For centuries, Christian pilgrims have trod the Way of St. James, carrying their lives on their backs as they travel by foot along one of a dozen paths that bear the faithful through the corners of Europe to Santiago de Compostela, where tradition holds that the remains of St. James are buried.
This rigorous physical and spiritual undertaking is mimicked by Fr. Andrew Kurz’s “Wisconsin Way” pilgrimage, a 120-mile expedition from the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, in the Green Bay Diocese to Holy Hill in Hubertus. Fr. Kurz, a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay, first completed the pilgrimage by himself in October 2013, and this past May he embarked on a second pilgrimage with a group of seminarians.
When Abbey Gagne heard about the Wisconsin Way, she was disappointed there wasn’t an option for girls. The 17-year-old confirmand from St. Peter Parish, Slinger, had just seen “The Way,” the 2011 film starring Martin Sheen, and was inspired by the tenacious devotion of the historical pilgrim.
“My mom and I listen to Relevant Radio, and we heard about Fr. Kurz and how he was planning a men’s pilgrimage,” she said. “And I thought, ‘I wish there was one for girls!’”
Gagne and her mother Chris took the idea to St. Peter director of religious
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education Eileen Belongea, who got in contact with Fr. Kurz and planned the first Wisconsin Way for Women, undertaken this June by Belongea, the Gagnes and eight other Catholic women from around the state. The objective mirrored that of Fr. Kurz’s men’s pilgrimage: to pray for vocations to the priesthood, to religious life, to marriage and to the holy single life.
“We were really walking the Gospel – when Jesus said to the apostles to go out and take nothing with you (to the) towns that receive you, and receive the food that they offer,” said Belongea. “That was really beautiful. We came to realize along the way that this pilgrimage wasn’t just about us, but was about all those people who were helping us along the way.”
The pilgrims would ultimately walk 140 miles in nine days, setting out from the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help on June 15 and arriving at Holy Hill on June 24. Due to scheduling conflicts, only nine of the 11 pilgrims participated for the entire nine days; five adult women and four teenagers would eventually complete the entire pilgrimage, praying the Diocese of Brooklyn’s Novena for Vocations over the course of their journey.
After beginning their first day with 11 a.m. Mass, the group received a special blessing from the shrine’s chaplain, Fr. James Walling.
“He told us that a pilgrimage is just really an example of our Christian lives and how we are all on pilgrimage until we are eventually home in heaven with God,” said Belongea. “He said, ‘As you walk along the way, if people stop and ask where are you going, you tell them: heaven.’ So that was what we did the rest of the pilgrimage. That was beautiful.”
The group walked an average of 15 miles each day and made camp at various host parishes and monasteries along the way – sometimes even sleeping outdoors. Belongea plotted the route of the pilgrimage to coincide with “spiritual hotspots” like the monastery of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns in Denmark, in the Green Bay Diocese, where the group spent its second night, celebrating Mass with the sisters the following morning. Another “hotspot” was Holy Resurrection Monastery in St. Nazianz, where the pilgrims enjoyed evening prayers with the monks and learned more about the Eastern Rite.
For the Gagnes, the experience was a mix of breathtaking beauty, profound spiritual fulfillment and grueling physical stress.
“It was very physically challenging, but at the same time I still kept going,” said Abbey Gagne. “Usually when I’m doing something like that I just say, ‘OK, I’m done.’ But on (the pilgrimage) I had to keep going, just kind of offering it up and remembering everyone else on the trip.”
“Sometimes we just went a half a day at a time and that was all you could focus on, and really giving up all the difficult things, giving that up to Jesus every day,” said Chris Gagne.
For Belongea, the journey emphasized the link between physical endurance and spiritual growth. The pilgrimage, for her, was a metaphor for the Christian’s earthly experience.
“Yes, we were on a physical journey and yes, it was sometimes physically challenging, but to me that most beautiful thing about it was we would start every morning in such high spirits, talking and singing and laughing and enjoying ourselves along the road,” said Belongea. “Depending on what challenges each day brought us, as the day wore on, we would get tired and a lot of times some of us would just walk side by side and we would get a little mantra going, and walk to the beat of ‘Pray with Mary, walk with Jesus.’ Sometimes that was the only thing that could get us going.
“Other times we would all fall very silent and we would have to dig deep within ourselves to find that inner strength, that perseverance to make it to our host site. Sometimes that’s where the greatest spiritual growth happened on the pilgrimage – and isn’t that the way it is in life, too? In life, we’re always so joyful …, but then when difficulties come, are we going to fall into complaining or quitting, or are we going to dig deep within and ask our Lord for the strength and the perseverance to continue?”
Belongea hopes to make the Wisconsin Way for Women an annual pilgrimage, possibly dividing it into two pilgrimages: one for adult women and one for teens. In fact, there was so much interest for this year’s pilgrimage that she had to turn interested parties away.
“Not everyone is called to take on this physical challenge of literally walking a pilgrimage, but for so many their way of walking the pilgrimage is by helping us and it really felt like at every stop we were taking more people with us spiritually,” she said. “I really felt like, although there were only nine of us who were walking the whole way, we were bringing more and more people with us every time we stopped – so by the time we got to Holy Hill we just had this whole mass of humanity with us.”