By Sam Lucero
GREEN BAY, Wis. (OSV News) — A priest’s appeal in 2011 to begin a walking pilgrimage in northeast Wisconsin, similar to other pilgrimages to holy sites around the world, inspired two men to take up the challenge.
On May 4, 2013, the first “Walk to Mary” took place. About 350 people participated in the 21-mile pilgrimage from the National Shrine of St. Joseph in De Pere, Wisconsin, to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion in Champion, Wisconsin.
This year, the 10th Walk to Mary was held May 6 and attracted 5,330 people from 44 states as well as Canada and Mexico.
After a 7 a.m. prayer service and blessing, pilgrims departed on their journey along the Fox River Trail under overcast skies and drizzling rain. By noon, the rain had stopped and lunch was served at Holy Cross Church in Bay Settlement, the 14-mile mark. Pilgrims began arriving in Champion around 3 p.m. Green Bay Bishop David L. Ricken was on hand at the shrine to welcome pilgrims and he celebrated Mass for them at 5:15 p.m.
The walk’s founders look back with awe on the event’s success and how it has achieved one of its goals: bringing people closer to Mary.
“It has been inspiring to see how it has grown, not only attracting people from all across the U.S., but impacting those who participate,” said Pat Deprey, who along with Tom Schmit answered the call made by Father Francis (Rocky) Hoffman, executive director of Relevant Radio.
“It’s an event unlike any other in the United States and possibly the world,” Deprey told OSV News. “We really wanted to create a spiritually centered walking pilgrimage that was similar to ones in Europe, such as the Camino de Santiago.”
Father Hoffman, who made his appeal at a Catholic men’s conference in Appleton, Wisconsin, has participated in every walk. “It is a tiring, but spiritually energizing day,” he said.
The idea to begin a walking pilgrimage came to Father Hoffman shortly after Bishop Ricken declared on Dec. 8, 2010, that the Marian apparitions in Champion were worthy of belief.
Adele Brise, a Belgian immigrant living near the site of what today is the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion, located some 18 miles northeast of Green Bay, was 28 when Mary appeared to her in October 1959.
The Champion shrine is the first and only officially declared site of a Marian apparition in the United States.
“I was serving as the MC of the men’s conference and at the end of the day I said, ‘I have an idea and I’m not taking responsibility for it,'” Father Hoffman told OSV News. “Now that the apparition has been approved, someone needs to organize a walking pilgrimage in the month of May. … That’s what they do in Catholic countries like Mexico, Spain, Italy and Poland.’
“That’s the last I thought I would hear of it,” he added. “But it fell on the hearts of Pat Deprey and Tom Schmit and now the rest is history.”
Deprey said he had visited other Marian apparition sites around the world, including Mexico City, Fatima, Portugal, and Lourdes, France. “I have firsthand experience of how Mary can convert hearts, how Mary can bring someone closer to her son,” he said.
Schmit said he saw the Walk to Mary as “God’s will working” in him. “It brought about a lot of passion and desire on my part to help serve the Lord,” he added.
The Walk to Mary is held on the first Saturday in May, a month the Catholic Church dedicates to the Blessed Mother.
The 21-mile route is divided into four segments, said Deprey, coinciding with the four mysteries of the rosary: the National Shrine of St. Joseph, located on the St. Norbert College campus in De Pere, SS. Peter and Paul Church in Green Bay, Holy Cross Church in Bay Settlement, and the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion.
If pilgrims cannot make the 21-mile journey from De Pere, they can start at any of the other points. Nearly 3,000 walked the entire 21 miles this year.
Deprey said that after the first walk, the pilgrimage “started taking on a life of its own.”
“Other people had ideas about the walk,” he said, including a walk for children. “I had a young mother approach me and say, ‘If you just had a shorter distance that young kids could get involved, that would be really cool.'”
A two-mile walk was added the second year.
“It has now evolved to be like a mini-Walk to Mary that starts at the St. Joseph Grotto and ends at the Apparition Grotto on the shrine grounds,” said Deprey. “So you have young families now, people in wheelchairs. A lot of really cool things have taken place over the last 10 years and Our Lady certainly has a hand in this.”
The walk’s success has also spawned another venture: Walk to Mary — Across America. This year, separate walks with shorter distances were held in San Francisco, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Reno, Nevada.
“One of the requirements we have for anybody who wants to start (a walk), we really want them to experience the Walk to Mary first,” said Deprey.
“That’s important to us, so that they have a grasp of the idea behind our message,” added Schmit, “which is Adele Brise’s message: to teach the children” about the Catholic faith.
While the Walk to Mary is primarily a pilgrimage experience, Deprey said Catholic schools can use it as a fund-raising opportunity. Some schools have raised up to $10,000 through sponsorships, according to the Walk to Mary website, which has a page devoted to school fundraising resources (walktomary.com/resources).
Thanks to Father Hoffman and Relevant Radio, which was founded in Green Bay and is now based in Lincolnshire, Illinois, the Walk to Mary has seen pilgrims from nearly every state and five countries participate.
To mark the walk’s 10th anniversary (the 2020 walk was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic), Relevant Radio hosted a spaghetti pasta meal on May 5, which was attended by 900 people, including radio show hosts Patrick Madrid and Drew Mariani.
The evening concluded with a family “Rosary Across America,” which was broadcast live from the KI Convention Center in Green Bay.
Many people who participate in the walk do so as an act of thanksgiving for prayers answered or an offering of prayer intentions. This includes cancer survivors, people diagnosed with cancer and young couples struggling to conceive, said Deprey.
“Every year there are more and more reports of miraculous answers to prayers. I could share a million,” said Father Hoffman. “In short, we are witnesses of many prayers answered. So now I tell people, ‘If you want a house, if you want a spouse, if you want a baby, don’t say maybe. Just come to the Walk to Mary.'”
Sam Lucero writes for OSV News from Wisconsin.