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Walking in the footsteps of a martyr

Led by three diocesan seminarians, a group of pilgrims went on a journey this August to learn about the life, love, and sacrifice of a missionary priest who ministered along the banks of the Kennebec River 300 years ago.

“Today, you’re going to have a chance to walk in the footsteps of Father Sebastian Râle, in places where he preached and in places where he ministered.  We’re going to reflect on his life, the adventures that came with it, the great love he had for the Abenaki people,” Joe Moreshead, a seminarian, told those gathered at St. Sebastian Church in Madison for the start of the pilgrimage.

“One of the beautiful things about this pilgrimage is our ability to walk on the same trails, through the same woods, by the same river that Father Sebastian Râle walked on his way to spread the Gospel,” said Liam Gallagher, also a seminarian.  “We’re able to follow the actual footsteps of Father Râle and go to this very holy place where this man is buried beneath the ground on which he celebrated the holy sacrifice of the Mass. It just fills you with incredible grace.”

Originally from Pontarlier, France, Sebastian Râle (also spelled Râsle) joined the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1674.  Fifteen years later, he left family and friends behind to travel to the Americas. Moreshead told those gathered that Father Râle chose the perilous path because he was driven by the love of Christ.

“When Father Râle encountered this amazing, burning love from the heart of Jesus, it lit his own heart on fire,” he said. “He had to make the love of Jesus Christ known to the farthest corners of the world, and believe me, Madison, Maine, in Father Râle’s day, was the farthest imaginable corner of the world.”

Father Râle lived much of his life among the Abenaki people. He composed a catechism and a dictionary in the Abenaki language. He is also credited with establishing the first school in Maine.

His mission work, however, also coincided with the struggle between the French and the English for the Americas, and it would cost him his life.  He fiercely defended the rights of the Abenaki people and was killed by the British in 1724.   Such was the Abenaki people’s love for him that seven members of the tribe were killed trying to protect him.

“In a world torn by warfare and tribalism, Christ’s love changed everything. The natives knew this, and this is why they did everything in their power to protect Father Râle,” Moreshead told the group.

The pilgrims walked along the banks of the Kennebec River, pausing at seven stops for prayer and meditation.  At each, excerpts from letters written by or about Father Râle were read, along with Scripture passages.

The letters, at times, described pastoral work not that different from what might take place today. Father Râle wrote to his nephew: “They come in crowds to reveal to me their griefs and anxieties, or to tell me the causes of complaint which they have against their tribesmen, or to consult me about their marriages or their other private affairs. I must instruct some and console others, reestablish peace in disunited families, and calm troubled consciences.”

At other times, the letters told of the hardships endured, including a raid during which the church was burned.

“I had only time to consume the hosts, to enclose in a small box the sacred vessels, and to escape into the woods,” Father Râle wrote.

About 40 people walked the length of the pilgrimage, which took about three hours. Others not wishing or able to do the walk remained in the church to hear the letters and readings, then joined the group at the final stop, a memorial to Father Râle, which is located in St. Sebastian Cemetery, on the spot where he was killed.

“We definitely wanted to do this pilgrimage and pray at the spot where he was martyred,” said MaryAnn Carter, from St. Michael Parish, Augusta. “Our sons belong to the Federation North-American Explorers group, and they’re named after Father Sebastian Râle, so he is close to our heart.”

“I love Native American history, and I just love that Sebastian Râle took the time to translate the catechism into the native tongue, that he loved souls that much that he took the time to present the word of God in the native language,” said Nadine Niedner, who attends St. Louis Church in Portland.

In addition to learning more about the work of Father Râle, the pilgrimage was also seen by the participants as a way to enrich their own faith.

“Just to be able to come in contact with that flaming love of Christ,” said Carter. “If we can pray together, walk this pilgrimage, hopefully, God will give us that gift.”

“I’ve never done a pilgrimage before,” said Marge Veilleux, from Corpus Christi Parish, Waterville. “I think it’s a grounding experience that helps us come back to the faith.”

“It’s some preparation for my jubilee, penitential and prayerful,” said Sister Kathryn Kelm, SSS, who is celebrating 50 years as a Servant of the Blessed Sacrament. “Anything that helps you learn about the life of Father Râle and get in touch with God.”

“It’s a great restoration of the faith, so it’s been wonderful,” said Jake Hanley, a member of the St. Gregory the Great Latin Mass Chaplaincy. “I would love to see the restoration of the Christian tradition of pilgrimages and penance, public acts of penance and, most importantly, to set the example for my children.”

“This is very European for me.  I love the idea of walking through town and being a presence,” said Elizabeth Gallagher, from St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish, Norway.

Moreshead said he got the idea for the pilgrimage because he has always had a devotion to the North American Martyrs, and he hoped that walking in the footsteps of Father Râle would help people see that the same missionary call exists today.

“I think, realizing that it happened here, realizing that these are people who aren’t so far removed from us, will help people realize that this is their call, too,” he says. “I want them to take away the call to go set the world on fire with Christ’s love.”