Walk to Mary pilgrimage brings thousands to ‘grounds where Mary appeared’ — By: Catholic News Agency

Thousands of pilgrims come together each year to take part in the annual Walk to Mary, which takes place on the first Saturday of May in Wisconsin. The 21-mile pilgrimage starts at the National Shrine of St. Joseph in De Pere, Wisconsin, and ends at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion in Champion, Wisconsin. / Credit: The Shrine of Our Lady of Champion

CNA Staff, May 2, 2024 / 07:00 am (CNA).

Thousands of pilgrims come together each year to take part in the annual Walk to Mary, which takes place on the first Saturday of May in Wisconsin. The 21-mile pilgrimage starts at the National Shrine of St. Joseph in De Pere, Wisconsin, and ends at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion in Champion, Wisconsin.

The Walk to Mary will take place on May 4 this year and includes several “join in” points along the route that offer participants unable to walk the entire distance to participate. These locations shorten the pilgrimage length, allowing pilgrims of all ages to take part in what is a spiritual and physical test in perseverance.

This year’s pilgrimage is particularly special as the participants will be walking similar stretches that the perpetual pilgrims and Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament on the Marian Route will be walking during the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage this June.

The National Eucharistic Pilgrimage will be making a stop at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion on June 16, where there will be a Mass celebrated and a large Eucharistic rosary procession.

Father Joseph Aytona, CPM, rector of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion, told CNA in an interview that the Marian Route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage was actually named in honor of Our Lady of Champion.

“It is an honor to pray over this path during the Walk to Mary and, in a real way, ‘prepare the way of the Lord and make straight his paths’ for when he arrives in June through the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage,” he said.

Thousands of pilgrims come together each year to take part in the annual Walk to Mary, which takes place on the first Saturday of May in Wisconsin. The 21-mile pilgrimage starts at the National Shrine of St. Joseph in De Pere, Wisconsin, and ends at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion in Champion, Wisconsin. Credit: National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion

Since 2023, a segment of the Walk to Mary has been designed to accommodate children, families, and anyone who wants to participate in the pilgrimage but is challenged by the longer distances. This 1.7-mile route, called “The Walk With the Children,” merges into the last half a mile of the longer route.

Aytona shared that they are expecting more than 6,000 pilgrims from around the world to attend this year’s Walk to Mary. 

“Participants walk down everyday streets and trails through the Green Bay area, led by a carried statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” he explained. “They pray the rosary, sing hymns, and silently reflect on the intentions they are walking for. It’s always a beautiful display of faith for the world to see.”

Aytona compared the walk to a “mini-version of the Camino de Santiago in Europe,” adding that “the Walk to Mary draws people to the heart of pilgrimage — the opportunity for one to draw closer to the Lord and for him to draw closer to you — but all through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph.”

The final destination of the walk is also particularly special as the Shrine of Our Lady of Champion is the first and only approved Marian apparition in the United States. 

On Oct. 9, 1859, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a young Belgian woman named Adele Brise in the woods near present-day Champion, Wisconsin. Seeing the beautiful lady dressed in dazzling white with a crown of stars around her head, Brise asked the woman who she was.

The lady replied: “I am the Queen of Heaven who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same.”

The Blessed Mother then told the young girl to “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.”

The apparition was approved by Bishop David Ricken of the Diocese of Green Bay in 2010. 

Karmen Lemke, executive director of Catholic Charities at the Diocese of Green Bay, called the 21-mile pilgrimage “absolutely life-changing.”

This year marks Lemke’s third time participating in the Walk to Mary; however, her first two experiences hold a special place in her heart. 

“My first walk, the full 21 miles, was in 2022, and my inspiration for participating was to join my friend Doris Lamers, who was diagnosed with glioblastoma brain cancer,” Lemke shared with CNA in an interview. 

“The Blessed Mother has been an important person in her life and the Walk to Mary was something she really wanted to do. A few days before I asked again if she wanted to walk, even if we did the short version, and she quickly replied: ‘I want to walk and I want to do the whole thing,’” she recalled.

Lemke said that will be a day she will “forever treasure.”

“The weather was perfect, but our conversations along the walk were priceless,” she said. “We prayed the rosary and talked about life in general. We met so many wonderful people along the way, sharing stories of why they walk.”

Karmen Lemke (right, kneeling), along with a group of friends and family, assist Doris Lamers on what would be her final Walk to Mary pilgrimage experience. Credit: Karmen Lemke

In 2023, Lemke and Lamers participated in the walk again, along with Lamers’ sister and niece; however, due to the progression of the cancer, Lemke pushed Lamers in a wheelchair for the last seven miles of the walk.

“Upon our arrival at the shrine, Doris received a special blessing from Father Joseph [Aytona]. It was wonderful. I know that Doris knew exactly what was going on and was grateful for the day.”

Lamers passed away on Sept. 20, 2023.

“This year will hold a different meaning for us,” Lemke said. “We know that Doris will be with us and she’ll be saying, ‘Come on girls, you can do the whole route!’”

As for what Lemke has taken away from participating in the Walk to Mary, she said she has come to see “that anyone can do it with a little encouragement and not a lot of necessary training. I was moved by the number of people and their love for Mary and the love for their faith. It was a true sense of community.”

Aytona said he hopes that participants “are led to a deeper devotion to Our Lord Jesus.”

“True devotion to Mary always brings us to Jesus, and when people step foot on the grounds where Mary appeared, I hope they have an encounter with her that ultimately leads them to profound encounters with the merciful and divine love of Christ,” he added.

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