‘Walk to Mary’: Thousands Join Annual Pilgrimage to Our Lady of Champion Shrine
This year, 5,330 faithful traversed 21 miles across Wisconsin to honor the Blessed Mother.
John Sloot, 95, loves the Blessed Mother.
The nonagenarian was part of the 5,330-strong group of pilgrims who set out last Saturday to traverse 21 miles in honor of Our Lady.
Doris Lamers made the pilgrimage in a wheelchair.
And scores of young families, like Brandon and Katherine Longley and their four children, were there, too.
No one let the morning’s light rain and low-50s temperatures deter their Marian mission: the 10th-annual “Walk to Mary” pilgrimage in Champion, Wisconsin.
Pilgrims arrived from 44 states, criss-crossing the country from Washington to Florida, from Maine to California — and from Canada and Mexico, too.
“People were coming from all over the place and were very joyful,” Pat Deprey, co-founder of the Walk to Mary, told the Register, adding that they came to “what we think is the only kind of pilgrimage in the world where you can walk from a national shrine of St. Joseph to a formally approved apparition site [of the Blessed Mother] and make the pilgrimage in one day.”
The walk began at the National Shrine of St. Joseph on the campus of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and wended its way along the banks of the Fox River to our Blessed Mother’s national shrine in the town of Champion, the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion.
The less-than-ideal weather did not deter anyone. Deprey reported that, “despite the weather, [the pilgrims] turned up in record numbers.” This year’s tally surpassed last year’s record of 3,374.
A decade ago, Deprey and Tom Schmit founded the walk.
Deprey, who has been twice to Lourdes and Fatima, plus Medjugorje, and has traveled the Camino de Santiago, told the Register he “knew how a pilgrimage can really stir one’s heart and really change a person,” as it did for him in 2000. When they began organizing the first pilgrimage, he and Schmit “could feel Our Lady right there,” Deprey recalled, “pulling us through and leading the way for us. It was just remarkable the experiences and how things came together so quickly and so easily. She was the guidepost of all of this for us.”
One of the goals of the Walk to Mary is to continue the mission our Blessed Mother gave to Adele Brise when she appeared to her on Oct. 9, 1859, on the grounds of today’s shrine. Our Lady told Adele: “Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation. Teach them their catechism, how to sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross, and how to approach the sacraments; that is what I wish you to do.”
Families take that directive to heart, with many young children participating in the walk, even “several mothers carrying infants under blankets strapped around their shoulders, walking with their infant in the rain,” according to Deprey. “There are more families, younger families and children that are getting involved.”
More than 1,000 made up “the walk with the children, the last couple of miles of the route where families” join in with their youngest.
Father of Mercy Joseph Aytona, rector of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion, found it “edifying to see parents, especially younger parents in their 20s or 30s, who have multiple children, and they want their children to do something for God through Mary.”
“This was a good opportunity for the children to learn that sacrifice and offering something up to God through Mary is a theme that they should have in their life,” he told the Register. “It’s a visible way to show their devotion to Jesus through Mary by walking, especially at a place where Mary appeared. You can never be too young to plant the seeds to go to Jesus through Mary.”
Katherine Longley shared several reasons why she and husband Brandon and their growing family have participated for seven years.
“We want to support being a part of bringing people closer to Christ,” she told the Register. “Being a part of a pilgrimage where people are praying and having great conversations for those miles is really inspiring. There’s just nothing like it. There’s such a sense of peace that comes every year, with all the kindness from all the people that take part,” plus seeing “the love and the joy and the passion for their faith. That’s the most exciting part.”
Longley added, “It’s so inspiring to see the people carrying Mary, and, absolutely, I see Christ. And Mary. It’s something that we will always and forever have in our calendar every single year.”
Her 8-year-old son, Emmitt, enjoyed walking and praying with his friend from St. John Paul II Classical School in Green Bay. A number of the schoolchildren participate. Brother Louis, 7, also joined friends, while 4-year-old Elizabeth met new ones praying and walking to Mary. Three-year-old Luci walked with her parents near her siblings.
