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At 69, Indiana woman deepens her faith traveling Eucharistic pilgrimage’s Seton Route

Bishop Robert J. Brennan of Brooklyn, N.Y., carries the monstrance while leading a Eucharistic procession across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn on the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage's Seton (East) Route May 26, 2024. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, The Tablet)

INDIANAPOLIS (OSV News) — As she talked with the grieving woman, Jan Pierson believed this was another moment when God had led her to where he wanted her to be — which is exactly why the 69-year-old Indiana woman has looked past the challenges and has embraced her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take part in the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage.

Ever since beginning the pilgrimage May 18 in New Haven, Connecticut, traveling along the Eastern Seaboard, crossing the Appalachian Mountains and heading across Ohio toward Indianapolis, Pierson has placed her every mile in God’s hands.

“I’m always up for an adventure,” said the member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington, Indiana, a mother of four grown children and 10 grandchildren. “When I found out about the pilgrimage, I thought, ‘Why not? Why not do something with Jesus?’ I was all for it.”

She had the same feeling of being all-in when she was approached by a woman during a Eucharistic procession in Connecticut. The woman wanted Pierson’s help in taking a video that showed her participating in the procession, a video the woman wanted to share with her children. That moment led to a deeper one.

“I took the video, and then I told her to double-check it, to make sure it was OK,” Pierson recalled. “She did, and then she started talking with me. She told me her husband had just passed away a few months ago.

“I just looked at her. I said, ‘I’m so sorry. I’m also a widow, but I’ve been a widow a little longer. This coming July, I’ll be a widow for 32 years.’ She just looked at me and said, ‘Can I just hold onto you?’ She just held on to my hand all the way to the end of the procession, to the last church. We walked about 8 miles together. At the end, she said, ‘Thank you. Thank you.'”

That experience is one of Pierson’s favorite moments so far from participating in the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, the eastern route that is named in honor of the first American-born saint.

The pilgrims on the eastern route are scheduled to meet up in Indianapolis with pilgrims from the north, south and west routes July 16 for the National Eucharistic Congress July 17-21.

The Seton Route has the only priest chaplain traveling a full pilgrimage route to Indianapolis — Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who is a chaplain at Columbia University in New York. The eastern route also has six of the 30 young people called “perpetual pilgrims” who are traveling the full routes. Pierson has followed them from the beginning, calling herself “their shadow.”

In a phone conversation along the route, Pierson’s voice exuded joy as she talked about the highlights from this adventure of faith.

She’ll never forget a Holy Hour in a Connecticut church, part of a service where a choir sang “so beautifully” that she imagined “it would be like the way angels sounded singing in heaven.”

She recalled the feeling of how “Jesus took me through Central Park,” part of her four days of walking through New York City.

The joy in her voice hit an even higher level when she recalled the Eucharistic processions in Washington and Emmitsburg, Maryland, the site of the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, where thousands of people walked and prayed together.

“It’s just so wonderful to see all the people coming out to be part of the processions, to be there with Jesus, to show our adoration for Jesus,” she said.

“You know when you say, ‘One, holy, Catholic and apostolic church?’ I am experiencing that whole thing on this pilgrimage,” she told The Criterion, newspaper of the Indianapolis Archdiocese. “In this core group of pilgrims, there’s about 15 people, but every time we go into procession, there’s a new group of people — hundreds more people. I’m experiencing that huge Catholic Church.”

She’s also experiencing the camaraderie of being a part of the core group.

“It’s like a family,” she said. “You’re not going to forget each other. This is something you’re doing together, and you just get very close. Everybody sees something that touches their heart, and you tell other pilgrims about it. Things are happening in our lives, in our families that we catch up on when we have time. We ask each other to say prayers for whatever is needed.”

Pierson was in great need one day when the recent heat wave that has blistered the Midwest and the East overwhelmed her as she tried to walk one 17-mile stretch of the pilgrimage.

“I couldn’t finish the last 3 miles,” said Pierson, who has camped and stayed in hotels along the route. “I got a ride from Patty in her van. She said she had to find her husband and Sarah Rose. Sarah Rose is 2, and she wanted to wear her special rain boots and walk with Jesus in the procession. She was walking with her grandfather. It lifted me up to see a little 2-year-old, in her own way, understanding the importance of walking with Jesus. Sometimes, it’s the little things.”

In preparing for the trip, Pierson often walked back and forth from her home to St. Charles Borromeo Church for Mass, a roundtrip journey of 6 miles. On the pilgrimage, she has walked as many as 18 miles a day. Other days, when the route is dangerous to follow on foot, she and the other pilgrims travel by cars, vans and RVs to the next destination for Eucharistic adoration.

Each new destination always takes Pierson back to the roots of her relationship with Christ in Eucharistic adoration, which began about 10 years ago.

“I still remember that first day. I felt the presence of being there with Jesus. I couldn’t even look up at the cross. I only stayed five minutes. I didn’t feel I was worthy of being in the chapel,” she recalled. “But I kept going back. I was intrigued by that feeling of just being in the presence of the Lord. Now when I go, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, my hour is up?!’ Just the feeling of not wanting to leave. Just feeling peaceful.”

“Jesus is my Lord and my king. My strength comes from him. He said turn to him when you need help,” she said. “Oh my gosh, I turn to him constantly. Dealing with the death of my husband, Tony. Raising four kids. And now I’m doing this. I feel his graces everywhere.”

The experience has also led her on a journey deeper into her faith.

“You want to have that experience with Jesus. You want that more. It’s being open to the adventure and letting Jesus lead. It’s something you feel in your heart,” she explained. “You talk to God deeper. It’s helping somebody you see on the road or someone in the group who is struggling. Or being thankful for the little bit of shade we’ve had. It’s just been beyond what I thought it would be.”

She added, “I don’t know what God has in store for me when I get back home, but I’m ready. I’m ready and willing to do whatever I need to, whatever he wants. I wouldn’t be where I am if I didn’t have Jesus.”

John Shaughnessy is assistant editor at The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

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