Pandemic, other intentions inspire priests’ Galesburg to Peoria “walking pilgrimage”

Father Eric Bolek and Father Joe Baker walk down a country road during their four-day, 62-mile walk from Galesburg to Peoria at the start of June. (Provided photo)

“No pain, no gain.”

Father Joe Baker repeated that phrase often as he and Father Eric Bolek hiked 62 miles on a walking spiritual pilgrimage between Galesburg and Peoria from June 1 to 4.

The pain from the resulting blisters and muscle aches has proven to be temporary.

The gain? Plentiful and likely long lasting.

“More than anything, it was a penitential sacrifice,” said Father Baker, parochial vicar at Epiphany Parish in Normal and chaplain at Central Catholic High School in Bloomington. The priests’ journey began at the tomb of St. Crescent at Corpus Christi Church in Galesburg on a Monday and ended the following Thursday at the tomb of Venerable Fulton Sheen at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria.

Masses were offered at both sites, as well as at overnight stops at churches along the way.

MANY PRAYER INTENTIONS

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, Father Baker wanted to offer a prayerful sacrifice for those who are suffering locally, nationally, and globally. In early May, a former parishioner sent him a newspaper story about priests in the Washington, D.C., area who had completed a 54-mile walk to let those affected by the pandemic know that Jesus is with them.

Father Bolek on the walk. (Provided photo)

Father Baker, who enjoys hiking and camping, shared the idea with classmates from his ordination year of 2015. Father Bolek, parochial vicar at St. Patrick Church of Merna in Bloomington and St. Mary Parish, Downs, agreed to participate in the walk, while other classmates — including Father Matt Deptula and Father Alex Millar — took on supporting roles, checking frequently on their progress.

“We really couldn’t have completed it without the two of them helping us,” said Father Baker.

As Fathers Baker and Bolek walked mostly on quiet back roads, they received text message updates on protests and riots spreading across the nation stemming from the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota. The unrest became another topic for prayer.

And while they sought no publicity, the priests did invite members of their respective parishes to submit personal prayer requests. They carried those requests with them on the pilgrimage and remembered the intentions at their Masses.

MAKING ST. CRESCENT KNOWN

Father Baker was the principal celebrant of the Mass at the tomb of St. Crescent at the start of the walk. “Not a lot of people know about St. Crescent,” said Father Baker, or that the tomb of the 9-year-old boy martyred in Rome during Christian persecution around the year 300 A.D. is found inside Corpus Christi Church in Galesburg.

THE START: Father Eric Bolek, left, and Father Joe Baker pose at the tomb of St. Crescent at Corpus Christi Church in Galesburg. They began their walking pilgrimage with a Mass at the tomb of the young boy who was martyred in Rome during Christian persecution around the year 300 A.D. (Provided photo)

But Father Baker’s mother, who is a native of neighboring St. Patrick Parish in Galesburg, spoke to her son often about St. Crescent. The martyr’s remains, encased in wax, have rested inside Corpus Christi Church since 1887. They were brought from Italy at the request of the pioneering Rosminian priest Father Joseph Costa.

“They say St. Crescent protects Galesburg against storms,” said Father Baker. “Well, our world is kind of in a storm right now.”

The walking priests encountered no storms on their four-day trek, but did endure 95-degree heat on June 2 as they hiked 24 miles from Abingdon to Elmwood. That proved to be their longest, toughest stretch.

“We discovered that walking is actually very difficult if you walk a lot of miles in a short amount of time,” said Father Baker.

On other days their route took them from Galesburg to Abingdon (11 miles) on Monday, from Kickapoo to the monastery of the Community of St. John in Princeville (8 miles) on Wednesday, and from the monastery to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria (18 miles) on Thursday.

“With about three miles to go, we hit a wall,” said Father Baker. Their pace slowed, and they made it to the cathedral, “collapsing” on the church lawn for about an hour before going in to pray at the tomb of Venerable Sheen. Father Bolek was the principal celebrant of a concluding Mass in the cathedral’s St. Thomas More Chapel.

PRIESTLY FRATERNITY

Father Baker said that, in addition to the quiet time for prayer, the journey afforded opportunities for priestly fraternity. During the first overnight at Sacred Heart in Abingdon, for example, they were joined for dinner by Father Bill Miller, Father Jacob Rose, and Father Daniel McShane. They enjoyed the hospitality of Father Joseph Dondanville in Kickapoo, and were able to spend much of Wednesday with the Brothers of St. John at the rural Princeville monastery.

“That was a monastic type of retreat experience,” said a grateful Father Baker.

THE FINISH: Joining Father Bolek and Father Baker at the tomb of Venerable Fulton Sheen at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria were classmates Father Matt Deptula, left, pastor of St. Mary Parish, Chillicothe, and Father Alex Millar, cathedral rector. (Provided photo)

The priests said they never felt in danger on their walk — though they were approached by a couple of inquisitive farm dogs — and enjoyed the close-up look at the natural beauty of central Illinois.

“I’ve been to those towns, so I’ve seen much of the scenery before,” said Father Baker. “But when you’re walking it, you take it in so slowly. I was so moved by a lot of the beauty of the country roads.”

And in a week marked by protests and riots, the priests were also moved by the kindness of strangers.

“Father Bolek and I were really surprised at how many people stopped as they drove past just to ask if we needed anything, if we were OK, if we needed a ride,” said Father Baker. “People who didn’t have an idea of who we were or what we do.”

The walking pilgrimage, while painful at times, would offer one final “gain.” It afforded a prayerful, reflective period prior to a time of transition for both priests. Father Baker will soon begin a new assignment as administrator of St. Ambrose Parish, Milan, and St. Patrick Parish, Andalusia. Father Bolek has been named parochial vicar of St. Pius X Parish, Rock Island. (See clergy appointments list here.)

“Maybe we’ll do it again,” said Father Baker of the walk, adding “probably not next year, though.”

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