Holy Door Pilgrimage from Iowa City to Nichols
By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Pilgrims, some of them barefooted, sang Mary’s praises during Mass that followed a 22-mile pilgrimage in her honor from St. Mary Catholic Church in Iowa City to St. Mary Catholic Church in Nichols.
Nine hours of walking, much of it on gravel road in sunny 80-degree weather on Memorial Day, took a toll on the toes. Father Jeff Belger, himself a pilgrim, didn’t object (or maybe he didn’t notice) as he presided at the Mass celebrated on the eve of the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Holy Door Pilgrimage, from one Holy Door to another, was his idea to celebrate the Year of Mercy and honor the namesake of both parishes. Holy Doors are a symbol of Jesus. Walking through a Holy Door represents a person’s intention to leave behind past sins and enter into a new way of living inspired by God’s mercy and Christ’s love.
Fr. Belger, a parochial vicar at St. Mary-Iowa City and a campus minister at the Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City, worked with the parish’s secretary, Rachel Santos, to flesh out the pilgrimage’s details. They collaborated with Carol Kaalberg, cluster coordinator for St. Mary-Nichols, and other individuals and groups, including the Knights of Columbus.
“This is meant to be a fun walk, but it’s also a pilgrimage, Fr. Belger told those gathered in the back of the Iowa City church after a prayer service to kick off the pilgrimage. He encouraged the 30 pilgrims to think about the emotion Mary must have felt as she contemplated the extraordinary news of her motherhood while traveling to her cousin Elizabeth’s home. “This is a personal journey, in community,” he said.
Many of the pilgrims aimed to walk the entire 22 miles of the pilgrimage, while some planned to cover a portion of it. Still others began the journey 10 miles from the start and others about 1-1/2 miles from the finish.
Patti McTaggart, St. Mary-Iowa City’s Youth Minister, drove Fr. Belger’s Jeep to pick up weary pilgrims or to supply them with a cold bottle of water. “We could call it the ‘Patti wagon,’” the priest quipped.
“I wish I could have been part of the walking crew,” McTaggart said wistfully at the end of the pilgrimage. But her knees weren’t up to the challenge. “To be a small part of it was humbling. I thought about the Blessed Mother a lot, and the journey she took. We had greenery and farmland and could listen to the birds singing. She had sand, sand and more sand.”
Nancy Thompson of St. Mary-Iowa City and several of her family members helped provide much appreciated hospitality at water stops and lunch off the side of the road. She and sons Larry and Darrin greeted walkers with coolers full of lemonade and water, snack bars and slices of watermelon. Bridget Pauley, Darrin’s sister-in-law, quipped: “I’m the one who disposes of watermelon rinds!” Darrin’s son, Spencer, also a helper said: “I regret that I wore long pants!”
Fair-skinned Heidi Vittetoe of St. James Parish in Washington, walked well ahead of the pack for much of the pilgrimage, but struggled a bit toward the end because of the blazing sun. But she appreciated the experience. “It provided a lot of good thinking time,” she said.
Bill and Jane Doucette of St. Mary-Iowa City walked a portion of the pilgrimage. “I thought it was an opportunity to give it up to the Lord; to share time with other people, other disciples. It turned out to be a great day. There was a lot of support — people supporting the walkers, people doing water breaks and providing food.”
Lindsay Vittetoe of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Bettendorf made the pilgrimage with her “soul sister” Kelly Bush as a way of testing the waters for doing a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, a journey across Spain and Europe. “I enjoyed meeting people along the way and hearing some of their spiritual stories,” said Vittetoe of her Iowa pilgrimage. She shared stories of her career as a nuclear medical technologist and how her work with her cancer patients has profoundly impacted her faith.
Bush, who works as director of student wellness at Assumption High School in Davenport, said she had different prayer intentions for each mile, “especially the tough ones.” The pilgrimage was hard and beautiful, she said. At the 16-mile mark, she was struggling, but didn’t think she should take a ride until receiving encouragement from Vittetoe: “Kell, even Jesus let Simon help him.”
“We did it!” Laurie Harris, the Newman Center’s director, exclaimed at the end of the pilgrimage she made to celebrate the Year of Mercy and to reflect on her own faith journey. She gratefully accepted a ride toward the end, but finished the last mile with her family. She completed 20 miles of the pilgrimage.
“God bless you, you’re awesome!” Fr. Belger said as he greeted Santos when she arrived at St. Mary’s in Nichols. The two gave each other a big hug. He walked 20 miles, but wanted to conserve what energy he had to preside at Mass.
“I would do it again next year, but not before!” Santos said cheerfully. “The last mile was a good rosary mile.”
Carol Kaalberg said that during the Mass, “I felt the Holy Spirit and God’s mercy radiate throughout the service.”