Rome came to Sheboygan on Sunday, Nov. 3, in the form of a seven-church pilgrimage to the city’s six parishes and the chapel at St. Nicholas Hospital, reminiscent of the “Seven-Church Walk,” instituted by St. Philip Neri in 16th century Rome.

While the Roman version, traditionally held during Holy Week, takes participants on a 14-mile walk to the four major basilicas – St. Peter’s, St. Mary Major, St. John Lateran and St. Paul Outside the Walls – and three of the minor basilicas – St. Sebastian, St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, and the Church of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem, the Sheboygan variation had participants riding from church to church in a bus provided by Roncalli High School, Manitowoc.

But, according to Teresa Bettag, organizer of the event, the spirit of prayerfulness, exploration and learning about the churches that serve this community was reminiscent of the intention of St. Philip Neri “who was always interested in doing things that would bring people together.”

Bettag got the idea of organizing the walk from her daughter, Mary.

“Mary went to Rome during the spring semester last year … she’s a junior this year majoring in theology and math at Silver Lake College in Manitowoc,” Bettag said. “She was able to experience the Seven Church Walk during Holy Week and she was telling me all about it. And it popped in my head that we had seven tabernacles in Sheboygan … we should do something like that.”

Bettag noted that she wanted to offer the event during 2013, since in October, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI called for a “Year of Faith,” which invited Catholics to devote time and attention to the teachings of the church.

“It’s just one more way to build community … to get people out of their comfort zone,” she said. “I think so often we tend to sit in the same pews, go to the same Mass, and this just helps us to feel more Catholic … more universal, and to show that we’re the church … that we’re disciples going out.”

More than 70 “pilgrims” from area churches participated in the event. The day began with a luncheon sponsored by the SS. Cyril and Methodius Fellowship Group, with profits benefitting its scholarship fund. Participants then boarded the bus and visited each of the parishes and St. Nicholas Hospital chapel, listening to an approximately 30-minute presentation at each stop where a “tour guide” gave a history and presentation about his or her parish. Bettag asked priests and/or secretaries from each of the parishes to recommend someone who had a good knowledge of the history of the parish.
She credited the presenters at each of the stops for their informative, thoughtful insights. Representatives giving presentations and their respective parishes were: Mary Pat Ryan, SS. Cyril and Methodius; Deacon Mike Burch, St. Peter Claver; Bob Krueger, Immaculate Conception; Chris Roenitz, St. Clement; Marty Folan, St. Nicholas Hospital Chapel; Jeanne Bitkers, St. Dominic; Joe Leonhard, Holy Name.

At the end of the event, participants returned to SS. Cyril and Methodius and enjoyed “Sundaes on a Sunday.” According to Bettag, even the ice cream treat at the end of the day had a Roman connection.

“It was tradition in Rome, too, with the seminarians, that the ‘eighth basilica’ was a gelato stand. So they end up with ice cream, and we ended up with ice cream, too,” she said.

Deacon Burch, pastoral coordinator at SS. Cyril and Methodius, St. Peter Claver and Immaculate Conception, said the afternoon was “great. It was more than I expected. I think the event fostered appreciation and understanding of each other’s parishes. It was interesting to see how emotionally connected people were with their individual parishes.”

Deacon Burch said the afternoon promoted ideas for future outreach programs.

“The idea came up for an ecumenical tour,” he said.

Ryan called the experience, “wonderful. It was so well done. I met different people … made new friends. I learned a lot at every place we went.”

She agreed the experience had possibilities.

“I think it will blossom from this … I think it’s a movement that’s going to grow,” she said, noting that some of the people she spoke with thought it would be wonderful to offer a similar experience for younger people.  

For Mary Bettag, something similar transcended the miles between Rome and Sheboygan.

“The spirit was the same. I was very impressed. I was wondering how it would compare but it actually had almost the same spirit … it was definitely a spirit of prayer. I was so impressed with all the pilgrims who showed up and how it was handled from beginning to end. It was definitely very prayerful, and that was what I had in Rome as well,” she said.

Teresa Bettag was also pleased with how the event unfolded.

“We had a wonderful amount of people and I think everyone was just so joy-filled and seemed to really enjoy it from beginning to end. I think they were pleasantly surprised by all that they learned, even if they grew up here,” she said. “And I think new connections and friendships were made.” Ann Grote-Pirrung