Catholic Herald staff
Paula Schneider claims she is not really a walker, and her metered training program for the 130-mile “Wisconsin Way” appears to back that up.
After committing in March to pursue the walking pilgrimage – from the shrines of Our Lady of Good Help near Green Bay to Our Lady, Help of Christians in Holy Hill, near Milwaukee – Schneider’s first goal was just 10,000 steps daily. She was up to three miles in June and four in August, but the plan to walk the pilgrimage as a novena would require an average of 15 miles per day.
If the name Schneider sounds familiar, then her tenacious commitment will as well.
Schneider is Fr. Samuel Schneider’s mom, and it was Fr. Samuel who first shared the information about the Wisconsin Way.
Schneider knew her son’s time of pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, in Spain, had been deeply influential. Fr. Samuel knew his mother had participated for five years in the “Walk to Mary,” an annual 21-mile walking pilgrimage in the Green Bay area in early May.
Schneider looked into information put together by Fr. Andrew Kurz, a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay. Fr. Kurz developed the “Wisconsin Way” from an inspiration to connect his own experiences visiting Holy Hill with his family as a child, and his priestly parish ministry physically nearby the Marian apparition site in Champion.
While Fr. Kurz has traversed the Wisconsin Way numerous times and organizes multiple pilgrimages a year along the route, his current itinerary covers three days combining four- to eight-mile hikes with driving and multiple spiritual activities and church visits along the way. Information can be found at wisconsinway.com.
However, Schneider really wanted to walk the entire way, even without having a real map or plan to use as a guide beforehand.
“I found a couple of crazy friends to join me,” she acknowledged and shared about all the legwork, literal and metaphorical, over the months leading up to their October pilgrimage.
Lynne Trochlil, Rita Dobbins and Schneider have known each other since their sons were in Boy Scouts and Eagle Scouts together. With ages ranging from their late 50s to early 60s, Trochlil and Dobbins are both retired. Schneider took time off from their family-owned business for the pilgrimage.
The trio’s basic parameters were to make a novena of the journey. Nine days, all walking, but using an RV trailer as their lodging so they weren’t camping and carrying all that gear with them.
Including the spiritual practices that accompany a pilgrimage, the ladies read and discussed together “The Soul of a Pilgrim” by Christine Valters Paintner.
“We are really trying to have it be more spiritual than recreational,” Schneider told the Catholic Herald a few weeks before the pilgrimage, surmising that the point of the pilgrimage was to offer prayers for others and to be personally transformed.
With a clear sense of trailblazing, Schneider noted one of the biggest challenges was the amount of planning that went into their “Wisconsin Way” trip. This was disconcerting at times, feeling like there was so much logistical planning needed she felt less able to spiritually prepare.
Schneider shared a conversation with her son, asking Fr. Sam where he had stopped to eat along the Camino in Spain. She hadn’t expected that to require so much foresight. He had said there were so many options “right off the trail” that it wasn’t that difficult.
The women began on Oct. 2 from Champion amidst fall colors that Schneider described as “gorgeous, just beautiful.”
It was, from the get-go, “like any pilgrimage, a different kind of struggle for each one of us,” Schneider commented.
With both warm and cool days, there were personal comfort levels, waiting on each other and trying to be supportive. It was “OK,” Schneider said, “to allow each other to have those struggles and just be there for each other,” all the while knowing they needed to get up each morning and continue.
Through a group message for daily sharing photos and updates with family and friends, midway Schneider asked for “extra prayers” on Oct. 6, “as the miles are starting to add up on our bodies. We got pretty wind-burned and sunburned yesterday and our feet and hamstrings are feeling it.”
She ended the update, “We are also praying more intentionally for all of your intentions.”
The night prior, the three women had made a visit with the Byzantine Romanian Catholic monks at Holy Resurrection Monastery in St. Nazianz. The monastery, celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2020, is situated south of Hwy. 151 more than halfway between Lake Winnebago and Lake Michigan.
Holy Resurrection is the planned first overnight for Fr. Kurz’s Wisconsin Way events and gives pilgrims and visitors a look into one of the lesser known of the 22 particular churches that make up the universal Roman Catholic Church united under the Bishop of Rome as Pope.
Schneider shared that she and her companions spent some time with one of the monks, Fr. Moses, who had also been on pilgrimage.
They asked him how to stay immersed in the spiritual during their pilgrimage, especially when they were managing logistics at the same time.
His answer: “And that is why you’re on a pilgrimage.”
“OK then,” Schneider relayed in a post-pilgrimage interview with the Herald, “the pilgrimage is learning how to be on a pilgrimage.”
She admitted, “It’s not like the whole thing was awesome and you come home a whole new person … like most experiences, as you go on with your day-to-day life, things strike you in different ways.”
Careful not to speak for her two friends, Schneider personally shared having a definite sense of accomplishment.
“You realize that you can push yourself harder that you think you can, in a physical sense,” but she recognized it also in a spiritual sense. “It reinforces the idea that our life, our faith, is a pilgrimage and a journey. I knew that beforehand, but I don’t know that everyone does.”
Sharing a brief conversation with an 80-year-old woman who had built a small chapel along the route of the Wisconsin Way, Schneider paraphrased, “We’re on this journey and we’re on our way home. It’s not all exciting and obvious … some days you just put one foot in front of the other.”
The physical aspect of the pilgrimage has definitely given Schneider new insight into the numerous “pilgrimages” undertaken by Mary and Joseph, starting with their trip to Bethlehem, walking mile after mile after mile.
Part of the pilgrimage, Schneider said, was “the willingness to go with the flow, and see God’s hand in circumstances and people making suggestions along the way, unplanned breaks and ‘Holy Spirit’ moments” they could recognize and be thankful for.
South of Elkhart Lake, the pilgrims spent their first day on the Ice Age Trail – a 17-mile day Schneider recalled as the longest and hardest day of the trek.
“Very hilly, super hard and exhausting,” Schneider called it. They only found out afterwards that it is one of the hardest stretches along the Ice Age Trail.
In the group update Schneider shared, she noted, “16.5 miles on the Ice Age Trail in the Kettle Moraine. It equaled 99 flights of stairs! Needless to say, we were dragging our tails when we were picked up” for the night.
“If we had entered into it knowing it was going to be the hardest part, we might have had a different attitudes towards it, but that relates to life,” Schneider reflected. “We often don’t know we’re in the hardest moments and that the rest of it will be easier and better… but we just can’t give up, and we don’t know” what the next day will bring.
Schneider, Truchlil and Dobbins prepared for the next day “to be horrible, and it was better.”
Conversing with Eileen Belongea, middle and high school youth minister for St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Slinger and a veteran pilgrim of the Wisconsin Way, they concluded, “But isn’t that how life is? We have to walk through it.”
Schneider again reflected on the trio’s dynamic throughout the pilgrimage, noting, “You have to trust those you’re walking with, trust the people you meet along the way, and you have to be interdependent on each other in ways we don’t normally.”
This experience helped her realize on a deeper level how complementary differences can be, helping each other even though it’s not easy.
When asked if she would attempt the pilgrimage again, Schneider said she initially thought, “Once was enough.”
She has continued walking three to four miles daily and said having a goal you’re working towards definitely helps as time goes on.
“Maybe?” was her final answer. For now, Schneider said, she’s “putting one foot in front of the other.”