Meisners turn dream trip to Alaska into spiritual journey

COLUMBIA—With summer right around the corner, many people are planning vacations, with theme parks, beaches and campgrounds some of the most popular destinations.

Those who don’t have young children to amuse or who have already had their fill of such attractions might want to consider something a little different — a vacation and pilgrimage wrapped into one.

That was the kind of trip that Paul and Hilde Meisner embarked on in September 2017, when they climbed into their car and headed for Alaska.

That’s right, Alaska.

Paul Meisner’s career in the U.S. Air Force frequently took him on flights into and out of Fairbanks, and he dreamed for years about actually viewing some of the scenery that he only glimpsed from above.

Now retired, the couple finally decided to make his dream a reality, and they would do it by car, driving north through the U.S., across Canada and into The Last Frontier.

The Meisners spent several months planning the journey. They researched the route, stocked the car with food, water, blankets and other supplies, and took along cold-weather clothing because winter would be setting in while they were still on the road.

Unlike other travelers, however, they didn’t consult a travel agent to find out about fun attractions along the way. Instead, the Meisners decided to make the trip a spiritual pilgrimage, seeking out churches, shrines and other Catholic locations.

For guidance, they consulted Teresa Chepoda-Usibelli, who works in the office of stewardship and development for the Diocese of Fairbanks, which serves northern Alaska.

They had grown to know her because for many years the Meisners missions program in the far-flung diocese, which serves many isolated locations. Priests there have to travel by boat, plane and sometimes even by dogsled to reach parishes for Mass.

Chepoda-Usibelli said she knows other people who have driven to Alaska from the mainland, so she helped the Meisners locate pilgrimage spots. She also arranged for them to meet Bishop Chad Zielinski once they reached Fairbanks, and secured an invitation for a special event at the cathedral in Anchorage.

Before they left, the couple attended Mass at their parish, St. Joseph Church in Columbia. They drove 7,000 miles total over seven weeks,

“This was the trip of a lifetime,” They stopped at every church they encountered along the way, attending Mass when possible During long stretches of road, the Meisners avoided the radio. Instead, they listened to spiritual CDs and prayed the rosary together.

On the way back, they took a different route and spent time sight-seeing in California, New Mexico and Texas. Their stops included a visit to the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, home to a legendary spiral staircase known as the “Miraculous Stair.” The Sisters of Loretto say the staircase was built by St. Joseph himself.

Planning a pilgrimage trip isn’t difficult, the Meisners said. The key is to figure out what churches or other landmarks related to the faith are in the location you want to visit, and then plan accordingly.

“Make it a spiritual trip by praying together and eliminating distractions,” Mrs. Meisner said. “Just enjoy the beauty of the scenery you are traveling through and focus on the beauty God has given us.”

Photo provided: Paul Meisner stands outside Our Lady of Grace Church in the Yukon Territory of Canada.