Passing through a holy door is an opportunity available to most of us during this Jubilee Year of Mercy. But imagine walking more than 100 miles to do so. That is what three seminarians set out to do this summer.
“Pilgrimages are a great part of our Church’s history and a great way to give thanks to God for His creation and, also, to ask for His forgiveness for all our sins,” says Liam Gallagher, age 19.
On July 29, Gallagher, Dennis Fitts, age 18, and Joe Moreshead, age 25, set off on a pilgrimage from the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston to Saint John Church in Bangor, sites of two of the four holy doors that were opened in the diocese for the jubilee year. Dennis and Liam had previously walked from the holy door at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland to the basilica. Their aim was to promote vocations in the diocese.
“It’s quite a feat to walk from Portland to Lewiston, and now from Lewiston to Bangor, so we’re hoping just the sheer number of miles might inspire some people,” says Liam.
After celebrating Mass and receiving a pilgrim’s blessing from Father Steven Cartwright, the trio paused to pray at the holy door of the basilica, marking the beginning of what would be an eight-day journey. Their stops included Litchfield, Hallowell, Augusta, Windsor, Freedom, Monroe, Hampden and, finally, Bangor.
As they walked, they prayed for vocations and for special intentions, adding to their list as they met people along the way.
“We just kept asking, ‘Can we pray for you?’ So, we have this list of prayer intentions, and the prayer intentions kept racking up further and further,” says Joe.
The seminarians also carried with them the relics of saints, whose intercession they sought along the way. They included Saint John Vianney, the patron saint of priests; Saint Faustina, to whom Jesus shared his message of divine mercy; Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first U.S. citizen to be canonized; Saint Pius X; and Saint Maria Goretti, the patroness of youth.
The trip was not without its challenges, most especially the weight of the packs they carried, which included tents and sleeping bags.
“It’s been a lot of work, definitely,” says Dennis.
They say the most arduous part of the journey was the stretch between Windsor and Freedom.
“We didn’t have a place to stay, and we didn’t know how far we were walking, so we were going to walk as far as we could until we dropped and then we would put up a tent,” explains Joe. “We actually did stop around nine o’clock at night, said a prayer to the Blessed Mother, ‘Please can we find a place to stay soon. Keep us safe.’ And sure enough, Liam found a field, not too far down the road.”
“We did 38 miles in two days, which is more than when Dennis and I went from Portland to Lewiston in two days,” says Liam. “The fact that we were able to do that, one more mile in the same number of days, and with miles before and afterwards, is only by the grace of God.”
The seminarians say they received many such blessings as they walked.
“It was great, so, so many graces. There was a sense throughout the journey, at least for me, that the Blessed Mother was carrying us the whole way,” says Joe.
“I think one of the biggest surprises, but also one of the biggest blessings, has been all the nice people we’ve met along the way,” says Dennis.
They recall, for instance, the encounters they had between Lewiston and Hallowell.
“We had several people, complete strangers, stop to help. We had one lady somewhere on the route – we bought vegetables from her at a farm stand – she actually drove back home, got cookies, and Mountain Dew, and water, and granola bars, and drove back, found us on the side of the road, pulled over, gave us food, then left,” says Joe.
Then, there was the family who waved and said hello as they walked by.
“The next thing you know, we were sitting on their porch for three or four hours, chatting. They were feeding us,” says Joe.
In Augusta, they took a morning to meet with kids taking part in Saint Michael School’s summer enrichment program. It was an unplanned but rewarding stop.
“We talked with the kids about our vocation stories and seminary life, and they got to ask questions, and we got to hang out and play basketball with them. It was very, very neat,” says Dennis.
Towards the end of their journey, as they walked from Monroe to Hampden, they say another family, who had followed their trek on Facebook, showed up just when they needed them most.
“This car slows down, stops next to us. And I’m like, oh boy, they’re going to give us a hard time or something. So they rolled down the windows, and we looked in and I recognized them… It was the Gordons, Mr. and Mrs. Gordon, who I had met just this past summer. They came down to the Cathedral where I go to church,” recalls Dennis. “They stopped to say, ‘We’re praying for you guys. This is awesome.’ And that just gave us a lot of energy, a lot of joy, and we just kept going. And then, about an hour and a half later, they stopped by again, and they had been to the store, and they had bought us peanut butter crackers, bananas, and water, all this great stuff and gave it to us, and it really gave us the last push we needed.”
“They just appeared out of nowhere,” says Joe. “There were a lot of experiences like this, that we weren’t doing this on our own. We were being carried by prayers, by other people.”
The seminarians say they were able to make the pilgrimage by putting their trust in God.
“We had to rely very heavily on God’s plan for us,” says Dennis. “It was a little nerve wracking at times and definitely a big struggle for us physically and mentally, having to surrender that much to the will of God, to the point where you don’t know where you’re staying at night. You don’t know where, exactly, you’re getting your next meal but just trusting that it will all work out, and it did.”
“It’s the most abandoned to God’s grace that I think I’ve been in a long time,” says Joe. “I wasn’t in control of anything. The only thing I could do was simply rely on Him, and it was just a powerful experience.”
Bothered by blisters, Joe was unable to walk the last leg of the journey, but Dennis and Liam say it was another time when they relied on God for strength. Determined to attend Mass at Saint Matthew Church in Hampden on the Feast Day of Saint John Vianney, they had to double their pace and even run, despite having already completed 94 miles.
“Our legs were ready to drop. Our feet hurt a lot, and we were five miles from Mass, and we decided we were just going to go for it,” says Liam. “So, we just pushed as hard as we could, probably harder than we could, and the last little bit, we had to run. We tightened up all the straps on our packs so they wouldn’t be flapping behind us, and basically, we ran across a road, up the embankment, across the parking lot, and into Mass, just in time.”
He says he knows they would not have been able to do it without God’s help.
“It’s by God’s grace. It was because we were accepting our pain and uniting it to his suffering on Calvary, and it was because we were understanding that we were not running to Mass for human achievement but for His glory, so we could partake in His Holy and Most Blessed Sacrament,” says Liam.
It’s a message they shared with members of the youth ministry group from Saint Paul the Apostle Parish, who joined in the walk from Hampden to Bangor.
“You’re forced into situations where you have nothing but God. You can’t rely on yourself, and that’s really hard for people because, as human beings, we like control,” says Joe. “Abandon yourselves to God. Because he can work marvelous deeds, if you let Him.”
“God will always give us the grace to move through and beyond any obstacle,” says Liam. “It was by His grace that were able to finally walk through those holy doors.”
The seminarians passed through the holy door together, kneeling and praying on each step leading up to it. Once inside, they prayed in thanksgiving before a statue of the Blessed Mother.
Although they admit the journey was tougher than anticipated, all are glad they did it.
“It was a great experience,” says Joe.
“I think that is a pilgrimage is, in some ways, similar to the journey to the priesthood and also the seminary – just kind of completely letting go to God’s will,” says Dennis. “It was an amazing experience”
“I’m so glad I made it the whole way, but I’m also so glad it’s over, and I made it through the doors,” Liam says. “It was amazing. It was absolutely amazing.”