“A pilgrimage is a journey with a hallowed purpose. A pilgrimage is not a vacation; it is a transformational journey during which significant change takes place.” – Macrina Weiderkehr, Behold Your Life

Much change can happen in a short time, to which the ten members of this first “Walk A Way” can attest. Led by Trinity’s Becky Elsbernd and Father Stephen Benitz of St. John’s Episcopal Church, eight more “pilgrims” set out on this 30-mile walk along the Heritage Trail from Dyersville to Dubuque in mid-September.

Elsbernd provided a training plan for conditioning for this walking and self-reflection challenge in the months leading up to the adventure. Group bonding time was also planned pre-pilgrimage, and some group members took part in walking 7.5 miles on the Shellrock River Greenbelt and watching Field of Dreams at Trinity, as the movie site was planned to be the first stop on the pilgrimage.

Basilica of St. Francis Xavier

Day 1 provided travel time in the 12-passenger van to Dyersville, where the group set foot on the field/movie site and could almost hear the whispers of ‘If you build it, he will come.’ The perspective of the site changed from “commercialized” to “peaceful” once the vantage point was changed to the nearly required shot of the group pretending to walk out of the cornfield. While pausing to reflect about this perspective change, the sun suddenly appeared and shone brightly just for a few moments. The feeling of the Holy Spirit’s presence was unmistakable.

A few miles into Dyersville, the first lunch stop of the trip was made at the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, “a Catholic treasure among the cornfields of Iowa, welcoming visitors for over 125 years.”  A delectable spread was shared in the basement of the Basilica, the scripture of The Walk to Emmaus was read, and group members later toured the amazing sanctuary, resplendent with 64 stained glass cathedral windows, marble pieces from Rome, decorative paintings, and an abundance of wood carvings which all symbolized sacred religious times. The prayerful reverence of all visitors provided a silent foreshadowing of the day ahead.

Next in Dyersville was the trailhead of the Heritage Trail. Father Stephen offered a group blessing, anointed individuals with oil, and gave each member a very personal blessing as the pilgrims took the first step of their journey.  A 6-mile walk brought the pilgrims to stop in Farley for a snack/rest/checkpoint with the support van. All were in good spirits as they energetically continued their walk to Epworth, upon which the walkers were very appreciative to ride in the van for the first night’s accommodations at the New Melleray Abbey in Peosta.

For 170 years, Trappist monks have lived in the abbey, dedicating their lives to a frugal existence, offering prayer and worship seven times daily. Beginning each day at 3:15 AM, they live in such a structure that allows them to be faithful servants to the Lord. After their final Compline service at 7 PM, they retire, and the monastic Grand Silence begins. This is true for guests as well. Although there is a “speaking cafeteria,” silence is indeed stressed…and golden…during their entire stay.

Interesting. Peaceful. Deafening silence. These were words that the group used to explain their feelings during this overnight stay with Trappist monks. “[Being silent] reminds us of how much we infringe on other people’s quiet,” Father Stephen said. “To go to a place where there is no noise on purpose… That time in the abbey was a gift.” Kevin Hendrikson agreed: “I need the silence to help me absorb. It gives you a chance to get by the noise and chatter. You leave with what you’re searching for because you’re there in the moment with your own thoughts.”

New Melleray Abbey

Dinner and breakfast were provided at the abbey, and it was “enough.” The accommodations of private rooms/bathrooms were “enough.” The time spent in the sanctuary worshipping with the monks was “enormous.”

Kevin Hendrikson sat in the middle of the sanctuary during Mass at the abbey and said, “That priest was talking to ME. I thought that experience was the coolest thing ever!” Visitors to the abbey may worship with the monks in any of their seven prayer services/Masses. Leaders Elsbernd and Father Stephen were the only ones in attendance at the 4:30 AM service. Elsbernd almost couldn’t put into words the emotions she felt during this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Day 2 began with Mass and a short drive to Epworth to get back on the trail for 4 miles. Graf was the next snack/resting place before a lunch stop in Twin Springs, a lovely area where the group looked forward to an outdoor picnic and much-needed sustenance. On to Durango for another 8 miles and a short drive to the Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque was once again a welcome respite.

