Most Catholics wanting to make a pilgrimage of double- or triple-digit mileage may think they need to take a plane overseas to somewhere like Spain or France.
But one pilgrimage group has found the perfect route for a stateside long-distance pilgrimage — the Katy Trail, which spans almost the entire width of Missouri. Along the way, the trail passes by many Catholic churches, especially near the French-founded city of St. Louis and the predominantly German-settled Missouri heartland.
The seventh annual Katy Trail Pilgrimage, which took place Oct. 9–13, promised pilgrims the opportunity to walk over 50 miles in five days, hitting seven Catholic churches on or near the trail.
Three of the churches — Immaculate Conception (Augusta), Our Lady of Lourdes (Washington), and Our Lady of Sorrows (Starkenburg) — are dedicated to Christ’s mother, making the pilgrimage “a dramatically beautiful way to give your heart to Jesus through Mary,” the pilgrimage website says.
This year’s pilgrimage group, consisting of 40 people, started the day Oct. 9 with Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Augusta. Ferried from the church to the trailhead in a bus and a couple of personal vehicles, the convoy bowed their heads in a group prayer before striking out on the trail.
The agenda for the day called for a walk from Augusta to Dutzow, a distance of about 7.7 miles, which ended up taking about four hours.
The 240-mile Katy Trail, a state park, is one of the premiere “rail trails” in the country, having been converted from train tracks to a smooth crushed gravel surface. The trail is popular with locals along its route, as well as with fitness gurus and adventure-seekers the world over who come to cycle its entire scenic length.
The section of trail walked by the pilgrims crosses open country near the north bank of the Missouri River. This is wine country, with viticulture, and agriculture more generally, being the dominant industry. A verdant tunnel of trees near the start of the route gave way to a broad plain and soul-feedlingly beautiful views, as the sun smiled down and a cool autumn breeze blew.
Father Timothy Foy, associate pastor at St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Ellisville, Missouri, served as the group’s fearless leader. Clad in his priestly black and a floppy sun hat, and armed with a megaphone, Foy led the marchers in prayer during the walk, including multiple rosaries and a couple of rousing hymns.
Foy went on pilgrimage in Poland in 2014, walking with a large group from Kraków to Częstochowa, the site of a famous Marian shrine. The roughly 70-mile, six-day trek inspired him to do a pilgrimage stateside.
So a few years later, he and two other priests walked essentially the exact route they still use today, beginning in Augusta. The next year, he invited others to join them and continued to put out the invitation annually, even through the pandemic years.
“I really think this is the biggest group we’ve had,” he said of this year’s turnout, adding that a large group of eighth-graders was slated to join for one day of the pilgrimage, Oct. 12, swelling their ranks considerably.
Foy said this year’s group consists of many first-timers as well as a few pilgrims who have turned out every year, or close. He said one couple who moved away from Missouri to Indiana still comes back to make the pilgrimage year after year.
One such loyal pilgrim is Brandee Haskell, a resident of Jennings, Missouri, and a certified nursing assistant (CNA). She said a friend heard about the pilgrimage on local Catholic radio the first year it was taking place and encouraged Haskell to sign up. Though the friend ended up dropping out, Haskell did the entire first-year pilgrimage and has attended in several of the subsequent years, including this one.
Haskell said getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, as well as the time away from her phone, made for an enriching and “recentering” spiritual experience. (The pilgrims aren’t required to give up their phones while on the pilgrimage, but Haskell did so of her own accord.)
The 30-year-old Haskell works for the Franciscan Sisters of the Martyr St. George, helping the elderly through their day-to-day activities in her capacity as a CNA. She said she is privileged to be able to go to daily Mass at her workplace, saying the strength the Eucharist has provided for her since recently switching away from the night shift has been invaluable.
When Haskell made the switch to days and realized she would be able to go to Mass every day, she rejoiced that the Eucharist would soon provide “all the strength that I’m going to need to get through these 12-hour day shifts.” She said receiving Christ daily has helped her to cultivate a mindset of seeing her elderly patients “how Christ would see them,” enabling her to serve their needs even in frustrating or difficult times.
Haskell said she is carrying with her on pilgrimage a prayer intention for the religious sisters she works with as well as a prayer in her heart to God that he would help her to accept his will for her life, “overcoming my own desires for my life and letting God work.”
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The current conflict in the Holy Land was on many people’s hearts during the pilgrimage, and several participants announced they were walking with the intention of praying for peace.
Roland and Susan Schriever, from Wildwood, Missouri, are keen travelers who have visited the Holy Land on pilgrimage before. Both in their mid-70s, the Schrievers today are avid walkers, having previously been runners well into their 60s. This is their first time doing the Katy Trail Pilgrimage.
“Because we’re walkers, [we thought] this may be the kind of thing we’d like to do more of — a way of praying and enjoying nature,” Roland said.
The Schrievers attend St. Clare of Assisi Parish where Foy, the pilgrimage organizer, is associate pastor. Roland said they decided to undertake the pilgrimage, in part, as a way to spend time with the priest and get to know him better.
Susan said “through a whole set of circumstances,” she feels she was “meant to be” on this particular pilgrimage. She spoke before the start of the walk about how she planned to pray for peace in the Middle East while walking.
Crystalyn Talavera, 51, is also a first-time participant in the pilgrimage, having heard about it through her parish bulletin. She said her dream is to someday walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain, one of the most famous Catholic pilgrimages in the world. She said she hopes that her Katy Trail experience will help to prepare her for the Camino, which she plans to do during “April or October next year.”
“It is really heartbreaking. I was just following up on the news this morning about all these terrorist attacks, and it’s just really heartbreaking,” she said.
“We are all brothers and sisters, so we should all be able to walk in peace together. And I know it has been a long-standing history of war between these two countries, but we just really have to pray for peace.”
After the walk, the pilgrims were shuttled back to their cars and made their way to Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in nearby Washington for vespers (evening prayer), before a well-earned dinner at a local restaurant. The pilgrimage wrapped up Oct. 13.
Jonah McKeown is a staff writer and podcast producer for Catholic News Agency. He holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and has worked as a writer, as a producer for public radio, and as a videographer. He is based in St. Louis.
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