Some of them walked—to the dining hall, to chapel. Others, who were confined to wheelchairs, were pushed through the hallways. One clocked the distance on a treadmill. Another assembled a virtual prayer journey through the New Testament. With each step, both actual and spiritual, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary prayed, meditated, and remembered migrants and refugees, supporting them in their struggle for survival and peace.
There is more than one way to make a Share the Journey pilgrimage. And for these retired sisters, the rooms and walkways of Camilla Hall in Malvern, Pennsylvania, became their own Camino de Santiago.
This special Share the Journey pilgrimage was the brainchild of Sister Mary Lydon, the community’s social justice representative. When Sister Mary learned of Pope Francis’s request to embrace the experience of migrants and refugees through a symbolic pilgrimage, she was inspired to create an experience that would honor both the abilities of the sisters at Camilla Hall and the struggle of the world’s refugees and migrants. She recalls thinking: “You know, we do walk. You can’t get away from it around here. Why not add it up?” She borrowed a measuring wheel from the therapy department and measured the hallways and found that they were 331 feet long. Keeping in mind that 5,280 feet make a mile, Sister Mary calculated that each sister could manage one mile per week. When she broached the idea with the community, the response was overwhelmingly positive, with the accumulation of miles taking different forms as each sister tailored the walk to her physical needs.
Sister Janice Sobczak, for example, invited some of the sisters to pray with her as she pushed them in wheelchairs to the dining room. Sister Sheila Foy and Sister Mary Leonard counted their miles while riding on scooters. Sister Dorothy Fogarty, ordered by her physician to exercise, created her pilgrimage around the cross-training machine in the hall’s exercise center. “I hate to leave my comfortable room and go to the other end of the building and get on that machine,” she says. “But I did it. And I offered it for people who were able to walk.”
“Since I have trouble walking, I was a little bit hesitant about this idea of a pilgrimage,” reports Sister Marie T. Hirsch. “How far was it going to be? How long was it going to be? But when Sister explained about it, it was doable. And some days you just need something you can do that’s doable.”
Sister Marian Dolores Frantz pledged a “commitment of spirit.” Instead of a physical walk, which was not possible for her, she created a spiritual journey focused on pilgrimages in the New Testament. She began by reflecting on the journey of Mary and Joseph.
“First there was their pilgrimage to Bethlehem—which wasn’t an easy thing for an emigre,” explains Sister Marian. “And giving birth in a place they hadn’t prepared for—that was not easy either. And that’s something that faces lots of immigrants.” From the journey into Egypt to Mary’s journey to visit Elizabeth, Sister Marian uncovered parallels between scripture and the lives of migrants and refugees. The pilgrimage became so important, she says, “because if we’re called to love … and if we don’t reach out to try to understand what other people are going through on their journey, same as Christ on his journey to the cross, we aren’t fulfilling who God has called us to be.”
Clearly, the pilgrimage at Camilla Hall was as much about the spiritual component as it was about the physical. While they walked, some sisters meditated on and shared stories from their work with the poor in places like Chile and Uruguay. Others recited prayers or reflected on stories from television news or on images from posters created by Sister Rita Morton, who lives in a nearby community.
“One thought that touched me as I did it, was I knew as I walked along, I had a destination that I could come back to,” says Sister Marie, “And I was grateful for that. But it put me in mind of people that had no destination—how many people in the world didn’t have a place to go.”
“Prayer is a great internet,” she continues, “It touches people. By praying, I always think I touch the world. And there are times when that prayer comes to me and touches me. And this pilgrimage was one of those times.”
Ultimately, 130 sisters committed to walking one mile a week for nine weeks. During that time, the sisters also included prayers for migrants in Mass intercessions, signed a petition to the Governor of Pennsylvania concerning the need to close the Berks County immigration detention center, and kept their eyes on the bar graph posted on each floor that showed the gradual accumulation of miles. By the end of the pilgrimage, the sisters had logged 1,270 miles.
On November 13, the residents of Camilla Hall ended their pilgrimage, marking their last steps in a eucharistic procession on the feast day of Mother Cabrini. As Sister Mary Lydon watched the sisters enter the chapel, she says, she had “a feeling that something was happening.”
“I’ve never had that feeling before, until that day,” she continues. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I could sense that something must have happened beyond me, do you know what I mean? It wasn’t me. It was whatever was in the works.”
Camilla Hall is a place of blessed care and community, but like any institution, says Sister Mary, the people who live there “can become isolated from the reality of the world outside you—and I don’t think that’s a good thing.”
“If we take a certain issue … that could use our help either by prayer or by letter writing or by some other kind of action, it makes us go out of ourselves physically and spiritually to help an issue.”
This pilgrimage, she explains, has made the community very aware of those whose lives are so poor or endangered that they will take the long journey to move to another country and start a new life. “We hope our prayers will continue to help them find a better life where their human dignity will be respected, and they will have the opportunity to live in peace, safety, and hope.”
The journey is far from over, Sister Sheila adds. “It’s in our hearts, always.”