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Eucharistic boat processions in national pilgrimage routes evoke missionary legacy

Deacon Todd Raether, pastoral coordinator at St. Martin of Tours Parish in Cecil, Wis., is pictured at the Cecil Village Park boat landing May 14. Deacon Raether is coordinating a boat procession on Shawano Lake June 12 as part of the National Eucharistic Procession's Marian Route, which travels through Wisconsin. (OSV News/Sam Lucero)

By Sam Lucero

CECIL, Wis. (OSV News) — Bringing Jesus to the faithful by boat is not an unfamiliar concept to Catholics in the Midwest. Jesuit missionaries in the 1600s used canoes to travel the lakes and rivers of Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota to evangelize Indigenous peoples.

Some 30 miles from where Jesuit Father Claude-Jean Allouez paddled his canoe along the Fox River near Green Bay, Wisconsin, a procession by boat will transport the Blessed Sacrament and National Eucharistic Pilgrimage participants around the shores of Shawano Lake June 12.

The Eucharistic procession by boat is one of the highlights of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage’s Marian Route launching May 19 from Lake Itasca, Minnesota. The boat procession begins at the Cecil Village Park boat landing and concludes at Camp Tekakwitha, a youth summer camp operated by the Diocese of Green Bay.

Deacon Todd Raether, pastoral coordinator at St. Martin of Tours Parish in Cecil, is coordinating the boat procession.

“We originally thought we would do a walking procession from the church to the north end of town,” he told OSV News, “and then we would dismiss the perpetual pilgrims on their own private walk out to Camp Tekakwitha.”

However, the road to the camp is narrow and posed safety concerns for pedestrians. “How are we going to get Jesus from here to camp?” was the question Deacon Raether pondered.

“I’m very familiar with a lot of my parishioners who live along the north shore of the lake, which is right across from the camp,” he added. “So it was kind of one of those Holy Spirit moments where I said, ‘We’ll take him across on a boat.’ I called my spiritual director and said, ‘Am I crazy? Is this something we can do? Is this irreverent?’ He let me know that they actually do some different processions by boat around the world.”

Among them is the annual “Fête-Dieu du Teche” in the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, a 40-mile Eucharistic procession by boat and on foot along the Bayou Teche that began in 2015 and is held on the Aug. 15 feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

As part of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage’s Serra Route, through the Diocese of Sacramento, California, five boat processions will take place, including one May 24 across Lake Tahoe, from California to Nevada. The pilgrimage’s Seton Route, which starts in New Haven Connecticut, also involves pilgrims traveling by boat May 19 from New Haven to Bridgeport, Connecticut, and then a “boater-cade” Eucharistic procession June 23 down the Ohio River aboard a sternwheeler, blessing pilgrims on shore at four sites.

After receiving permission from the national pilgrimage officials for the Marian Route boat procession, Deacon Raether got feedback from the Cecil, Wisconsin, parish.

“I felt very confident that we could have a nice boat procession with our parish, if nothing else,” he said. “But then as I started talking about it, it’s just kind of grown.” He anticipates a large turnout. “I’m kind of hoping for 100 boats, but I’m leaving it in the hands of the Holy Spirit to inspire people to come.”

Deacon Raether said events in Cecil will begin with a Holy Hour from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. at the church. A walking pilgrimage from the church to the boat landing follows. Shuttles will return walkers to the church while the six perpetual pilgrims and others will board boats.

“We are encouraging people to have all of their boats on the water and meet us at the boat landing,” Deacon Raether said.

“I have a parishioner who has built an altar for his pontoon boat and we are going to put the monstrance on the pontoon boat,” he said. “We are also going to provide Christian music over speakers and kind of do a flotilla around the lake, as far as we can in an hour.”

The boat procession ends at a private dock on the north shore of Shawano Lake. From there, a short walking procession will take the perpetual pilgrims to Camp Tekakwitha, where they will spend the evening.

Those who participated in the walking pilgrimage and boat procession will be invited back to the church for a picnic dinner, said Deacon Raether.

The connection between early church missionaries in canoes and the Eucharistic boat procession does not escape Deacon Raether.

“Our parish has always been a missionary parish. It’s been served by Franciscan missionaries for a number of years,” he said. “Our lake connects to the Wolf River, which flows up to the Menominee Indian Reservation, which was serviced by the Franciscans. So this has always been a very water-centric kind of parish.”

Across the country in the Diocese of Sacramento, California, it was Deacon Kevin Staszkow’s boss, Bishop Jaime Soto, who first had the idea of moving parts of the pilgrimage route from land to water.

From May 21 to 22, Bishop Soto will accompany the Blessed Sacrament aboard a 64-foot boat — borrowed from a Catholic benefactor — with a flotilla following in possession, making several stops along the Sacramento River.

After all, Deacon Staszkow explained, the river itself was named after the Blessed Sacrament, as was the city.

“It really doesn’t make sense to do anything except have the Eucharist travel on the Sacramento River,” said Deacon Staszkow, who heads the Diocese of Sacramento’s young adult ministry and faith formation offices. He recalled that the plan was first met with skepticism.

“Everybody said, ‘Oh, you’re not going to be able to get a boat,'” he told Angelus, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “But I got a boat.”

As it heads east across Northern California, the pilgrimage will make stops Bishop Soto hopes will connect with different “marginalized populations,” including a Mass with farmworkers in Vallejo, a walking procession leaving from Folsom State Prison and a visit to Sacramento homeless shelter Loaves and Fishes.

The route’s California portion ends May 24, when Bishop Soto will again accompany the Blessed Sacrament leading a flotilla of boats, this time crossing Lake Tahoe at sunset — approximately a 26-mile journey — before arriving at Incline Village, Nevada, for a Eucharistic “handoff” to the neighboring Diocese of Reno.

Sam Lucero writes for OSV News from Wisconsin. Contributing to this story was Pablo Kay in Los Angeles.

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