Among the walkers counting their steps and cyclists monitoring their speedometers along the Erie Lackawanna Trail on July 10, were more than 15 local pilgrims marking the miles praying mysteries of the Rosary and singing hymns.
The pilgrims were participating in the annual NWI Camino, an 11-mile walk from St. Mary parish in Crown Point to Our Lady of Grace in Highland. The route on a converted railroad corridor may not resemble the Spanish countryside, which is part of the original Camino de Santiago, but the miniature journey nevertheless provided a spiritual quest for walkers.
“The Camino is more of a retreat – a time to go away from our typical everyday lives and focus on our journey with God,” said Vicky Hathaway, diocesan office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry consultant, who coordinated the event. “We’re physically going from one place to another encountering people and things along the way and living our faith.”
Walkers were strengthened by the prayers and scripture readings led by Deacon Bob Marben and Hathaway to kick off the journey at St. Mary.
“God is the beginning and the end of a life’s pilgrimage, let us call on him with confidence,” Hathaway said. As they proceeded from the steps of St. Mary church, the pilgrims responded: “Lord, be a companion on our journey.”
The full Camino, a Spanish word for "way," extends from France into Spain and is more than 475 miles long. Pilgrims collect stamps on their passports and are assisted by Spaniards with food, drink and lodging before they finally arrive at the Cathedral of St. James.
The entire spiritual quest is inspired by St. James, who about 40 years after the time of Christ was sent to convert pagans and evangelize throughout the Iberian Peninsula. James was beheaded by order of King Herrod upon his return to Jerusalem. Legend has it that a ship carrying his body washed ashore near Galicia, Spain and his remains were preserved by scallops or shells.
Yard signs bearing the scallop were placed at the starting point, endpoint and the rest stops along the NWI Camino route. In Spain, similar signage indicates a café, hostel or other business that welcomes pilgrims.
In Spain, some pilgrims walk independently for some stretches, while others are constantly surrounded by family members or friends. Familial encouragement played a major role in 18-year-old Michael Fugger’s participation in his first Camino.
According to Fugger, of Schererville, his older sister, Julia Fugger, woke him after a late night, doing everything shy of performing Reveille on the bugle to ensure he was “up and at ‘em.”
Michael Fugger said he warmed up to the idea of walking 11 miles by realizing it would improve his focus on issues that mattered most in life.
"Spiritually, (the Camino) kind of got me back into the groove of things, but physically, I’ll probably feel better about it tomorrow,” he said of his sore feet and tired legs, common to the pilgrims.
Others found resolution to their prayers from previous NWI Caminos. Last year, Adam Johnson had a lot on his mind as he prayed for a good outcome to a relationship problem.
A Valparaiso resident who participates in St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Student Center events as a member of Rolling Hills Vineyard Church, Johnson held up his wife Hannah Johnson’s hand as she admired her wedding ring. Their separation in 2020 yielded to a resumption of their romance and a wedding in January.
“Prayer has been a great foundation for marriage,” Adam Johnson, 34, explained. “I said to God, ‘Hannah is precious to me, I want to take care of her the way you want to take care of her.’”
Hannah Johnson said simply that because of prayer, “Certain special things have happened.”
“We both went through our journey of praying through (our separation),” said Hannah Johnson, 29. “Adam grew spiritually and took the time to focus on his spiritual walk and understanding of prayer and God’s love for us … and I fell in love with that."
Volunteers Caitlyn Pszonka, Emily Sutton and Robert Budzius greeted pilgrims at rest stops in Schererville and Griffith. Mild temperatures and partly sunny conditions made for ideal weather, according to some participants.
Still, the shade of a gazebo and the smiling faces of volunteers who handed out water and fresh fruit was a welcome sight for walkers. Budzius, a diocesan seminarian, stamped each pilgrim’s passport as they made each stop on their journey official.
A first-time NWI Camino participant, Tracey Ettensohn, a Fort Wayne native and Valparaiso resident, found the mild temperatures, quiet, flower-lined paths and sightings of Cardinals to be a peaceful experience.
“It was good,” said Ettensohn, a flight attendant. “I wouldn’t have done it on my own. I would recommend it as a nice way to meet people … it was a good way for me to get off my phone.”
Before heading out on the longest stretch, Bishop Noll Institute Spanish teacher Ana Acosta enjoyed refreshments while joined by new friends Erika Dolder, of Schererville, and her 13-month-old daughter Elizabeth, and Melissa Lopez and her children, Elena, 3, and Elias, 18 months.
Dennis Churilla and his family awaited pilgrims at Our Lady of Grace, setting up a station with snacks. “We wanted to make the pilgrims feel welcome,” the OLG youth group leader said.
First-time participants Wojtek Bejnarowicz, Kasia Lichman and Anna Piotrowicz, friends from Chicago, arrived first and received a compestela, or certificate of completion.
Veterans pilgrims eager to participate in August’s Polish Marian Pilgrimage from Chicago to Merrillville, the trio said they would spread the word among their friends about the NWI Camino to encourage more participation in the future.