Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
“I Have Run the Race. I Have Kept the Faith.”
It was easy to see why St. Paul’s well-known words appeared on t-shirts that runners got after finishing the first annual Freedom Run on July 4. The run started the Sisters of Life’s first annual Life Fest in Stamford, Conn.
Sister Mary Karen, the superior at Villa Maria Guadalupe there, described how the inspiration for the race came from Brother Simon Dankoski of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal while a group was planning the Life Fest to coincide with the close of the Fortnight for Freedom.
Questions like "How do I show I’m for religious freedom?" and "How do I tell people where I stand?" prompted the plan for the Freedom Run.
“Here was one way people could say, 'Look what I did for freedom,'” Sister Mary Karen said.
Despite overcast skies and a very early morning shower, 55 adults showed up for the 5K run, while 20 children took part in the 1-mile Kids Run before the big event.
To make the run official, the company that times the Boston Marathon timed the race. Local residents and the Knights of Columbus donated many prizes, such as pewter Jefferson Cups, the kind originally designed by Thomas Jefferson. The young-adult group from Stamford’s Basilica of St. John the Evangelist served as volunteers.
The participants were there to be “good witnesses like St. Paul,” observed Brother Simon.
A few Friars of the Renewal ran in the race, too, running in their habits, including Father Fidelis Moscinski.
The Sisters of Life didn’t run, but “we had 50 sisters out there cheering the runners on,” Sister Mary Karen said joyfully.
“Religious sisters are the best cheerleaders in the Catholic Church,” Brother Simon affirmed. “They cheer on the faithful when they run the race of faith.”
The sisters' encouragement was appreciated at the race, held near Stamford Harbor's shore, on a course dotted with wildflowers, at Kosciuszko Park. It was an appropriate Fourth of July location — the park is named after Polish-American hero Gen. Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who in 1776 was commissioned to serve as head engineer of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War.
“Anybody there to walk the dog in the park that morning couldn’t miss the witness aspect, with the good number of sisters and friars in habit,” said Sister Mary Gabriel, who helped coordinate the run.
Emilio Funicella, who also helped with the event, said one policeman on special duty that morning confided to him that he was in need of prayers.
“One of the sisters was close by,” he said, “so I called her over, introduced her, and told him, ‘Here’s the person who will pray for you.’ And I left.”
The sister talked with the officer, then prayed with him. During the rest of the three-hour run, the policeman walked around with groups of sisters, talking with them, a big smile on his face.
“This was the work of God occurring in our midst,” Brother Simon said. “By exercising their faith, this policeman’s faith was kindled and inspired.”
He related another page from the Gospel to the run.
“The disciples at Emmaus recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, and they ran back to tell the other disciplines,” Brother Simon said. Like them, we can run to tell others when we recognize the risen Christ in our Lord’s Eucharistic presence and any grace occurring in our midst. “All of a sudden, it becomes all important to us to exercise our faith and share with others what’s going on. Once we have received it, then we put it into motion with urgency. We’re responding with love, not overreacting.”
Sister Mary Gabriel shared more blessings of the Freedom Run.
“Whether you’re an accomplished runner or just starting out, there is always an element of sacrifice involved,” she said, “so there’s a great analogy, why St. Paul used it for the faith — there’s always a dying to self when you’re running.
“At the same time, there’s something really beautiful that happens. It’s a great opportunity to encourage and affirm each other and to watch the gifts of others flourish. We saw a lot of those beautiful moments: of people and families encouraging one another. Families would wait for one one another to cross the finish line together.”
Sister Mary Gabriel added that the event was a great community-builder. It was “fun, but far more than just a run, and everybody knew it,” she said. “They knew they were all there to share in a common purpose and goal.”
Everyone there prayed together “to specifically ask Our Lord to bless and protect our nation and our religious freedom,” Sister Mary Gabriel said, “and for Catholics to love their faith more fervently, so that the government would not be so quick to think they could take these liberties, the treasures we have, away so easily and flippantly.”
The Freedom Run and the rest of the day’s Life Fest took another lesson from St. Paul, who told the Corinthians, “Thus, I do not run aimlessly.”
Or, as Sister Mary Gabriel put it, “It was the culture of life coming to life.”