Yesterday I had the opportunity to take part in the 1st Annual Pilgrimage of New York City with six of my friends. Some of you are probably already asking what a pilgrimage is, I sure wondered about what one was the first time I heard about one. For thousands of years Christians have been making pilgrimages all over the world to many different religious sites as both a physical and spiritual journey to bring you closer to Christ. As many know, there is lots of Catholic tradition within the waters surrounding Manhattan, so this year some very wise people decided to organize a pilgrimage that we could partake in locally.
The physical portion of the pilgrimage began in Washington Heights at the Shrine of St. Frances Cabrini at 10AM, but for us it began at about 7AM as we needed to all meet up and trek down to Manhattan (by way of the Bronx) to get there before it began. At 7AM, four of my friends left from one of their apartments a bit north of me and I left my house, meeting them at the train station parking lot at 7:30AM with a small breakfast in my stomach, a cup of coffee and my sneakers in hand and a very large bag of trail mix along with my nalgene in my bag. The five of us then set off to meet the remaining two girls in the Bronx, whom we then drove with to Yankee Stadium to park at the Subway station. The seven of us, slightly tired, filed down the stairs to the D train only to find out that the Metro Card machines were not taking cash or credit. Instead of taking this as a sign of what may be to come, we bought our cards from the man in the booth and ventured downtown, transferred to the A train and finally arrived at the 190th Street station where we needed to get off the subway and head to the Shrine. While walking out of the station we ran into our first new friend of the day, Ron, a reporter for Catholic New York. Ron saw that we were headed to the pilgrimage and joined us in our attempt to find the Shrine to check-in and begin (we may or may not have headed in the wrong direction a couple of times before finding the Shrine itself).
Finally we all made it to the Shrine and got our blue wristbands and were able to tour around the Shrine and prepare to begin the pilgrimage. After some prayer and an application of sunscreen, I headed outside to join the girls and our fellow walkers. As time passed, we were able to meet some of our fellow walkers and to take our before picture. We were stretched and ready to go when 10AM struck and we joined the others for the pilgrimage under the tree. We were briefed on the events of the day and how the walk was going to begin before we all headed inside as a group to learn more about St. Frances. St. Frances Cabrini is the patron Saint of immigrants, and also the first American to be canonized a saint. After our brief history on St. Frances, we prayed as a group before heading back outside to split into our walking groups. Once those walking on their own and in their own groups took off, we took off with the “speed group”. Our plan was to take the longest path between the five sites and to walk through Central Park when we got there. In the first 100 block we walked, I think we only hit about 6 or 7 stop lights at corners and I was doing great, I was actually surprised how far we had got since I could not physically feel any wear on my body. On route to Central Park, we passed the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and we also prayed the Stations of the Cross while walking.
We made it to the NW corner of the park just as we were finishing the stations and we began our cross park trek down the main road that circles the park. About 1/3 down through the park we saw a dirty water hot-dog stand, and of course some of us stopped to grab a quick bite to eat. It was here that two new friends of the day were met, Rob & his friend he came to do the pilgrimage with. These two stopped to grab a drink and hot-dogs along with us. You’d be surprised how far the group could get in the short time we had stopped. Since we lost all sight of the group, the 6 or 7 of us who had stopped headed on together towards St. Patrick’s Cathedral. We got about 1/2 through the park when we cut across to the east side and once at 72nd Street, we cut out to 5th Avenue and headed straight down to St. Pat’s. Along with Rob and his friend, Ron had rejoined our mini-group mid-park and stuck with us. We learned on this portion of our walk that some of Ron’s co-workers had an over/under pool of how far he would make it and we were determined to have him make it through.
About 1:30PM we made it to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in mid-town. At the front steps here we met up with the other girls that we lost along the way in the park. Some of them went to the deli nearby to grab food while myself and two of my friends headed inside with Ron to see the crypt below the altar where the bishops are buried, which was rather cool as three of them are currently Servants of God and on their way to becoming canonized. Once everyone got out of the crypts, we all gathered as a large group on the patio outside where we were advised to jump on the 6 train to Bleeker Street to stay on track. Of course, me with my big mouth decided to ask about those of us who wished to continue on walking instead of taking the subway. The organizer of the walk told me that we were more than welcome to, but none of the leaders would be going with us. There was a large group of women who wanted to walk with us and our new friends but somewhere between planning to continue on walking and actually heading out, we split up and they headed on their way without us. Once the original 7 of us gathered back together with Ron & Rob, we were joined by a CFR, Brother Simon and 3 other new friends, Tricia, Marcus & Monica.
The 13 of us continued on downtown to Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was great being with this smaller group as we were able to learn more about some of our new friends, even though I ended up ahead of them at many intersections as I took the leap many New Yorkers take and walked with the sign showing stop while the group stopped and waited for the signal to change. We finally found our way to our next location, where I learned that the high walls around the Old Cathedral were built to protect the church itself when tensions between the Catholics & Protestants were high (thanks Ron for that lesson).
By the time we made it to Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, there was a wedding going on, so we said a quick prayer in the foyer and headed out. When we got outside we realized (thanks to my handy GPS on the iPhone) that the 4th location on the pilgrimage was not exactly en-route to the final location — as is it was 3 miles away, whereas the final location was only 2 miles away. That said, with a time limit quickly closing in on us, we decided to take a direct route and head for the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. We headed out through Chinatown along with about another 10 pilgrims who tagged along at the Old Cathedral. While on Mott Street in Chinatown, we stopped at the Church of the Transfiguration and said our prayers for St. Peter there since as Bro. Simon pointed out, St. Peter was there after all.
We then continued on our way one last time to the final location, where we were able to rejoin all the other pilgrims 6 hours after leaving the starting location for a closing mass 13.1 miles from our starting point. We had some time inside the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to pray and recoop before mass began. What was really cool is that while we began at the shrine of the 1st American to become a saint, we ended at the shrine of the 1st American-born to become a saint. The pastor of the parish gave us a quick history lesson on St. Elizabeth before mass began and with the close of mass came the close to a great day. As everyone was filtering out and saying goodbye to new friends. Myself along with two of the girls did a quick interview with a Catholic channel that was there and then rejoined the group outside. Once almost everyone had departed the seven of us along with Rob, Ron & Bro. Simon headed to the Starbucks & deli nearby to grab some food and coffee to eat for a quick bite in Battery Park before heading back home. We sat on the benches near the water and enjoyed some final laughs with our new friends before heading to the subway to get on home. While it had been a gorgeous day out and watching the sunset over the water was a sight to be seen, finally getting on the subway and heading home was a magnificent feeling.
I realize that while this was a great overview of the physical journey, it is hard to put the spiritual part into words. Just as it is something that happens within, it seems to be meant to stay that way as the words just won’t come together to explain it. I think part of this is that I am still realizing now, 27 hours after getting home, that I didn’t even realize what I was experiencing along the way, I only realized it after the fact. But I also think this is just one of those things that no matter how hard you try, any explanation you provide to others will never seem to do it justice. But then, I think that’s part of the mystery and beauty of a pilgrimage.