Allegheny Uprising of the Heart

We come once a year. Every Father's Day weekend, you will find us here at a campground in the Allegheny Highlands of Virginia. In the town of Craig Springs, to be exact.

We come from all over the eastern United States. We come with family or by ourselves, with children or with grandchildren, with spouses or with friends. Pilgrims all, we come to pray for fathers living and deceased, and for their families.

We've been coming to this humble yet hallowed site for 28 years now — here where, until recently, the only Catholic Mass in all of Craig County was hosted. For this is a Catholic pilgrimage to a campground established by the Disciples of Christ, a Protestant denomination. This is a Catholic pilgrimage that remembers three Baptist brothers who died of multiple sclerosis and their fourth brother who died in a car accident. This is a Catholic pilgrimage that has grown bigger as the roads to Craig Springs have grown better.

As the Catholic population of the South slowly but steadily increases (it's currently at about 4% of the population), the North Carolina Pilgrimage to the Allegheny Highlands — the band of which the Gilder-sleeves are a part — increases in leaps and bounds. This year we'll send more than 100 to the faith-filled, family-centered weekend.

What will draw us to the campground at Craig Springs? There's no air conditioning but lots of fresh air; little privacy but lots of private time; no appointments, meetings or occupational labor but lots of activities, community time and God's work. The pilgrimage is placed under the patronage of our Blessed Mother as a spiritual safeguard for our children, youth and families. Throughout the weekend, we pray for family unity and peace, intentions that are dear to Pope John Paul II.

As Msgr. John Williams, a priest of the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., and the founder and leader of our group explains, this is not a retreat. “This is a pilgrimage,” he says. “A pilgrimage is where you have to work to get there, God works on you while you're there, and then you go home and fulfill the job God gave you while you were there.”

The Catholic Difference

The annual Father's Day pilgrimage got its start in 1977 when Msgr. Williams, then a young seminarian, organized a group of parishioners from Blessed Sacrament Parish in Burlington, N.C., for a four-hour drive to southwest Virginia. The plan was to honor the memory of three multiple sclerosis victims from the same family whom Msgr. Williams had gotten to know when working at a camp for special-needs and handicapped children. (Some members of the boys’ Baptist family, including their father, still live in the area and join our pilgrimage on Saturday for dinner and Mass.)

That small band of original pilgrims brought with them a statue of the Infant of Prague, hoping to build a shrine in the cemetery where the brothers are buried (just down the road in Paint Bank, Va.). With the permission of the bemused Craig County government, an Austrian-style wayside shrine was placed in the public cemetery.

There it stands to this day, thanks to a crew of dedicated pilgrims who spend part of their day on the Saturday of pilgrimage maintaining the structure. It's a striking sight in a county that has no other visible Catholic presence.

The schedule for the pilgrimage has remained essentially the same throughout the past 28 years. Many arrive Friday afternoon to enjoy the surroundings and the tantalizing, Southern-style supper. Then there's a swim, a prayer service and a campfire with songs, marshmallows and companionship — or, as our Baptist friends would call it, “Christian fellowship.” And, always, plenty of quiet spaces for prayer and contemplation.

Saturday brings more of the same, along with sports, chores, rest and relaxation. One group of pilgrims goes to the Infant of Prague shrine while another gets the Glass House ready for evening Mass. The Glass House, a building from the 1920s with windows on all sides, gets transformed into a holy place with the addition of flowers, newly shined brass and devotional images of patron saints. These holy relics are prayerfully placed to create a Catholic devotional space out of this one-time dance hall. A place of honor is reserved for an image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, patron-ess of the pilgrimage.

After Mass, pilgrims enjoy a little cake, coffee and entertainment. This is followed by nocturnal exposition and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, also known as “night watch.”

Come Sunday, some head for home after Mass and breakfast while others continue to swim or play, work around the camp and then head to the Infant of Prague shrine for final prayers. The sacrament of reconciliation is available throughout the weekend, especially before the vigil Mass and during the night watch with Our Lord in his Eucharistic presence.

Sanctified Spa

Not everyone who comes here knows that this site, which is about an hour west of Roanoke, is on the grounds of a turn-of-the-century health spa. The springs for which the camp is named still flow. People came from far and wide in the late 1800s and early 1900s to drink this pure, clean, “medicinal” water.

Since 1955, members of the Disciples of Christ denomination have run this property as a camp and conference center. The original hotel and lodge are currently used for lodging some of the pilgrims, while there are cabins for the families. All dining — Southern country cooking at its finest — is done in the large dining hall in the original lodge.

Fine as the atmosphere and amenities are, this is still a pilgrimage. It's more than a weekend in the woods, more than a chance to renew friendships and make new acquaintances. As Msgr. Williams says, the purpose is the same today as it was in 1977: building up families with the sacramental life and rich devotional traditions of the Catholic faith, in a healthy countryside with wide possibilities for recreation and relaxation.

Many of those who came here as children in those early years now bring their own children. Some of those who came as Protestant friends have now joined the Catholic Church and continue to come, bringing potential converts with them.

For all who come, this annual pilgrimage is the Father's Day gift that keeps on giving all year long.

Mary C. Gildersleeve writes from Central, South Carolina.