Why these men walked 24 miles to the ‘Rome of the Midwest’

The men kneel before the Shrine of St Joseph as their pilgrimage comes to an end   CNA Participants in the 2019 St. Joseph’s pilgrimage in St. Louis. | Jonah McKeown / CNA.

It can be hard to find time for silent reflection in today's bustling modern society. But a group of men this past weekend found peace and silence in an unlikely place – on the sidewalks and shoulders of busy roads leading into the heart of a Midwestern metropolis.

The annual Joseph Challenge Pilgrimage, held this year May 4-5 in St. Louis, Missouri, brought together men ranging from their 20s to their 60s who were looking for both a physical challenge and spiritual rejuvenation.

Along the way, the pilgrims would encounter four Catholic churches dedicated to St. Joseph – appropriate, considering the Church celebrated the feast of St. Joseph the Worker the previous Wednesday.

The challenge

The idea was to start at a parish in Manchester, a western St. Louis suburb, and trek 24 miles along sidewalks, paths, through parks, and occasionally on road shoulders all the way to downtown St. Louis.

The men – around 20 total – gathered at St. Joseph Church and began their walk around 10 a.m. Saturday. They stopped for lunch in a park, and again for Mass at the Carmel of St. Joseph, a monastery of discalced Carmelite nuns, around 3:30 p.m.

In addition to carrying a yellow and white Vatican flag, the men took turns carrying a large wooden cross along with them.

"The experience of having carried a cross, basically a nailed together 2x4 cross that I'm sure doesn't weigh as much as Christ's cross, but carrying that a mile and a half was a very challenging and yet rewarding experience," said Patrick Swackhammer, 45.

After Mass at the monastery, the group continued for several more miles before reaching the place of the night's rest – St. Joseph's in Clayton, Missouri. Total distance walked the first day: approximately 14 miles.

The men had dinner, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and a holy hour including a Latin rosary, followed by fellowship and a few beers before settling into their sleeping bags on the tile floor of the church basement for the night.


"This was kind of my crazy idea several years ago," said Gabe Jones, 30, one of the two main organizers of the pilgrimage.

Jones said he had been on pilgrimages and men's retreats in the past that usually involved an invitation for men to drive to and meet at a sacred destination, rather than walking to it. To him, driving straight to a pilgrimage site defeated the purpose; it removed the physical hardship involved in actually getting to the site.

"A pilgrimage is: you walk, and you walk, and you walk, and you walk, and you get to this beautiful church, and you fall on your knees when you get there. That's a pilgrimage," he said.

The United States does not have the same kind of culture of pilgrimage that Europe has, he said, partly because the U.S. as a country is much younger than the European continent, and thus is built primarily around the automobile.

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Jones said the idea for the St. Joseph pilgrimage started as "just a bunch of guys getting together."

The first year, 2015, a handful of guys expressed interest in the challenge, but nearly all of them canceled before it began or dropped out along the way for various reasons – a tweaked back, other plans for the weekend, a torn ACL – until, by the end, the only two pilgrims left were Jones and the priest that had come with him.

Jones said he was disappointed in the turnout the first year, but came to understand that the idea of walking 24 miles over a weekend and being away from your family is perhaps a bigger ask than he thought.

"What I learned from that first year is that material success and immediately seeing the fruits of our labor are not the most important thing," Jones said.

"Just do the thing that you're called to do, and if it's the right thing then there will be good fruit. And it may not be right away, heck, it may not be in your lifetime. But just stick to it, and if God's calling you to that, do it."

The next year, 2016, they had more like 40 guys sign up, with around 38 walking at any one time, Jones said. The pilgrims were coming from a whole range of places, physically and spiritually.

But the feeling of being the same boat and taking on the same physical challenge fostered a sense of brotherhood among the men.

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"As a convert to the Catholic faith, the concept of a pilgrimage is something new, it's something I had to embrace along with embracing all the other unique aspects of the Catholic faith," second-year participant Russell Yount reflected.

"But it's an idea that resonates with me, of having a goal and pursuing it."

The importance of silence

Walking twenty-plus miles through an urban jungle may not sound like the most peaceful way to spend a weekend. But the organizers made sure that despite the constant hum of traffic next to the marching group of men, there were times when quiet contemplation was encouraged.

During some stretches of the route, the men were encouraged to socialize and get to know one another. During other sections, the organizers led rosaries via megaphone.

At other points, the men were encouraged simply to walk in silence, their quiet reverie interrupted only occasionally by drivers in passing cars pipping their horns in support.

"It's a good visible witness as we walk through the city," co-organizer Chris Horan said.

