My 18-year-old son dropped me off. Readily. I’m the scab he picks at lately. Maybe because I left the house with only 50 cents, forgetting we’d take the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Or that my debit card was declined at the Wawa for a $16 dollar purchase which included his late-in-the-day lunch. Or my “Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out, honey,” answer when he asked if I knew where I was staying for the night. I did get a hug and a genuine, “Have fun, Mom,” before I was the size of a gnat in his rearview mirror.
Above the sea of porta-potties, and clanging of oversized pots in the parking lot of Saints Peter & Paul Church in Great Meadows, New Jersey, I heard the screech of music coming through a loudspeaker three guys were tweaking near a hippie-looking van with a sign atop — CAUTION WALKING PILGRIMS.
I walked up the hill to meet Brother Simon, who sports a bushy auburn-red beard, shaved head and big, mischievous smile. He was our guide on this trek. I was here to report on the event, as a participant. No Alcohol. No talking after a certain time at night. No doubt that at some point along the way, the most common question might become, “Where does it hurt?”
You can discover a lot walking 57.5 miles in four days with a crowd that swells to over 3,000 people.
I met a young woman from India, 28, who is three years into her arranged marriage and trying to grow into love without one day looking in the mirror and seeing someone she doesn’t recognize. A woman in her 50s who married her high school sweetheart, had 8 kids, launched a career when her two oldest went off to college and is now trying to figure out a better work-life balance. A nurse who wouldn’t tell me her age, but did tell me she was once engaged to be married, took a second job helping some neighborhood nuns so she could save up enough money to buy a car. She ditched the boy and joined the convent. A 22-year-old man who is taking a break from college because life in our country tends to move at such a rapid-fire pace, it’s sometimes tough to carve out enough time to think about what you really want to do with your life.
The Walking Pilgrimage from Great Meadows to Doylestown is a spiritual and a social event that brings together family, friends and people who reconnect every year just for the walk, which takes places in August — rain, shine, sweltering heat, whatever the weather.
People come mostly from communities connected to Saints Peter & Paul Church and from within distances you can reach on one tank of gas, although some pilgrims ventured from as far away as California, Colorado and Canada. This is the 28th year pilgrims marched to Doylestown, Pennsylvania where the American Czestochowa, or National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa is located. Our Lady of Czestochowa is considered the most sacred icon in Poland and the tradition of making pilgrimages to the small church where she is kept dates back by some accounts to the 14th century.
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Many of the pilgrims on this walk have a strong emotional connection to the event. A lot of them emigrated from Poland fairly recently — either before the martial law of the 1980s or they came over in the early 90s, after communism fell, but while expectations of the country’s future were uncertain. The pilgrimage is a way to preserve this tradition of their homeland. Pulling it off logistically each year is a challenge and work behind the scenes is impressive.
How To Pull Off a Pilgrimage
For many of the people I met, the walk was a time for reflection — a “soul cleansing,” Angelica Terepka, 26, told me. She and twin sister Patricia have walked for the last 12 years.
Robert Pluta, 40, runs a restaurant in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Over the year, he keeps a mental list of the top things in life he wants to talk about with Father Mariusz, who he considers a good friend and also spiritual adviser. The walk for him is a metaphor for life.
Not everyone makes it. Ron Rinehart walks because he’s grateful for a truly life-changing experience he had 27 years ago when he was living under a bridge in Cleveland, Ohio. This year he may have been a bit too ambitious. Ron, 67, was nursing a stress fracture in one of his heels and the loss of a toenail after finishing The Camino about a month ago. It’s a pilgrimage the stretches nearly 500 miles from France across Spain. I didn’t see Ron after Day 1.
Over the four days, which began Thursday, Aug. 6, we walked our way through woods, parks, and neighborhoods in Warren and Hunterdon Counties, N.J. and then crossed into Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The first two days are the toughest because you’re covering the most distance — 17.5 and 19.5 miles. Stops along the way are built in for eating, bathroom and water breaks. You can also pop over to the Blister Sisters who will dress your wounds and try to treat whatever hurts.
Along the way each day, pilgrims sang, led by Christian musician Luke Spehar who walked with his wife Elizabeth. She's 6 months pregnant with their first child. We listened to recorded talks by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen who from the 1930s through the 50s had a popular Christian radio show and then television hour. We sang what’s called The Chaplet of Divine Mercy rosary each day at 3 p.m., which is a sacred time one of the walkers told me, because it’s when Jesus was crucified.
With a new burst of energy found during longer stops for lunch or extended breaks after walking the most physically challenging parts of the route, there were fun moments of impromptu dancing and singing. Each night included a church service — Mass and on the last night, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, which was followed by a little late-night dancing. The upbeat Christian music ended, replaced by a chorus of night insect noises and a few snoring hikers.
I did encounter a few surprises covering 57.5 miles in four days — I met only one person in our group who plans to see Pope Francis when he comes to the U.S. Most of the walkers I talked to about the pope seemed to feel with all the restrictions, street closings, ticketing, etc., it wasn’t’ worth the trouble.
“I’d rather pay to go to the Vatican,” one walker told me. “At least there I can get close enough to see him.” Conversations I heard and overheard on the hike about Pope Francis and other topics, left me thinking even though most of the people in our English-speaking group were walking primarily because religion is a big part of their lives, we were all connected by common themes tied to building better relationships, growing religiously or spiritually, and a desire to help others.
The highlight for me, personally, was getting to know some of the men in gray tunics. My fascination with The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal grew to a feeling of awe by the time the walk ended. They are good, good, benevolent, happy people. From what I could tell, the Friars organized the walking part of the event, led by Brother Simon, who I think would agree they’re so good at living in the moment, if you’re a control freak or have a need to know in great detail what’s next on the agenda or around the corner you may think they’re a little haphazard or loose on the planning. They are, but it all works out. The Friars thread through the line of pilgrims, sharing jokes and stories in lighter moments and hearing confession at all times of the day and late into the night. I heard story after story after story about how the Friars had helped either the person I was talking with or someone very close to them. They are a force, but not in a forceful way. I don’t know how else to explain it, but for me it was worth every mile just to have that experience.
On Day 4, I awoke to the sound of a mother hushingly scolding her child, in Polish. It took me a moment to remember where I was, but once again sleep had eased the stiffness in my legs, the aches in my lower back and shoulder. The chatter of the morning at the Haring Brothers Farm in Doylestown got louder as pilgrims emerged to brush their teeth and freshen up. Sunday morning’s routine was less hectic. Breaking camp for the last time, walkers — even those blistered and bruised — seem to embrace the day with a sense of accomplishment and also anticipation of the final Mass. Some pilgrims packed up their hiking gear and put on their church clothes for the last 5 miles.
The pilgrimage ended with a challenging walk uphill leading right into the grounds of Our Lady of Czestochowa shrine in Doylestown, a welcome splash of Holy Water and celebratory Mass.
When Mass was over, I watched old friends and new friends say their goodbyes as I collected my backpack, work gear and camping gear. I heard the shuffle of sandals as I started to head down the stairs to catch my ride home at the front entrance of the shrine. I turned around to see Brother Simon coming toward me, arms outstretched with that big, mischievous smile. “Did you get everything you needed?”
Yes, Brother Simon, I did. Thank you.