On Thursday morning American Catholics began their version of a centuries-old Polish pilgrimage with a 6 am Mass in Great Meadows in northwest New Jersey. Their four-day walk of penance, song and prayer is destined for the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
In Poland many of the faithful walk hundreds of miles on foot to Jasna Gora monastery in Czestochowa, which since 1384 has hosted the icon called the Black Madonna. The icon, whose creation is attributed to the evangelist St. Luke, depicts Poland’s patron saint, Our Lady of Czestochowa, bearing a darkened face.
A similar pilgrimage has taken place in the United States since 1988, with more than 2,000 pilgrims trekking to the National Shrine last year, the Associated Press says. Most of the pilgrims walk 57 miles to Doylestown from Great Meadows, though smaller groups take shorter routes from Trenton and Philadelphia.
Pilgrims remain largely unseen as they pray, sing, and walk along rural back roads in lines that often stretch for miles.
"It's amazing," commented one pilgrim, 25-year-old Jolanta Derkacz. "You get to see how much stronger you are as a person, how you can adapt to your surroundings, and the things you feel -- it can change your life."
According to the Associated Press, Derkacz said she has made the pilgrimage since she was nine, explaining that it helps strengthen her faith and her ties with Polish immigrants.
"It bonds people together," she explained. "You hear people say; 'I would love to hear your story.' It shows you wonderfully the power of God -- you meet somebody you may have never talked to because they sat 10 aisles away from you in church."
According to Derkacz, the pilgrims sometimes attract stares and insults while other passersby wave, take pictures, or applaud when the pilgrims move through small towns in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Some towns along the pilgrimage route provide participants with a police escort or stop traffic to let them pass. Homeowners and farmers allow pilgrims to camp on their property each night.
At some locations, nuns nicknamed “Sister Blister” treat pilgrims’ tired feet.
While pilgrims often sing in Polish and are of Polish background, the dark-complexioned Black Madonna icon has attracted groups of Haitians from Brooklyn, New York and elsewhere to the pilgrimage. They reportedly see in the icon’s complexion and distinctive cheek scars, a reference to their African heritage.
Prayers in Creole, English and Spanish are often heard from pilgrims’ lips.
Bozena Bienkowska, a Polish native now living in Trenton, said she did not have a chance to take part in the pilgrimage while growing up because of the then-ruling communist government, according to the Associated Press. She made her first pilgrimage when she immigrated to New Jersey 20 years ago.
"In Poland, I didn't go, I was dreaming and hoping that one day I would join," she said. "I never dreamt we could have this here in the United States. As you see, here, any dream can come true."
According to the pilgrimage web site, the pilgrimage is planned to end on Sunday with a 2 pm Mass at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa.