Mario Bruschi couldn't believe the coincidence when he checked his e-mail first thing Saturday morning before heading uptown to help lead some 150 pilgrims downtown from the St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine in northern Manhattan to the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine at Battery Park on the first Pilgrimage of New York. In his inbox was this thought for the day from the St. Padre Pio Web site: "Some people go to paradise by train and some by car; however, some others go on foot. The latter, however, have more merit than the former and obtain the highest place of glory in paradise."
The vast majority of those taking part in this uniquely New York urban pilgrimage ended up opting to travel via the MTA for at least part of their journey of faith. But that doesn't mean that those who did the entire route on foot, including this reporter, should feel smug.
In fact, some of the strap-hanging pilgrims found a lot more than they bargained for while riding the subway. A group of them, including pilgrimage organizer Bruschi, rescued a man they found apparently drunk and disoriented who was calling for help on the downtown tracks at the Bleecker Street No. 6 station just after their train pulled out.
"We got off at Bleecker Street and as we were walking toward the exit, we saw this guy walking across the tracks," Bruschi explained. "He said, 'Hey, can somebody help me?' He reached out his hand and three of us, Mark Rockers from Blessed Sacrament parish, myself and Brother Keegan McDermott, a seminarian from the Legionaries of Christ, grabbed his arms and pulled him up. Within 15 seconds the next subway train was coming into the station." They called 911, notified the MTA and the three intrepid pilgrims continued their journey to St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, the third stop on the itinerary.
"Brother Keegan did say later, 'Imagine if we didn't have the pilgrimage today? Maybe this guy would not have made it.' I think he had a point there," Bruschi said. "I guess God's providence is always working."
So in its first year the Pilgrimage of New York already has a "miracle," or at least a very good "only in New York" story to tell future pilgrims about.
On an unseasonably warm day of abundant sunshine, the mostly young adults from across the archdiocese and beyond made the approximately 13- to 15-mile trek, depending on the route taken, from the Mother Cabrini Shrine in Washington Heights to the Mother Seton Shrine in lower Manhattan.
Organized by a coalition of Catholic Young Adult groups led by the Cathedral of St. Patrick Young Adults, the Pilgrimage of New York was the brainchild of Chris Lowney, a writer, former Jesuit seminarian and former managing director at J.P. Morgan & Company. Lowney's visit to the St. Patrick's Young Adults a couple of years ago to talk about his own attempted 500-mile pilgrimage from the French border to Santiago de Compostela in Spain in 2006 spurred interest among the group in doing a pilgrimage here.
"Mario Bruschi said, 'People are going to get interested in the idea of doing a pilgrimage, but people can't fly to Spain. So, is there something that people could do in New York?' " explained Lowney as he walked along Fort Washington Avenue early in the pilgrimage.
"It just crossed my mind that we have saints to celebrate right here in this place and they are geographically beautifully situated," Lowney said. "One is at one end of Manhattan and the other is at the other, so what if people just did a pilgrimage from one to the other? They'll learn about the history of the Church in New York. They'll learn about the geography. But at the end of the day our hope is this will be an experience of spiritual growth for people."
Needless to say, New York's landscape provides a lot of temptations that could lead even the most devoted pilgrim off the path. But this pilgrimage actually picked up marchers as it moved along.
Pilgrims stopped at St. Patrick's Cathedral to visit the crypt there and pray before the tombs of Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Cardinal Terence Cooke and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, all of whom have causes for sainthood currently in process. Next stop was St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, where pilgrims paused to reflect on the courage of Catholic New Yorkers who braved rabid anti-Catholic prejudice to establish the Church here. Then some marchers moved on to St. Peter's Catholic Church, the archdiocese's oldest, established in 1785, where St. Elizabeth Ann Seton converted to Catholicism. The pilgrimage ended with a Mass at Our Lady of the Rosary Church, where the Seton Shrine is located. The pastor, Father Peter Meehan, celebrated the liturgy.
Margarita Marcone, who attends Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Benedict's parishes in the Bronx, made the entire journey on foot.
"Well, now that we've had Mass, I feel good. I feel rejuvenated," she told CNY on the steps of the Seton Shrine. "Before Mass it was a little rough. The legs hurt, the toes hurt. But the whole time, even through the pain and discomfort, it was a joyful experience. I would do it again in a second."
For the organizers, there will be some tweaking before next year. But they were overjoyed with how things went.
"We made mistakes, but we know what the mistakes are and I'm really pleased about the fact that I know how to fix them," noted Pat Howley, special events coordinator of the St. Patrick's Young Adult group. "For a first-time event, I'm ecstatic."
Way up on Fort Washington Ave, Chris Lowney had predicted the unexpected: "My experience of pilgrimages has been that all kinds of things have happened," he said.
The first Pilgrimage of New York proved him right.