Ahead of the Aug. 15 feast of the Assumption, a number of area residents completed a three-day walking pilgrimage from Philadelphia to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown.
Their 35-mile journey began on Friday, Aug. 9 at St. Adalbert Church in the newly merged Nativity B.V.M. Parish, located in the city’s Port Richmond section. Approximately 60 pilgrims of all ages joined in prayer and Eucharistic adoration before beginning their walk, singing hymns and reciting the rosary along the way.
By Sunday, when the group arrived at the shrine, that number was 50 times higher, as the Philadelphia group joined an estimated 3,000 fellow pilgrims from central and northern New Jersey for an Aug. 11 Mass in Polish, English and Spanish in the shrine’s main church.
“Some members of our group couldn’t be with us on the first day due to work,” said Maria Koleda, who helped coordinate the pilgrimage as part of the Polish apostolate at St. Adalbert Church. “But by the second day, we usually have about 200 pilgrims with us.”
Like many from the Philadelphia contingent, Koleda has faithfully undertaken the annual trek for most of its 18 years, occasionally driving one of the support vehicles, but more often walking in the neighborhoods, parks and business districts through which the route winds.
Parishes open their doors along the way
As in the past, the local pilgrims – accompanied by police escorts from start to finish — were welcomed by a number of area parishes that provided refreshments, rest and even overnight accommodations for the travelers, who also pay $75 per adult to defray overall costs.
St. John Cantius in Philadelphia’s Bridesburg section marked the first stop on the weekend journey. Like Nativity B.V.M., the parish has a vibrant Polish community, and laid out a breakfast spread that included favorites such as cheese babka.
Travel to Poland prevented parochial vicar Father Konstanty Pruszynski from greeting the group, but before his departure he baked two cakes for the pilgrims.
“It was his way of making sure everything went well,” explained parishioner Beata Zuk, one of a dozen St. John Cantius parishioners who assisted with hospitality on Friday morning.
Before breakfast was served, Father James Olson, pastor of Nativity B.V.M., joked about the pace of the pilgrimage.
“You folks walk fast!” he said, laughing.
Besides St. John Cantius, other parishes who supported the pilgrims included St. Albert the Great in Huntingdon Valley, St. Anne Ukrainian Catholic Church in Warrington, Nativity of Our Lord in Warminster and St. Robert Bellarmine in Warrington.
The Memorial Church of St. Luke, an Episcopal congregation in Northeast Philadelphia, also opened its doors to the travelers.
Father Joseph Watson, pastor of Nativity of Our Lord, personally greeted the pilgrims as they entered the parish grounds from a congested Street Road on Saturday afternoon.
He described the event, which the Bucks County parish has long supported, as “a great witness,” and said that he was glad the participants felt welcome.
(Related: Watch a video of the three-day pilgrimage to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa.)
The evening before, first-time pilgrim Alexander Szymanski had unwittingly returned to the parish where he’d been baptized, when the group camped out at St. Albert the Great.
The 22-year-old’s father Eugene Szymanksi, who fell in step with the pilgrims on their second day, said he was “speechless” at the coincidence.
“This is beautiful, just something I’ve never experienced,” said the elder Szymanski, who along with his son is a member of Assumption B.V.M. Parish in Feasterville. “Being right there with God, and seeing so many people who are on the same pathway, is wonderful.”
His son agreed, adding that the pilgrimage served as a “brave proclamation” of “faith and heritage.”
Faith and fun for youth
A large number of children and youth, ranging in age from nine to 19, accompanied their parents to the shrine, enjoying both the sense of adventure and spirituality.
Thirteen-year-old Victoria of Nativity B.V.M. described the pilgrimage as “a connection with God,” and advised a skeptical friend that the journey was genuinely “fun.”
Fellow parishioner and pilgrim Natalia, also 13, said that the three days of walking and prayer made her “feel stronger and closer to God.”
Several of the older youth donned safety vests and handheld traffic signs to assist as crossing guards along the route, a responsibility they’re now old enough to assume after years of making the annual trek.
“Even though it gets hot, you push through it,” said 17-year-old Connor Jablonsky of Nativity B.V.M. “You will not regret it.”
Suffering and prayer
Sacrifice is “absolutely part” of making a pilgrimage, said Father Jan Palkowski, now pastor emeritus of St. Adalbert and a parochial vicar at Nativity B.V.M.
“Many Catholics, especially in other countries, stress the importance of sacrifice, especially by fasting even outside of Lent,” said Father Palkowski, observing that such self-denial, coupled with the exertion required by pilgrimages, “is also good for your health.”
“It’s just very fulfilling, spiritually, to know that your body can conquer anything for God,” added Koleda.
For years, Jan Szymula carried the group’s mobile sound system – a wireless rig that amplifies the group’s musicians, singers and speakers – on his back, powering the gear with a motorcycle battery.
The weight of the rig never bothered him, he said, although he and his sound team members have recently mounted the equipment (now connected to a car battery) to a wheeled frame.
Veterans of pilgrimages in Poland would find the Philadelphia to Doylestown trek a comfortable one, said Father Marek Chmielewski, a Marian scholar based at John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin.
Father Chmielewski — who celebrated Mass throughout the Aug. 9-11 pilgrimage as part of a month-long visit to Philadelphia — said that in his home diocese of Radom, a “normal” pilgrimage usually totals 125 to 150 miles over 7 or 8 days, or about 12 to 15 miles per day.
Many local participants said that heartfelt prayer intentions keep them focused on the destination, rather than the distance.
Throughout the journey, Koleda carried a basket of handwritten petitions that were placed on the altar during the pilgrimage’s various Masses.
Jagoda Szanc of St. John Cantius, who has attended the pilgrimage for the past 18 years, said that she carried a number of intentions in her handbag and in her heart.
Szanc (nicknamed “Blueberry” for the English translation of her Polish first name) listed family, friends and the sick among her prayer requests, along with petitions for “all priests, the Polish community and the peace of the world.”
Walking in spiritual formation
Pilgrimages can foster harmony by providing “an experience of closeness and togetherness,” said Father Chmielewski.
The simple act of walking a pilgrimage route with others “creates a bond where ‘Mr.’ and ‘Ms.’ become ‘you are my brother, you are my sister,’” he said.
When pastors and clergy share this journey, the pilgrimage can become a “spiritual formation on foot.”
“Sometimes people ask questions about religion, about faith, and priests have the chance to answer them,” said Father Chmielewski.
Even the pilgrimage planning process, which can take several weeks or months, deepens the sense of community among participants, he said.
And there’s always room for more pilgrims, said Koleda as she eyed the hundreds who filled the shrine’s church, many traversing the main aisle on their knees.
With the merger, she and her fellow pilgrimage organizers are hoping that some of the new parishioners will join them next year.
The experience is life-changing, she said.
“I can never walk into this concluding Mass without crying,” said Koleda. “The church is not dead. The world just needs to find it.”
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