Father Aytona explained the pilgrimage mindset: “Making a pilgrimage, especially with physical exertion, really is a good reminder of penance, sacrifice and even physical exertion that we can offer to God through Mary. When people walk, especially the 21 miles, they can be reminded of what’s important or what’s essential in life. That is: to get to heaven.”
The oldest walker, John Sloot, came from Minnesota with his daughters Bernie and Lidy. He participated in the walk before and looked forward to it again this year.
“The first thing I do in the morning is pray the Rosary,” the devotee of our Blessed Mother told the Register.
Daughter Bernie said she and her sister learned their devotion to Mary as youngsters, through their parents’ example, which included “my parents praying the Rosary every day; and before we would open up our gifts for Christmas, it was praying the Rosary — so it was first and foremost.”
Growing up in Holland, John well remembered “in our house every night we prayed the Rosary.” Bernie added that when her father went to Holland to celebrate his 90th birthday with his brothers and sisters, he journeyed on to Marian apparition sites: “We combined his birthday trip with a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Lourdes in France.”
Nothing daunts many pilgrims.
Although fighting brain cancer since December 2021, Doris Lamers did the walk the first time in 2022 with two friends.
“We made this plan to Walk to Mary because Mary is somebody who we’ve been really leaning on for all of our prayers and intercessions for Doris,” said Karmen Lemke, who is among a group of friends who pray a weekly Rosary for Lamers’ intentions. Lemke said their friend was their prayerful motivator last year: “If our friend Doris who has a terminal illness wants to walk 21 miles, we’re going to put on our shoes and walk 21 miles to Mary.”
This year, the same trio, including Connie Clancy, joined by Lamers’ sister and niece, did the last 7-mile leg of the walk to accommodate Lamers’ special wheelchair.
Mass Is a Must
Mass underscores the day’s walking, as five Masses are celebrated throughout the day at different times so all can attend, including the closing Mass celebrated by Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, who approved the apparition that took place on the shrine’s grounds more than 160 years ago.
“Of course, the source and summit, the high point of any pilgrimage, would be union with God, union with Jesus in the Eucharist,” explained Father Aytona. “You want to have the Eucharist incorporated in a pilgrimage. True devotion to Mary always leads us to Jesus, obviously, with his Real Presence in the Eucharist. So it’s very fitting that they end the pilgrimage with a Eucharistic celebration like the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”
At the same time, 12 priests were hearing confessions non-stop.
Pilgrims bring with them various prayer intentions, of course. One of Maggie Groeschl’s intentions was answered in an unexpected way last year.
She had three intentions; one included “praying for conversion of all the hardened hearts in the world, like Our Lady told Adele Brise to pray for,” Groeschl told the Register. The final one was vocation-focused: “Lastly, I really want to be a wife and a mom. If that’s God’s will for me, I really ought to find my future husband soon because I’m 33.”
Before the 2022 walk, she met up with friends who invited her. “As I walked in,” she recalled, “the first person I saw was Joe. I didn’t really know him or his name then, but I recognized him from seeing him at daily Mass at St. Paul of the Cross Church before going to work in Park Ridge, Illinois. He said, ‘I see you at Mass.’”
They walked the first seven miles together and attended Mass after the walk. “I remember thinking how wonderful it was to be next to him during Mass,” she said.
Later, as they prepared to leave, she recounted, “I asked this priest if he would bless the garden statue that I had for my mom. And the priest said, ‘So when are you two getting married?’ I got so red in the face. I blushed. I said, ‘Father, we just met.’ And he said, ‘Our Mother has a way of working these things out. The only thing I ask is that when you do get married, send me an invitation.’”
Maggie and Joe Carrozza did not walk this year — they were at their wedding.
They purposely chose their wedding day to be on the same day as the walk to highlight what a special anniversary day it is for them — and to thank the Blessed Mother for having a role in their love story.
This story was updated after posting.