June 24, 2016

Pilgrims walk 60 miles to visit shrine of St. Theodora and ‘grow closer to God’

Bev Watt, left, and Monica Robinson smile as they cross the Wabash River on June 10 while on a walking pilgrimage to visit the shrine of St. Theodora Guérin in her shrine at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. (Submitted photo by Jim Recasner)

Bev Watt, left, and Monica Robinson smile as they cross the Wabash River on June 10 while on a walking pilgrimage to visit the shrine of St. Theodora Guérin in her shrine at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. (Submitted photo by Jim Recasner)

By Natalie Hoefer

PLAINFIELD—Under the hot sun, exhausted from walking nearly 60 miles along U.S. 40, Gina Hines decided she had just about had it.

“We’d been in a lot of traffic, with no shoulder to walk on,” said the member of SS. Francis and Clare of Assisi Parish in Greenwood. “I kept having to get back up on the curb where it’s sandy and the ground was uneven. … I was ready to quit.”

Just then, her group came upon a shaded, even trail that ultimately led just two blocks from the final destination of the day’s trek.

Such moments of divine providence were plenty for the 10 members of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and the Diocese of Lafayette who made a 60-mile walking pilgrimage from Plainfield to Terre Haute, with the shrine of St. Theodora Guérin on the grounds of the motherhouse of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods as their final destination. They started in Indianapolis on June 7, walked from Plainfield to Terre Haute on June 8-10, and spent June 11-12 at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

Through prayer, faith, fellowship, the generosity of others and the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other, the group sought to grow closer to God during the Holy Year of Mercy as they contemplated the physical and spiritual destination of their journey.

‘A pilgrimage we could achieve’

Although the journey began on June 7, it was conceived in the fall of last year.

While discussing Pope Francis’ Bull of Indiction “Misericordiae Vultus” (“The Face of Mercy”) announcing the Holy Year of Mercy, Robinson and fellow SS. Francis and Clare parishioner Jim Recasner were inspired by its call for pilgrimage:

“The practice of pilgrimage has a special place in the Holy Year, because it represents the journey each of us makes in this life,” Pope Francis said in paragraph 14 of the document. “Life itself is a pilgrimage, and the human being is a viator, a pilgrim travelling along the road, making his way to the desired destination.”

While pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Rome or Santiago de Compostela in Spain involve a large commitment of time and money, Recasner noted, “For us in Indiana … we have our Indiana saint, and it’s [a pilgrimage] that we could achieve.”

Such a pilgrimage would have been within reach by car. But that seemed too easy.

“[We’re walking] because a pilgrimage is about offering sacrifice, and it takes us a little bit longer,” said Robinson. “We can be more prayerful along the way.”

Robinson and Recasner met with members of the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods to discuss the idea.

“The sisters really supported us going ahead with this [pilgrimage], and now here we are!” said Recasner on June 8.

‘We started off with a bang!’

The journey began on June 7 with a specific pilgrimage destination Pope Francis mentioned in his Bull of Indiction: the Holy Doors of Mercy. For the group of pilgrims, those doors were at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis.

Recasner described the start of the pilgrimage at the cathedral: “With Mass and the Holy Doors and confession—we started off with a bang!”

The pilgrims spent their first night at the Knights of Columbus Mater Dei Council building one block east of the cathedral, viewing a documentary on the life of St. Theodora Guérin before settling in for sleep.

The next morning, the pilgrims drove to St. Susanna Church in Plainfield for Mass at 7:30 a.m. After Mass, the group stood before the altar in a circle. Taking turns, they read aloud from Mother Theodore’s journal about the beginning of her own journey from France to western Indiana in 1840. They called upon her intercession for blessings and providence as they commenced their 60-mile walk.

‘Not easy, but not as hard’

Such prayer marked the beginning of each day’s journey before stepping out around 8 a.m. The group also stopped each day at 3 p.m. to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet.

Lunch was eaten on the go, provided by supportive family and friends following along in mini-vans.

The pilgrims ended each walking day of their journey around 5 to 5:30 p.m. Dinner was enjoyed communally, usually cooked by a member from one of the parishes opening its church—or gym or parish life center—doors to the group for sleeping quarters: St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle on June 8, Annunciation Parish in Brazil on June 9, and St. Patrick Parish in Terre Haute on June 10.