"To people who aren't Catholic, people who are Catholic, to just plant seeds and show them that Catholicism is not dead, it's growing and growing, and maybe is more alive than ever."

The homilist at Mass on Saturday pointed to St. Joseph as a model of silent masculinity.

"Given that [St. Joseph] said absolutely nothing in scripture...when he would have spoken, he was obedient, he was prayerful, and he's just the perfect model of silence, I think," Horan said.

"And especially for men who are flooded with junk in the culture, it can be hard for us to keep St. Joseph in mind. But if we do that then it's only going to bring us grace...that's the main model for us as husbands, fathers, brothers, and even those called to the priesthood."

Fr. Gustavo Serpa, a member of the Miles Christi religious order based in Detroit, was the official chaplain for the pilgrimage, giving several talks over the course of the weekend.

Horan said he appreciated Father Gustavo's presence on the pilgrimage.

"I think his youth, his love of the Church, his love of St. Joseph have helped get us through and been a good example and model for us," Horan commented.

Many of the participants pointed to the silence aspect as one of the most helpful parts of the pilgrimage, and one that helped them to bond with their fellow men.

"You can hear the cars going by, the footsteps on the pavement, and sometimes even voices. But it gives you an opportunity when you're not required to be speaking or doing things - it lets your mind and your soul kind of settle down and be quiet with Christ for a little while," Bill Hennessy, 55, reflected.

Cory Ross, a 30-year-old stay at home dad, was similarly inspired by the call to silence in his everyday life.

"Silence is one of those things that we can hold as an important practice in our daily lives," he said. "And Father kind of talked about how it helps us grow in virtue and reflect upon our lives and purpose and things of that nature. It has been really profitable."

For Yount, a weightlifter, the pilgrimage was an opportunity to take on a physical challenge while also developing the virtues he has come to value as a convert to the Catholic faith. He said he got to tell his conversion story at his home parish soon after last year's Joseph Challenge.

"I think of things in terms of the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and then the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity," Yount explained.

So, he says, he always approaches anything he does with the question: "How does each thing that I'm doing here help to build one of those virtues?" In terms of the St. Joseph Challenge, he said, he'll be pondering what virtues are in play; certainly fortitude and prudence.

Rome of the Midwest

Apart from being a physical challenge and an opportunity for silent retreat, the pilgrimage offered a unique opportunity for the men to experience the Catholic culture of the city.

"It's a city that I had always just kind of driven through before, but I have a totally different understanding of St. Louis now, having walked through it," Yount said.

Much of the city's robust Catholic culture originates in the mid-19th century, when a massive influx of foreign immigrants - many from Germany, Ireland, and Italy- arrived in the area, complementing the dominant French heritage in the city at that time.

Today, there are around 180 parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and so many beautiful Catholic churches that the city has been unofficially dubbed the "Rome of the Midwest."

"Having walked all the way from Manchester to downtown, and realizing just how Catholic the city is. How strong the Catholic heritage of St. Louis is – I had no idea," Yount said. "But now I know, and I tell people all the time: if you're ever in St. Louis, there are these places that you don't want to miss that are of importance to us as Catholics."

Push to the finish

Bright and early Sunday morning, the men packed their belongings, and set off on the final day of the pilgrimage. Today would involve about 10 more miles before they reached their destination: The Shrine of St. Joseph, downtown.

Eventually, to the pilgrims' delight, the shining curves of the St. Louis Arch, located on the riverfront in the heart of downtown, came into view. Soon the shrine itself was in view, and the group was all smiles as they finally approached the impressive edifice – just in time for the regularly scheduled 11 a.m. Sunday Mass.

Many of the men's wives and families were there to meet them at the end of their pilgrimage. They knelt in front of the shrine and prayed a litany to St. Joseph as they concluded their journey.

"If you want something more physical – physical suffering, physical sacrifice, as opposed to just spiritual sacrifice – come out and join us next year. You're only going to get grace from it, meeting like-minded Catholic men, and you're going to grow, God willing, in greater devotion to St. Joseph," Horan said.

"You'll experience beautiful liturgies, and you'll take what you experience from this back home to your wives, your kids."

The spiritual experience isn't all the men will bring back with them.

"Of course, I'll be taking the blisters and the aches and pains back, too," Swackhammer added.

All in all, it was a fitting introduction to the concept of pilgrimage, something many of the men had not encountered before.

"You may have to start small, but I think we make everything too stress-free and too easy, which also leads to distraction, and comfort, and not a lot of difference from our day to day lives," Hennessy reflected.

"And being on foot, with being disconnected from our creature comforts for a few hours, a few days, it makes it much much easier to focus on what you're supposed to be focused on, which is basically getting to heaven."

All photos credit: Jonah McKeown / CNA.

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