Pilgrimage Group on the trail

This beautiful spirituality center “offers a sacred space and a peaceful environment for all who seek to deepen their relationship with God, self, others, and creation,” according to their mission statement. Owned by the St. Francis Sisters of Dubuque, this was constructed in 1881 as the first Motherhouse, later used as the Immaculate Conception Academy (for girls) and then a retirement home for the Sisters before becoming the current center.

Laura Berneman was delightfully surprised when she discovered her mother and aunt attended school there and was thrilled to find their class pictures hanging in a display. Now Shalom is popular for retreats such as the Walk A Way group, quilting groups, marriage encounters, yoga groups, and various other group meetings/overnights. This welcoming 3-story brick center was home to the group for a scrumptious dinner, a cozy overnight stay and breakfast. Each guest room was unique in décor but similar in the comfortable feeling of being at home.

All too soon, the final day of the Pilgrimage arrived, and the group was dropped off in Durango to walk 4 miles to Sageville for a quick and beautiful break by Heritage Pond along the way to the Bee Branch ending spot in Dubuque, another 3.5 miles. A closing ritual of prayer and reflection marked the end of the Pilgrimage, and the impromptu start of a new tradition, sliding down the slides in the Bee Branch Greenway linear park (like adults always want to do but rarely follow through on).  Sliding into a new beginning, group members bonded with a farewell meal at Stone Cliff Winery along the Mississippi River and offered prayers for this amazing experience.†

Attendees Left to right: Father Stephen Benitz, Becky Elsbernd, Sharon Steckman, Garrette True, Laura Bernemann, Kevin Hendrikson, Nora Neff Hardy, Jane Reynolds, Michelle Murray,  Bob Scheurer

Reflections from the Leaders

“I think the people that were meant to be here ARE here.” – Father Stephen

“I saw God at work bringing the vision together and making it reality…and then in the details, allowing it all to flow in ways often better than planned. Stepping away gives us time to go inward. It helps us be better because we have to change ourselves first. In our case, sometimes we just need to put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes it’s hard and it hurts…” – Becky Elsbernd

“When you’re out of that silent environment (in the Abbey), how jarring it is! How loud it is in our world! It’s hard to find a place that’s truly quiet; there’s almost always some kind of noise. There’s a hospitality thing about silence, too. It affects how we interact with other people.” -Father Stephen

“There are very few problems that can’t be solved by walking. In walking, we’re constantly reminded how little control we have.” – Father Stephen & Becky Elsbernd

The Reasons WHY

“How many people get on a bus with ten people you don’t know and learn from each other?” – Kevin Hendrikson

“I came on this to be one with my community, to hear God and be still, and to expand my awareness and perspective.” – Garrette True

“I’m on this journey for adventure. It’s out of the ordinary for my life.” – Bob Scheurer

“I’m so busy all the time. I wanted to be un-busy! You gotta learn to let the voices in your head go away and be in the moment wherever you are.” – Nora Neff Hardy

“I wanted to get away from the noise, busyness, and constant worries to think about the future and what’s important to me. When I saw this in the bulletin, it just pulled me…A Walk…AWAY. And that’s what I wanted to do.”  – Sharon Steckman

Walk A Way “Takeaways”

“There was MAGIC in walking in different styles and paces. I encountered God in the people, and the loving care put into arranging things. All that was taken out of our hands so we could just BE.” – Laura Bernemann

“Being with people I didn’t really know came with a vulnerability of trying this. I came away with learning to listen to people more and finding things in
common.” – Jane Reynolds

“You can do more than you think you can.” – Michelle Murray

The group talked about what they had seen on their walk…cows in the river, sumac trees, one red leaf on the ground, among the others. What will they remember the most? Not what they saw on the trail…but what they saw in themselves.