“He has made us his sons and daughters. He has shown us the way to live, a way of love, a way of truth that will lead us to heaven.”

Part of a perpetual miracle

The following day, the pilgrims from St. Lorenzo Ruiz and St. Agnes traveled by bus to the town of Tulpetlac for Sunday Mass at the church marking the place of the fifth Guadalupe apparition, when the Virgin Mary appeared to and healed Juan Diego’s uncle, Juan Bernardino.

The 10:30 a.m. liturgy happened to be the parish’s children’s Mass. A few of the kids helped nuns with the music, while others — some looking younger than first Communion age — processed into the small church as altar servers with Archbishop Gomez.

Pilgrims from St. Lorenzo Ruiz Church in Walnut and St. Agnes Church in Manhattan, New York, after celebrating Mass at the Shrine of Blessed Miguel Pro in Mexico City July 10. (Carolina Guevera)

Miller and Joyce were sitting a few rows from the front, still recovering from the whirlwind of excited thoughts, emotions, prayers, and phone calls made the day before.

Joyce, who attended St. Monica’s Church in Santa Monica during her years living in LA, wasn’t even remotely expecting the proposal on the trip. Spiritually, she came hoping for the grace “to be able to listen more and receive more from God and from Mary.”

The pilgrimage, she realized, was their special way of preparing her for the next chapter of her life, an opportunity to be a part of “the mystery and the miracle” of the Guadalupe tilma.

“As much as I’m excited and in love with Donnie, I’m also really happy that we get to be here and that he proposed to me here,” said Joyce after the Sunday Mass. “We’re just getting so much grace at the beginning of our journey together.”