In an annual pre-dawn pilgrimage, hundreds of faithful on Wednesday morning walked from Santa Rosa to Windsor to show their devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

In a trek that began at midnight in Santa Rosa, the estimated 600 or more people made their way north, some carrying votive candles and small statues, clutching flowers and pushing infant strollers. Some even walked barefoot.

The four-hour-plus march commemorated what Roman Catholic believers say was the apparition of the Virgin Mary more than 480 years ago to a peasant outside Mexico City.

"It's to celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe and to give thanks for everything she has given throughout the year," Francisca Mu?z said in Spanish. The Santa Rosa mother pushed her 16-month-old daughter in a stroller over the nine-mile route to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Windsor.

"It's to show faith. It's for life and being healthy," her husband, Jose Luis Vega, said of why they braved the cold, the dark and fog to walk with their family alongside Old Redwood Highway.

The procession included Aztec dancers and a half-dozen or so horse-mounted riders.

As they arrived at their destination, some of the pilgrims broke into "Las Ma?nitas," a traditional Mexican birthday serenade sung in early morning.

The crowd at the church swelled to more than 1,000 people who shared hot chocolate, coffee, tea, Mexican pastries and gathered for mass. Organizers were expecting 3,000 to 4,000 would attend church events there by the end of the day.

"A lot of them walk it because of something she's done, a miracle, or they owe her for everything she's done in their lives. She's going to be there for them," Maria-

elena Perez of Windsor, a supervisor of the event, said of the Virgin adoration.

Perez made the pilgrimage four years ago after her son, a Marine, came back from Iraq. She had promised to make the walk if he survived.

"Everyone does it for a different reason. It's all about faith," she said.

One of those participating was Esperanza Pe?, a 69-year-old great-grandmother, who walked from Santa Rosa despite a bad ankle and brace on her knee. She said she was making the journey for her children, who don't have a house or jobs.

But she said her large family of eight children, 25 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren make her feel fortunate. "I'm rich," she said.

Rose Marie Strange, a church volunteer, said participants in the pilgrimage tend to be giving thanks, or are in need.

"They're either asking for something, or thanking God for whatever they asked for. Sometimes it's sickness, or maybe they want to find a job," she said.

Alfonso Nabor of Santa Rosa said the annual devotional procession grew from five people who did it 12 or 13 years ago. In recent years more than 1,000 have taken part, but he estimated Wednesday morning's walkers at about 600. He said the prediction of rain may have been the reason.

Similar pilgrimages have sprung up in other cities in the United States.

The icon of the virgin displayed at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is one of that country's most revered images and also the object of huge gatherings on Dec. 12.

The legend of the Virgin stems from an incident said to have taken place in 1531 when she appeared to the peasant Juan Diego.

According to the story, the Virgin asked Diego to speak to the bishop and request that a church be built in her name on Tepeyac Hill, on the outskirts of Mexico City, displacing a former Aztec temple.

As a miraculous sign, roses that Diego gathered in his peasant cloak were said to have been replaced by the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe imprinted on the fabric.

The purported cloak worn by Diego, who was made a saint by Pope John Paul II, is on display at the Basilica outside Mexico City.

Besides its importance to Catholic Mexicans, the Virgin has also been a unifying national symbol, going back to the Mexican War of Independence and the Mexican Revolution.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.