WASHINGTON — For 20 miles, the pilgrims walk, talk and pray as they bear a statue of the Virgin Mary from church to church. But you won’t find these pilgrims of parents, children and friends walking on the streets of Europe. They are making their way right through the nation’s capital to give public prayer and witness to the Catholic faith.
“It’s a pretty unique event, and I don’t know of anyone else doing this kind of thing,” said Richard McPherson, president of the Avalon School and the Brookewood School, two independent Catholic schools of Montgomery County, Md., that sponsor the pilgrimage. “It’s amazing, and a lot of people say it’s their favorite event we do each year.”
Close to 400 pilgrims, most of them Catholic families, joined Avalon and Brookewood’s public pilgrimage through Washington on May 10, the day before Mother’s Day. The pilgrimage began with a morning Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Bethesda, Md., and finished with a 5:15pm Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. Participants in the schools’ seventh annual pilgrimage processed carrying a statue of Our Lady Most Pure on a litter for their 19-mile journey, stopping at eight churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary and one dedicated to St. Anne, her mother, to make a “novena of churches.”
Husband and wife Barry and Laura Stohlman helped found the tradition with McPherson in part as a public thanksgiving for the relatively new schools — Avalon, a K-12 boys school, was founded 11 years ago, and its sister school, Brookewood, a grade 1-12 girls school, started nearly eight years ago — and also to respond to the Church’s call for a New Evangelization.
“We always do it praying for the schools, the families and the community of Avalon and so forth,” Barry said. “It’s important for building up the two schools, but also our own devotion to Mary and as a public proposal of devotion to Mary to the city.”
Laura added that the pilgrimage reminds people that every gift they have comes from God and that they need to rely on him and thank him for their blessings.
“I think it is very important, because we tend to forget what we’ve been given by God,” she said.
District of Columbia Tales
The pilgrimages have generally lasted at least 20 miles, with a number of stops along the way. Most of the pilgrims join for a leg of the pilgrimage — as many are families with small children who get tired — while the rest complete the whole pilgrimage. Avalon and Brookewood vans travel back and forth along the route to shuttle people back to their cars at each stage. Approximately 140 out of nearly 400 pilgrims finished the whole route. At the end of every annual pilgrimage, the pilgrims come together to share a meal, where people read poetry aloud and sing songs.
This year, Laura Stohlman and seven of her eight children walked the pilgrimage, while husband Barry worked with several others to prepare the meal to feed the families at the pilgrimage’s conclusion.
Laura said the D.C. pilgrimage works similarly to the pilgrimages she remembers in her hometown in Italy.
“When we walk, we really talk a lot, and it really is a lot of fun,” Stohlman said.
“It’s a really social event, and most of the people are young. About 70% of people going are children between 6 and 20 years old. The rest are adults.”
Brookewood teacher Tim Nauman said the pilgrimage provided a great moment to catch up with old friends and make new ones. Many times, graduates of the school come back to join the pilgrimage. Priests heard confessions as they walked along the route.
“It’s a great opportunity to get to know different people along the way,” Nauman said.
Nauman added that a Jewish family with children at his school decided that they would show support by providing snacks and water for the pilgrims at each leg of the journey.
“I think that’s a neat sign of the spirit of the schools,” he said.
The pilgrims paused in their conversations before they prayed together at each church. McPherson said that because they had eight churches to visit, they prayed all four sets of mysteries, sang the Salve Regina and prayed the Litany to Our Lady. At Our Lady of Victory Church in Washington, McPherson recited the G.K. Chesterton poem Lepanto.
“Some of the priests came out to welcome us and gave us a little history of their church,” he said.
Having hundreds of pilgrims processing through D.C. carrying aloft a statue of the Virgin Mary draws attention. Laura Stohlman said most of the reaction they encountered was positive, apart from some impatient joggers.
“Some people stop to talk, some applaud, and others make the Sign of the Cross,” she said.
McPherson said one elderly lady was driving with her daughter when she saw them processing and asked her daughter to stop. She then got out of the car and walked with the pilgrims and Our Lady 100 yards, saying, “I have to do this.”
The pilgrimage experience also encouraged a student to convert to the Catholic faith. McPherson said one of the Chinese 12th-graders decided he would help carry the statue in a recent year. The event impressed him so much that he changed his Facebook religion status to “Christian.” By the following year, he had come into the Church with McPherson as his godfather.
“His conversion has really been one of the highlights for our school,” he said.
Celebrating With the Church
The tradition began when the schools relocated to new buildings seven years ago. Barry Stohlman made a platform for the original Our Lady Most Pure bronze statue, which weighed a whopping 190 pounds and couldn’t be carried. The next year, the statue’s artist, H. Reed Armstrong, made them a much lighter replica, which they could carry in a litter.
McPherson said they generally make the theme for the pilgrimage fit with the yearly theme selected by the Holy Father. Pope Francis has declared 2015 as the Year for Consecrated Life, so McPherson is already thinking about the possibilities.
“I’m thinking maybe of going to churches named after founders of orders,” he said.
McPherson and Barry Stohlman hope that other Catholic schools in the area will be inspired to make their own pilgrimages. Both would like to see an event where D.C. Catholic schools make their own processions and all converge at the National Shrine.
“We’d love to see any and all Catholic schools in and around the D.C. area join with us and participate in this,” McPherson said. “It would be a great way for us to gather and celebrate Catholic education in America.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.