April 22, 2011

Carrying a cross, seeking comfort: Lenten pilgrimage to honor his wife leads man to attend Mass at 40 churches in 40 days

Wanting to honor his wife, Mary, who died in January, Jeff Williamson set out this Lent to attend Mass at 40 churches in 40 days. Here, he poses in front of the sanctuary of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Church in Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Wanting to honor his wife, Mary, who died in January, Jeff Williamson set out this Lent to attend Mass at 40 churches in 40 days. Here, he poses in front of the sanctuary of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Church in Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

When Jeff Williamson first had the idea, he viewed it as a way to honor his wife, Mary, who died in January.

He also hoped that his remarkable journey during Lent would lead other people—especially those who are struggling with illness, job troubles and a personal loss—to seek a closer relationship with God.

So Williamson set out on his inspiring plan—to attend Mass for 40 consecutive days at 40 different Catholic churches across central Indiana. (See a list of the churches he's visited)

And every day, the 47-year-old father of two teenaged daughters electronically shared with friends his thoughts and insights about his latest church visit—a daily account that included this poignant passage from the beginning of his pilgrimage:

“For over six years, there has been a darkness cast over our home and our hearts while Mary battled valiantly against ovarian cancer,” Williamson wrote. “It is my intent not only for myself, but for those of you who may need spiritual healing and need to be led back home to the Lord, that you can come along with me on my daily pilgrimage.”

More than 1,000 miles and more than 40 Masses and 40 churches later, Williamson’s journey of the heart and the soul is scheduled to end on Easter Sunday in a setting that became symbolic and touching for him, his daughters, and the wife and mother they miss so much.

Memorable moments in a faith journey

Williamson began his Lenten pilgrimage on Ash Wednesday at a Mass at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis—the school where his daughter, Casey, is a senior, his daughter, Carolyn, graduated in 2009 and his wife, Mary Dormann Williamson, graduated in 1982.

The second day of his spiritual journey led him to his parish church, St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis, the church where he and Mary were married in 1989, where their two children were baptized and where the funeral Mass for Mary was celebrated.

From there, his church destinations became less predictable.

“You know how to make God laugh?” Williamson asks. “You wake up and tell him your plans. Then he laughs. He has had a plan for me to be at different places. One day, I was trying to attend St. John’s [the Evangelist Church] downtown, but the gate was closed and there was construction on all the streets so there was no street parking. I drove around a couple times and gave up after I had decided that they were too far into Mass. So I went to Mass at Holy Spirit.”

Still, at every step along the way, Williamson learned to count on discovering something special about each church, the people he met there or the Lenten message that was shared.

On the 13th day of his pilgrimage, he shared this account of his visit to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Carmel, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese: “Simply beautiful and modern sanctuary. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the crucifix, which was modern art, made of metal, and oddly shaped and colorful and distorted. Yet it effused the images of what pain Jesus had endured on the cross for us.”

On the 16th day, he wrote, “I visited Holy Angels today. The congregation at this parish is predominantly

African-American. The chapel Mass was very, very intimate. The most interesting part was during the Lord’s Prayer. All seven of us gathered around the altar, holding hands, and prayed in unison. Then we all greeted each other with the sign of peace. I wondered if the Apostles had a similar feeling when in communion with Jesus for the Last Supper.”

Williamson was also moved by the Stations of the Cross at St. Joseph Church in Lebanon, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese.

“As I looked at each one individually, I could feel myself being drawn into the story, deeper and deeper till the final Station,” he noted. “These were easily the prettiest and most real Stations of the Cross which I have encountered. I was particularly struck by the one where Simon helped Jesus after he had fallen. I know that Jesus is now there to help us all with the crosses that we bear.”

Carrying a cross, seeking comfort

Williamson’s cross has been the loss of his wife of 21½ years.

“Her not being here is so fresh,” he says, emotion filling his voice. “Everywhere I go, I’m reminded of her.”

That reality has been true during his Lenten pilgrimage, too. When he came to Mass at St. Monica Church in Indianapolis on the fifth day of his journey, he recalled how their family often attended the 6 p.m. Sunday Mass there after weekends filled with softball tournaments for Carolyn’s and Casey’s teams.

“This was the last place we attended Mass as a family,” he also noted about St. Monica Church. “I will always consider her spirit to fill that space where we usually sat. It comforts me to sit there and to remember her beside me, or one of our daughters leaning against her or me.”

On Mary’s birthday—April 1—he attended Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Cicero, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese.

“The picture of Jesus’ Sacred Heart was Mary’s favorite and is prominently displayed in our home,” Williamson wrote. “The fire in his heart represents the transformative power of his divine love for all of us. I prayed for his love to take me out of the darkness of this Lenten season and into the beautiful light of a new day. My heart was heavy when I arrived, and was truly transformed when I left.”

Williamson also drew comfort from his visit to St. Therese of the Infant Jesus (Little Flower) Church in Indianapolis. A priest’s homily about Lazarus that day made him think of Mary’s lifelong struggle with walking.

“I have told several people this story,” he wrote in his journal. “I believe that merely seconds after she exhaled her final breath that she was carried to heaven by the angels to meet St. Peter at the pearly gates. St. Peter was so happy to meet Mary, and very proudly he held up a stunning pair of wings for her. He proclaimed to her that he had been saving these very special wings for a long, long time, just for her.

“Mary, in her humble way, thanked him profusely and bowed many times to St. Peter while apologizing to him. ‘You see,’ she said to him, ‘I have had these bad legs my entire life, which have served me well and helped me to serve others, yet didn’t allow me to run and play with my friends and children the way I would have loved to be able to. So St. Peter, while I appreciate the offer of the most beautiful wings in all of heaven, would you mind terribly if I could have a pair of new legs so that I can run around heaven without burden and strife?’

“St. Peter was greatly humbled and granted her wish immediately. And through a hot, thick blur of tears, I have faith, which I cannot see, nor touch or hear. Yet I know that she is pain-free after Jesus called HER from the tomb.”

‘It’s a place where I feel her spirit’

This weekend, Williamson will end his pilgrimage by visiting two places that have a spiritual poignancy to him and Mary.

On Holy Saturday night, he will attend the Easter Vigil at St. Bernadette Church in Indianapolis. It’s the home of the Cursillo Movement in Indianapolis, a Catholic lay movement that uses retreats to help people draw closer to God and closer to each other in a spirit of friendship. Williamson has been involved in the movement for 20 years.

“It feels like home when I’m there,” Williamson says. “When I’m there on a retreat weekend, I feel so safe, I never want to leave. Mary worked retreats there, too. It’s a place where I feel her spirit.”

On Easter Sunday, Williamson and his daughters plan to attend the 11 a.m. Mass in the chapel at IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. Mary worked at the hospital for 20 years. She also was a patient there in the cancer unit.

Trying to put his thoughts of Mary and his Lenten pilgrimage into perspective, Williamson says, “I don’t think I needed a turning point in my faith, but this has made my love for God and others increase. It’s uplifted my soul and my spirit.”

Still, the road to healing continues.

He thinks of Mary and says, “I miss her.” †

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