Each morning, the pilgrims were then picked up and delivered to the spot where they stopped trekking the night before.

“Jim had it planned out so well,” said Hines. “He even planned ahead for ice cream stops each day!”

The cool treat was appreciated on the third day of the pilgrimage, when the temperature reached 93 degrees, not taking into account the heat radiating from the blacktop of U.S. 40.

“Three of the walkers developed blisters on their feet,” said Recasner. “Another had to stop walking on the last day, but did some driving for us. Our oldest pilgrim, Bev [Watt of St. Louis de Montfort Parish in Fishers, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese], was 78. She was the only pilgrim who walked the entire distance without taking a riding break.”

Hines was surprised at her lack of pain by the third day.

“I can’t get over how kind of easy it’s been,” she said. “Not easy, but not as hard as I thought. I thought I heard Jesus say Friday morning, ‘That’s because I carried you.’ ”

‘We were all brought to tears’

The sisters sent a bus to pick up the pilgrims in Terre Haute on Saturday morning to take them to Saint-Mary-of-the-Woods.

In an effort to re-create the feel of Mother Theodore’s own arrival, words from her journal were read describing her and her sister-companions’ first moments on the grounds of their new home. A man dressed as the local priest of 1840, Father Stanislaus Buteux, greeted the pilgrims with the words he spoke upon the sisters’ arrival as recorded by Mother Theordore: “Come down, sisters, we have arrived.”

As the pilgrims stepped down from the bus, they were greeted by a Sister of Providence dressed as Mother Theodore. Keeping in character, “Mother Theodore” led the pilgrims through a ravine to a replica of the log cabin where the six original sisters prayed and adored the Eucharist after their arrival.

The next event brought the pilgrims “to tears,” said Hines. They were led to Providence Hall through a door only used to accept new postulants.

“When they opened the door, at least 40 of [the sisters] were just cheering and clapping, everything from young ones to [those who were] wheelchair-bound. I was immediately reminded of Hebrews 12:1, and felt like this must be what it will be like once we reach heaven—‘so great a cloud of witnesses’ cheering our arrival at our final destination.”

Recasner reflected on the power of that moment.

“We started our pilgrimage with the Holy Doors at the cathedral,” he said. “In a way we were going from one set of Holy Doors to another.”

After a break, the pilgrims celebrated Mass with the sisters, had lunch, then finally were taken to the physical destination of their pilgrimage: the shrine of St. Theodora.

“The highlight for us there was kneeling around the casket of Mother Theodore, touching it and praying together.” Hines said. “I think it is the closest in spirit I have ever felt to a saint, even though I have been to many of their shrines in Europe.”

Later that day, the pilgrims took a tour of the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods grounds, had dinner at the Knights of Columbus’ Gibault Children’s Services in Terre Haute, then enjoyed their first night’s sleep in “real beds” in four nights.

The last day of the pilgrimage included Mass with the sisters and a visit to the shell chapel, built by Mother Theodore and her sisters with shells from the Wabash River in thanksgiving for her second safe crossing of the Atlantic as she sought funding in France.

‘You do not make the journey alone’

The pilgrims achieved the physical destination of their pilgrimage, but what of their spiritual journey?

“My takeaway is you may think you can’t do it, but God can, and you have to just trust that,” said Hines.

Recasner noted, “I realized you do not make the journey [of life] alone. Jesus gave us two commandments: love God, and love your neighbor. When you’re making a pilgrimage through life, you can’t make it by yourself because you’ve got God and your neighbor.”

Robinson agreed: “That journey required all of us, and the gifts and talents and strengths all of us had to get us all there.”

The journey had its desired impact of helping the pilgrims grow closer to God.

“[The] reading on Sunday was about forgiveness,” Recasner said. “It was an image to us that, once again, you don’t have to carry all your baggage by yourself. God is there to help you with that, with his forgiveness and mercy.”

(For those interested in making a group visit to the shrine of St. Theodora, contact Rita O’Donohue at 812-535-2945, or e-mail tours@spsmw.org.)

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