Walking the Notre Dame trail

(Unsplash/Tim Foster)

Walking the "Notre Dame Trail" from Vincennes Indiana to South Bend Indiana in celebration of the University of Notre Dame's 175 years was not what it was for Congregation of the Holy Cross Fr. Julian Sorin de la Gaulterie and his six Brothers of the Holy Cross companions in 1843. He had an oxcart; we had an air-conditioned Cardinal bus with Wi-Fi that we called "the Oxcart." The Oxcart became a good friend for the 32 pilgrims making the trek in the 88-degree days that offered ample humidity.

Holy Cross Sr. Suzanne Brennan and I looked at schedules and decided we could walk five days — figuring that we had walked distances before. Later we looked at the itinerary — one day was 39 miles. Whoa! The longest day on the Camino was 28, and that was sort-of by accident. Then we found out there was biking involved. Walk 20, bike 19.

And the packing list said to bring compression shorts. The very thought of Sorin in compression shorts was hard to describe. But we signed up to honor our Holy Cross brothers across the road at Notre Dame, thinking our Holy Cross founder, Fr. Basil Anthony Moreau would have liked that.

We took a bus from Notre Dame to Vincennes on Aug. 13, 2017. After Mass in the Vincennes cathedral, we received our pilgrim passports and a stone to carry — later to be deposited at the log chapel at Notre Dame. Then we walked three miles to have dinner with Notre Dame friends and the governor and the mayor of Vincennes and their spouses.

When Sorin got to Vincennes, he checked in with Bishop Célestin René Laurent Guynemer de la Hailandière, the same bishop who, in a dispute with Sister of Providence St. Mother Theodore Guerin, kept her confined while threatening the sisters who supported her with excommunication. Fr. Sorin chose a site for a small school. After a year with the mercurial bishop, Sorin quickly took the opportunity to go north to a property bequeathed to the diocese by Fr. Stephen Badin. One brother remained in Vincennes for many years by himself but later drowned in a river.

Fast forward to our first day, when we walked 10 miles; the next three days were walk-and-bike days. I fell off the bike within the first 90 seconds, in a collision with another pilgrim. She felt bad and apologized. I felt bad because of a skinned knee, but we had to get going so it air dried during the first 11 miles. Suzanne did great — and we both looked like professional bikers because we did have compression shorts — the ones with the padded bottoms. During the second leg, I was on the Oxcart cleaning up my knee, but Suzanne represented us very well on the bikes. The next days were sort-of all like that.

The pilgrims were divided into two groups — the Blue, which did 15-minute miles walking, and the Gold, which did 20-minute miles walking. We were in the Gold. Actually, for me they should have had a Green group, which did 25-minute miles. After about two or three miles, I was at the back of the group and would hop on the Oxcart; then I'd get back out for more miles, and then back to the Oxcart. Suzanne was nice and sometimes walked with me, though she has longer legs and kept up with the Golds.

Holy Cross Br. Larry Stewart was a good person to keep pace with — steady, praying the rosary on his fingers, very experienced with walking and especially biking. By the time we got to our last day, pilgrims had started to develop blisters, shin splints and dehydration, but "nevertheless, we persisted."

We would get up and get to the bus anywhere from 5 to 5:30 a.m. — whatever our wonderful coordinator Katherine Lane directed. We would arrive at the trailhead where we were to pick up from the day before, stretch, pray and say "Go Irish" (Notre Dame's sports teams are called the Fighting Irish) and then get on our way.

We were cared for in every way — water, snacks, great food, emergency medical technicians and massage therapists, Indiana state police escorts, ambulance service and the Oxcart following us at all times with air conditioned portable restrooms.

The pilgrims were wonderful people — all coming for their own reasons, as on any pilgrimage. Some came with life / loss issues, some for adventure, some just for their love of Notre Dame. We did it for Holy Cross.

Even though I can walk distances — I do 2 to 5 miles daily with BroDog, our chocolate Lab, on trails in Park City — I found the pace too quick for my most effective stride, learned that walking on hot asphalt is not like walking on dirt trails, and that I had brought the wrong shoes and socks. The feeling of always being last got to be a bit embarrassing, but I got a lot of exercise getting on and off the Oxcart. And my break times on the Oxcart gave me some time to think, since it only went three miles an hour to keep up with the Gold walkers.

I tried not to dwell too much on the virtue of humility, but instead thought about all the people on the move in the world today, our brothers and sisters who are refugees and migrants: fleeing from conflict and certain death from war zones, or crossing the desert to find a better life in the U.S. If you can't "keep up" because of heat, age, illness, carrying children, lack of food or water, what happens to you? What decisions do you have to make as a family if grandma or your 6-year-old can't go fast? What decisions do you need to make for the sake of others who have a chance? How do you care for others around you?

Saint Mother Theodore Guerin gave us an example. The Sisters of Providence and the Brothers of Holy Cross share the same founder in Fr. Jacques-François Dujarie in France. When we visited the motherhouse at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, the college president spoke about the hardships of the first sisters. When the Sorin party stopped at the Woods, Mother Guerin gave them two oxen — an incredibly generous gift from the sisters who had little food.

On our pilgrimage, we walked through several covered bridges. One in Bridgeton had been rebuilt by the entire community after being destroyed by arson. The volunteers cut trees from their own property, and labor came from local mills and people in building trades. Suzanne saw the pilgrimage in that light — many gifts being rallied and shared when we need them the most. The WNDU local news captured Suzanne's comments well.

After walking in the rain on our last day, we got a ride back to South Bend with Missy Conboy, the senior deputy athletics director at Notre Dame. Upon return to campus, we emailed our fellow pilgrims assuring them of daily prayer when they would need it the most. On Aug. 26, the pilgrims joyfully walked into the Notre Dame campus with hundreds of people joining them. They deposited our pilgrim stones at the log chapel at Notre Dame.

And we share a whole new sense of the vision and commitment that went into that very special place across the street from our motherhouse at Saint Mary's. Go Irish!

[Mary Ann Prajakowski grew up in South Bend, Indiana, where she entered the Sisters of the Holy Cross. For 24 years, she worked in high schools and volunteered at La Casa de Amistad in South Bend, a Hispanic youth and community center, and she currently works with education programs at Holy Cross Ministries in Park City, Utah, an afterschool, summer and preschool for children of first- and second- generation immigrant parents, mostly from Mexico. She is involved with comprehensive immigration reforms efforts and the Dream Act.]