“It was awesome, truly amazing and energizing,” a pilgrim enthused after a foot-blistering, 200-kilometre walk to pray for the unborn. The walk was at Martyr’s Shrine in Midland, Ont. Nearly 100 English-speaking pilgrims, support workers and family members left in five separate groups from Brampton, Guelph, Kitchener, Cambridge and Georgetown (Burlington/Milton). They all met two days later at Orangeville’s Mother of God Monastery, where a retreat was offered with a one-day stopover.

The pilgrims mostly travelled in their small groups and hiked along highways, secondary roads and trails and camped at a school, in farmer’s fields, the monastery and a country churchyard behind a cemetery. Blisters, sunburns, road dust and night shivers on the hard ground were sufferings endured for the unborn while the participants engaged in continuous prayers and praise songs.

Accompanying vans stopped along the way to provide water, snacks and lunch or a lift for the footsore. On day five, the English-speaking groups met up with over 6oo Polish pilgrims at St. Patrick’s Church in Phelpston, just west of Barrie. They celebrated a prayer vigil with the joyful noise of guitars, accordion, shakers, travelling sound system and wholehearted singing led by Oblate priests clad in black cassocks. A few Polish gypsies added extra colour to the gathering.

“I couldn’t picket at Morgentaler’s back in the 80s during the heyday of pro-life activism,” recalls Deacon Frank Sirianni, the veteran leader of the English contingent, “but really I wanted to.” He unexpectedly found another vital outlet when Fr. Bill Trusz invited him and his wife Paulette to make a pilgrimage for the unborn in 1984. “At first I said ‘no,’ but Paulette said ‘yes.’ So we went and now it’s our 22nd year.”

Fr. Bill had travelled to Poland to experience a pilgrimage there. After he organized the first group from Holy Rosary Parish in Milton, he found out that a group of Polish people had actually started a pilgrimage walk to Martyr’s Shrine two years previously. So they collaborated.

Fr. Bill’s original group of seven included a couple who couldn’t conceive. The woman became pregnant after the pilgrimage! In true pro-life style, she came on the pilgrimage three years later with her baby in stroller.

There are other stories from past pilgrimages told around the campfire. Fr. Ted Colleton went on a few pilgrimages and one year, a participant in another group happened to be a sergeant from Toronto’s 14th Division. He was the one who had arrested Fr. Ted and took him to jail. When he met with Fr. Ted at the monastery, he immediately felt he had to ask forgiveness. No doubt, the twinkle never left Fr. Ted’s eyes.

Emma Mann started making the pilgrimage as a young teenager of 15 and became a fervent pro-life advocate, Deacon Frank recalls. When there was a vote upcoming on abortion in Ireland, Emma flew over and travelled throughout the island speaking and organizing groups to carry on after she left. This was a new experience at the time in Ireland, that a young layperson would carry out such a mission.

Another story is told of Martin Bradbury, who took his mom on the pilgrimage in a wheelchair. She had multiple sclerosis. She was healed. Martin went on to the seminary and is now Fr. Martin.

Some of the most fervent pilgrimage participants are young people. Three of Frank and Paulette’s young adult children accompanied their parents and took on major responsibilities in preparing food, leading the singing, loading and unloading the supply truck and acting as flagman on the road.

“Our young people experience great joy, great peace,” explains Rick Johnston, a leader in the Burlington group. “One young man told me he goes on pilgrimage ‘because my life is chaotic. After, my life straightens up. There is a lot of healing.’ The pilgrimage is a springboard for a lot of people. They feel alive again.”

Are the people all pro-life? “It’s not visible with everyone,” Rick says. “Many young people may not be really into it, but they go back home, start talking, start thinking about the issues.”

One young woman, on pilgrimage for the first time, recalls how she became pregnant as a teenager years ago. Her family took her to Morgentaler’s. “But when I got in thereb I told them that I wanted to keep my baby. I went out and all the pro-life picketers were cheering. That meant a lot to me.”

She now has a successful business and is soon to be married to a man deeply committed to the pro-life cause. Her son is also doing well.

“We are carrying on as if we don’t need God. And look at the mess we’re in!” Bishop Ustrzycki announced at the Saturday Mass at Martyr’s Shrine. “You have felt the pain, but experienced a great sense of community.”

“You’ll have all year to recover,” Deacon Randy Matters of Burlington had assured the group just a few hours before.

Next year’s pilgrimage will take place again at the beginning of August. To inquire furtherb you can call Frank Sirianni at (905) 455-8469 or Randy Matters at (905) 319-1595.