Catholic Herald reporter Jenny Snarski is pictured with her mom, Cathy Sewell, who travelled from Michigan to participate in the Walk to Mary on May 7. Although not Catholic, Sewell has a deeply personal relationship with and devotion to Mary. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)
Catholic Herald Staff
Editor’s note: Staff writer Jenny Snarski and her family recently joined the Walk to Mary pilgrimage in the Diocese of Green Bay. This is her story.
“United in step from shrine to shrine” is one of the taglines of the Walk to Mary, an annual event in the Diocese of Green Bay since 2011. The pilgrimage walk to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion is 21 miles from the starting point of the National Shrine of St. Joseph in De Pere.
The apparitions of Mary in 1859 to a young woman of Belgian descent, Adele Brise, were formally approved by Green Bay’s Bishop David Ricken on Dec. 8, 2010. That declaration made it the first church-approved Marian apparition site in the United States.
My first visit to Our Lady of Good Help was in July 2020 – the third stop in a tri-shrine personal pilgrimage that also included La Crosse’s Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Holy Hill, outside of Milwaukee. After a very challenging first few months of the COVID-19 lockdown, my husband, mother-in-law and a few friends made a short getaway possible for me. I was seeking help from my Mother Mary to more gracefully embrace the difficulties I faced.
Actually, “challenging” is an understatement. I had been close to a nervous breakdown within the first month of juggling the lockdown restrictions, at-home schooling with our four kids, my husband working from home off and on and my part-time job for the Herald, in addition to trying to adapt the family dynamic with all the added stressors from within and outside of our home.
I was a mess, and the family under my roof was paying for it. I sought out Mary as the mother and woman who has accompanied the messiness of Jesus’ followers for centuries – and she, as always, came through in flying colors.
What brought me to the shrine in 2022 was a chance to bring my family to her feet, on our feet. To thank her, to petition her and to openly receive the care and comfort only a mother can give.
It was interesting to observe others I walked alongside during the Walk to Mary. People of all ages and states of life, speaking various languages and of different physical abilities – the external variety made me reflect on the internal differences of all of us pilgrims – why we walked, what we talked and prayed about along the way, where we came from and how we would be returning.
Since the first Walk to Mary, co-founded in May 2013 by Pat Deprey and Tom Schmit, participation has almost doubled yearly. There were 500 pilgrims for the second year, almost 900 in the third and upwards of 2,000 participants from 27 states in 2019.
According to one of the volunteers at the 2022 walk on May 7, the event had almost 4,000 pilgrims.
While I knew of others from the Diocese of Superior in attendance, my walking companion was my mom, Cathy Sewell, who travelled from northern Michigan.
We hadn’t seen her since before COVID-19, except for a passing few hours in June 2020; I was thinking back on the providence at play in how we both got to Champion that day. It was also in 2020 that Fr. Rocky Hoffman, Relevant Radio’s executive director, had a book published called “Mary at the Crossroads of History.”
In it, he relates numerous apparitions and historical interventions attributed to Our Lady – from her intercession in military victories to the significance of Mohammed’s daughter being named Fatima. He covers the story and shrine of Our Lady of Good Help as well.
I honestly cannot even remember where I found a copy of the book – maybe when our parish gift shop was closed and items were made available for freewill donation – and thought of sharing it with my mom because of the picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the cover.
It might not seem that significant of a gift, except that my mom is not Catholic; I don’t even remember ever going to church with her, although I know her husband’s family has attended a non-denominational church and she helped out with their communications.
What is significant is that while not Catholic by religion, she has one of the strongest and most personal devotions to Mary of almost anyone I know. After high school, I lived abroad and had the chance to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. I had been given a cardboard image of the head of Our Lady and mailed it to my mom.
I don’t know at what point she really started learning more and engaging more with Mary, but I do know that since my Mom took over as my Grandma’s primary caregiver, I have noticed the development of their relationship.
My grandma has had lifelong mental health challenges, and I know their mother-daughter relationship suffered because of it. These past few years, I have witnessed a real process of healing, patience and resilience in both of these women.
I know that Mary’s hands and heart has been guiding them both through this process.
It was so moving, and healing, for me to witness my Mom’s desire to “Walk to Mary” and to be able to join her and witness Mary bringing us together in a new way as well. She had been wanting to visit the shrine, and providentially the weekend fell into place.
We were both impressed by the organization of the Walk to Mary, the number of volunteers and offerings to accommodate everyone’s abilities and affirming their desire to take part. Of the full 21-mile walk, my mom and I did the last seven, with my husband and three youngest children taking part in this year’s addition of a 1.7-mile Walk with Children.
The sky was clear and a beautiful blue. I asked a volunteer along the way how many years it had rained, and she couldn’t remember any. Mary always cleared any weather for the walk, she said.
Preparing for this article, I noticed in one of the photos I took of the walkers ahead of us on the country road, surrounded by bare fields waiting to be prepped for planting, that the moon can be seen, as though Mary – who reflects the light of Christ – was watching over us, thanking us for our efforts and assuring us of her presence that day and always.
At the shrine itself, three Masses were celebrated that day – the First Saturday Mass in the early afternoon and two vigil Masses, with the second concelebrated by Bishop Ricken and various priests, among them Relevant Radio’s executive director, Fr. Hoffman.
My mom lit up to see Fr. Rocky. Since his first visit to Our Lady of Good Help, he was immediately convinced of its legitimacy. The Walk to Mary idea started from his encouragement to some men at a regional Catholic conference to consider a pilgrimage walk to the shrine.
It didn’t take long for the idea to become a reality and here, less than 10 years since its inception, I was sitting next to my mom at Mass at the shrine.
I was struck when Mass started and I realized it was Good Shepherd Sunday, a beautiful nod to the entire Holy Family accompanying us that day. Even though we hadn’t start with those at mile one at the Shrine of St. Joseph, my own Joseph – my husband, Denny – quietly served and humbly took charge of the younger three so I could fully engage in the seven-mile walk and shrine visit with my mom.
There I was at Mass, aware of the presence of the Holy Family as I, imperfect but desirous of God’s holiness for myself, sat with my mom and family. All of us imperfect – calling to mind the rest of my large and varied family tree – all of us with our own gifts and struggles, but all under the loving gaze of Mary.
Just like a mother, the best of mothers, she tirelessly listens and encourages, accompanies and pushes us onward.
“Go and fear nothing. I will help you,” Mary said to Adele Brise during her apparition in Champion. My Mom noticed the beautiful stained-glass image at the front of the large conference room where hundreds of chairs were set up for Mass. Only part of Adele’s profile is visible, and while Mary’s face appears gentle and attentive, her eyes are not visible. Her gaze is fixed on Adele, who is looking up at her.
I walked away from the day strengthened, renewed in the confidence that my heavenly Mother acts very clearly in my earthly life, rejuvenated by the gift of her Son in the Eucharist and reassured that I have nothing to fear – in my own life or that of any of my loved ones – because she is with us.