By PAUL A. BARRA
EDISTO ISLAND If word-of-mouth is truly the best advertising, then the 1997 diocesan pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe must be a marketing managees dream come true. Pilgrims who journeyed to Mexico City last year are still buoyed by their experiences. And they don’t mind talking about it.
“It was very inspirational,” said Ana Heffera of Charleston. “I feel closer to Our Lady of Guadalupe now that I have been to the place where she herself was.”
The actual feast day of the Patroness of the Americas is celebrated on Dec. 12, but the pilgrimage begins a few days earlier. Pilgrims will depart from Charleston and Charlotte on Dec. 8 and will return on the 13th. In 1996, that period was long enough to forge friendships based on the communal epiphany that came with visiting the places where the Blessed Mother appeared and worked her miracles.
Last year’s pilgrims met for a reunion dinner over the summer to share memories and photographs. They listened to a talk by Pepe Hernandez, an expert on the minutiae of the Mexico apparition. Bishop David B. Thompson said that Guadalupe was his favorite Marian apparition because Our Lady left us undeniable proof of her visit. That proof is a tilma, a coat made of cactus fiber with an expected lifespan of twenty years, which still bears the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The tilma belonged to Juan Diego, the Indian man who was the visionary of the apparition that was to change the world of the Americas. The garment and its brilliant colors is on display at the very site of the visitation from the Mother of God.
Although the South Carolina pilgrims of 1996 hail from all parts of the diocese, they still feel the comradeship that had developed in Mexico return as if they had never been apart. Many said that their role as pilgrims in Mexico has made a lasting difference in their lives. This writer can be counted among those who, like Herrera, have felt a particular kinship with Our Lady of Guadalupe since visiting her shrine and the others associated with the great miracles she wrought 450 years ago.
Ann C. Platt of Edisto Island is a seasoned traveler who twice led ministerial association tours from Aiken to the Holy Land. She said that the diocesan pilgrimage to Guadalupe last year was just that, and that it is the pilgrimage aspect of it that should be emphasized for anyone contemplating taking part in this year’s version.
“People who are expecting to shop a lot and the like should realize that this is not the usual tour. The accommodations and the food were good, but this pilgrimage is an experience in itself. They should go with spirituality in their minds,” Platt said.
The diocesan pilgrimage offers plenty of opportunity for Platt’s vision of a faith evolution. Priests of the Diocese of Charleston will celebrate Mass at every church visited, all ancient by North American standards, and all the pilgrims will participate in the spectacular Mass of the Roses in the immense basilica in Mexico City on the feast day. Because of the enormous crowds that come to the city for the feast, the Mass of the Roses is an invitation-only celebration.
Platt said that one of the most impressive aspects of her visit to Mexico City was the number and piety of young people who traveled by foot and bicycle for days to celebrate the feast in the big city. Many of them and other Mexican pilgrims were poor; many begged for alms. She was cautioned by the tour guides to minimize contact with those poor people, but now she wishes that she had brought along even more single dollar bills to give away.
“Their faces come back to me. I can’t forget them,” she said. “Many of us were touched by our experiences on that pilgrimage. Those poor people touched me.”
She said that she highly recommends the pilgrimage to anyone who can make the trip. Her devotion to the Blessed Mother has intensified since she went in 1996.
The enthusiasm of the veteran pilgrims is infectious. Sister Betty Condon and Sister Barbara Hubbard, two Dominicans who run the Sea of Peace House of Prayer here on this sea island, never thought they would get the opportunity to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. They should have known better.
When the two sisters were first looking for a building to house their spiritual retreat center a few years ago, they looked first on John’s Island and worshipped at Holy Spirit Church there. A large statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe rests in a prominent spot near the altar at Holy Spirit. They asked her to help them in their search.
“Then it developed that we went to Yonges Island and went to the little church there (St. Mary). They have a pennant of her. Now that we found this place and we keep a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe in our activity room,” said Sister Betty. “I feel that she kind of directed us.”
The two women religious admit to a “special devotion to her” but could not afford the $1,300 cost of the pilgrimage. It never occurred to them that the namesake of the parish where they first encountered Our Lady of Guadalupe on the sea islands was already at work on that minor difficulty. This is how the Spirit worked: a benefactor was trying to sell some property on Edisto earlier this year and asked for the sisters’ prayer help. They again turned to Our Lady of Guadalupe for intercession. When a deal popped up quickly, the man decided to tithe some of his profits from the sale. He bought the nuns a pilgrimage ticket each.
“We’re really excited about going,” Sister Betty said.
To find out more about the Guadalupe pilgrimage, call the diocesan director of pilgrimages, Father Basil Congro at (803) 662-5674. He will provide all the information you need to implement that kind of excitement for yourself.