While Lois described the trip as everything she expected of Rome and more, to the other travelers on the trip, including Archbishop Listecki and Fr. Ted Schmitt, a priest from the Chicago Archdiocese, the Fleming family themselves were an inspiration.
Accompanying Lois on the trip were two of her six children, Nancy Fleming and Patti Schilling, and Patti’s 13-year-old daughter, Alyssa.
To Fr. Schmitt, a friend and former student of Archbishop Listecki, the Fleming family was an example of faith.
“They demonstrated the importance of family; they were certainly committed to each other and I was particularly impressed by the granddaughter (Alyssa) who was so attentive and committed to her grandmother. They were really an inspiration and it was a wonderful experience to travel with them,” he said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald.
The pilgrimage to Rome was not Lois’ first trip traveling with an archbishop. In fact, in 2006, she and her husband, Ed Fleming, traveled to Ireland with Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan. But at that time, Lois’s cancer was undiagnosed and she had no problems getting around.
In February 2007, she learned she had breast cancer, and one month later, heard equally devastating news that she also had metastatic ovarian cancer.
The family was shocked, recalled Nancy, noting that cancer has afflicted seven of the 10 siblings in her mother’s family.
For the last three and a half years, Lois has undergone a series of treatments, including surgeries and chemotherapy. Through it all, however, Patti noted her parents’ strong Catholic faith has not wavered.
“Shortly after she started chemotherapy, they began nightly rosaries, thanking God for her progress, asking God to continue to watch over her,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Northfield, Minn.
Knowing how much their mother wanted to go to Rome, her children looked for ways to make the trip happen. Earlier this year, their answer came when Nancy read a notice in the newspaper about the pallium pilgrimage with Archbishop Listecki.
“We had been trying to arrange this on our own for about a year; first we were going to wing it on our own, and then my nephew was there studying for a semester, but that didn’t work either, but when I saw this in the newspaper, I called my sister and said, ‘I think this is our calling.’”
Patti readily agreed, and when they approached their father with the idea, he said, “If you girls take her, I’ll pay for it.”
They also consulted with her doctors who agreed she could make the trip and rearranged treatments to allow her to travel.
Lois traveled in a wheelchair, but with many helpers, including Archbishop Listecki and Alyssa, maneuvering it around Rome proved to be no problem, something not lost on Fr. Schmitt.
“It can be difficult to get around Rome, but her two daughters and granddaughter were incredible. Some spots were really hard to get to and they made it look easy,” he said.
“When my mom really wants to go someplace, she doesn’t want to sit around and miss anything,” said Patti, acknowledging she and Nancy, both nurses, were prepared for a lot of work. “We knew she’d need a wheelchair, and we were hoping she wouldn’t get too tired, but she really hung in there.”
Patti also praised others members of the group who lent a hand, including the archbishop.
“At times, he would see us struggling and pitch in,” said Patti, noting it was Archbishop Listecki’s sister, Penny Listecki, who informed them that wheelchair-bound visitors could go to the front during the papal audience, something Lois did for not only the papal audience, but also for the distribution of the palliums.
While overwhelmed with the beauty of the city, Fleming family members agreed that in addition to seeing the pope, their second favorite memory is the gelato stand.
“We made so many trips to the stand that the girl at the shop knew what flavor my niece was going to order,” recalled Nancy.
As he traveled with the Flemings, Fr. Schmitt, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church, Streamwood, Ill., said he was continually inspired by the family.
Lois and Nancy were the first people he met when he arrived at the Cousins Center for the pilgrimage sendoff. In talking, they mentioned to him how important this trip was to Lois and how it would likely be her last significant trip.
As they traveled in Italy, Fr. Schmitt said he was impressed to see “how committed she was to see all the great things in the city, and not let an infirmity slow her down or use it as an excuse.”
Fr. Schmitt noted that until he mentioned Lois’ cancer during a homily he gave toward the end of the pilgrimage, he suspects most of the other 100 pilgrims were unaware that she had cancer.
In his homily, Fr. Schmitt spoke of the evident bond between Fleming family members as they helped Lois experience her dream.
“Fr. Ted’s comments were heartwarming,” noted Patti, “because I didn’t think anything of our relationship with our mom. We are family and I wouldn’t think twice of helping family; it’s just natural to us, but it felt really nice to have somebody acknowledge that. I say kudos to my mom and dad for passing that on to us and I hope my daughter comes away with the same lesson in life.”