Ann Sieben and a tight circle of pilgrims looked up at the stars from a country churchyard in eastern Pettis County.
“We’re having a lovely evening in a field next to Providence Baptist Church and Cemetery near Smithton, a little more than 11 miles from the Katy Trail,” said Ms. Sieben, a Catholic from Denver who organized a spiritual, walking pilgrimage from the Shrine of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne in Mound City, Kansas, to the shrine of the same name in St. Charles, Missouri.
The pilgrims would spend the night inside the century-old church after enjoying the fellowship and hospitality of local congregants, as they had done each evening of the 26-day, 335-mile pilgrimage.
“A day spent in nature, with God all around us,” said Ms. Sieben, . “We’re filled with the Holy Spirit. And at night, encountering the people who are so kind to us — it’s from the heart, and it’s so moving. That’s where we encounter Jesus.”
A neighbor down the road gave them the key so they could dwell in the house of the Lord.
“One of the stained glass windows shows Jesus knocking at the door, which is a nice reminder that any pilgrim knocking on the door should be treated like Jesus,” Ms. Sieben noted. “And each evening, we’ve been treated like Jesus knocking at the door.”
They had spent the previous evening in the Sacred Heart Parish Center, connected to the magnificent gothic Sacred Heart Church in Sedalia, and begun their day with a Scripture service in the church.
“I definitely think all of this brings it closer to the faith,” said Ms. Sieben. “That’s a great work for me.”
Traveling by foot, mostly on the Katy Trail but veering off each day for their evening lodging, the group spent one night in a travelers’ hostel, 12 nights in fellowship with Catholic Christians and 12 nights with Protestant Christians.
“Whether we’re in a parish hall or in the church sanctuary, or if they invite us into their homes, we’re very grateful, because it’s really from the heart,” she said.
She noted that most Protestant Christians know little of the Catholic concept of making a pilgrimage.
“But I tell people this is what a pilgrim is and what a pilgrim does and that you don’t have to be Catholic to be a pilgrim,” she said.
She tells them she’s making a pilgrimage to a shrine dedicated to a saint.
“They often say, ‘What’s a saint and what’s a shrine?’” she said.
But Christians of all stripes understand hospitality, a concept dating back to Christ and His ancestors in faith.
“When I explain what we’re doing, people invariably say, ‘We’re here to offer hospitality to anyone who needs to stay,’” she said.
The pilgrims followed a mostly contemplative mode similar to the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
They would disembark together each morning and walk independently at roughly the same pace.
“Each of us has our own prayers and devotions, our own pace, and our own experience,” said Ms. Sieben.
Upon stopping for the evening, they would share a meal and talk about their day.
A large portion of their pilgrimage was through parts of the Jefferson City diocese.
“Last year, I made this same pilgrimage with one devout Catholic and one Protestant,” said Ms. Sieben. “This year, it’s four ‘cradle Catholics’ who have drifted form the faith. So it’s a time of self-discovery.”
She doesn’t push. She demonstrates contemplation and brings people to places for spiritual refreshment that they would not get in their normal life.
“That’s a pilgrimage,” she said. “You’re taking time away physically from your normal life to do this.”
One night, they stayed in a tiny Presbyterian church between Butler and Montrose.
“It was very, very joyful,” she said. “They have about a dozen parishioners. We felt like we were part of the biggest event they’ve had all year.
One member of the congregation, who’s 93, brought the pilgrims donuts for breakfast.
“I think it was really important for them to be able to offer hospitality and be joyful about it,” said Ms. Sieben.
A few nights later, the pilgrims were guests of St. Peter parish in Jefferson City, resting in the Fr. Ahrens Room of the Parish Life Center. They attended 7 a.m. Mass the next morning before moving toward their next stop in Tebbetts.
They arrived in St. Charles on May 24 in time for a May crowning at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, the first school St. Rose Philippine established.
Ms. Sieben said the journey offered countless opportunities to encounter Jesus in faith and action.
“The two go hand-in-hand,” she said. “We have the faith to come to these people to ask for hospitality. They have the opportunity for the action of hospitality. ... They say, ‘We welcome you as strangers but also as members of one Christian family.’ It’s so warm and loving. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful thing.”
“God protects pilgrims”
Ms. Sieben has walked more than 37,000 miles on pilgrimages that included 50 countries.
“I’m on my second lap around the world and should complete that lap this fall,” she said.
She walks 25 to 30 miles a day on her own but usually holds it back to between about 15 and 20 while leading other pilgrims. She averaged 13 on the trip through Missouri.
Preferring winter travel, she has endured blizzards and avalanches while walking with the Lord.
“In Central America, I’ve been near some erupting volcanos,” she said. “I was in Peru during an earthquake. I was in Kansas for a tornado. I just keep walking.”
She keeps reminding herself of Psalm 146:9 — “God protects the pilgrims among us.”
Ms. Sieben has been organizing and leading pilgrimages since 2007.
That year, after 20 years in professional life, she decided to take a sabbatical. She took a walk along the Camino Santiago, the centuries-old pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of St. James the Great in Santiago, Spain.
“I had no obligations of family or firm commitments, so I had the time,” she said.
A year later, she walked from Canterbury to Rome, arriving in time for Holy Week liturgies in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Five years later, she walked from Rome to Jerusalem.
“That’s when I knew that I’m a pilgrim,” she said. “I didn’t go back to work after that.”
Instead, she helped establish the Society of Servant Pilgrims in the Archdiocese of Denver.
“My role as servant pilgrim is to help other pilgrims,” she pointed out. “So I go, I bring the idea, demonstrating faith to the world.”
Each winter, she embarks on a long pilgrimage on her own, encountering Jesus in the people she meets along the way.
“You can’t say, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ if you don’t know your neighbors,” she said. “So I go village to village and meet the neighbors. And I demonstrate faith.”
Traveling on trust, she spends each night in a monastery or in someone’s home.
“I’ve never not found a place to stay,” she said. “People offer me a place to stay and sleep because of trust.”
Last year, in honor of St. Martin of Tours, she walked and prayed her way along the Danube River from the Black Sea to the headwaters in Germany, stopping in places that were significant to the saint and arriving at Tours in time for Easter.
She became an ambassador of St. Martin to everyone she met, regardless of any barriers or language or belief.
“I call him my friend Marty,” she said. “We had a great time! I told people all about him in every little village I stopped in.”
This spring’s pilgrimage through Missouri roughly coincided with the 200th anniversary of the U.S. arrival of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne (1769-1852), a 19th-century missionary who brought Catholic education to the heart of the continent.
“We are ambassadors of St. Rose Philippine,” Ms. Sieben said while on the pilgrimage. “We’re telling her story. We’re getting to know the neighbors of the world so we can ‘love our neighbor as yourself,’ building trust, which is the foundation of peace.”
St. Rose Philippine came to this country out of a faith-fueled desire to teach Native American children about God.
“In addition to praying and evangelizing, her main work was through teaching,” Ms. Sieben noted. “Her persistence in spite of many difficulties eventually led to many great successes.”
Staying in St. Charles and then in St. Louis, she opened many schools, particularly for children and for girls. Only later in life did she fulfill her dream, moving to Sugar Creek near what is now Mound City, Kansas, to teach Potawatomi children.
Ms. Sieben plans to lead another group across the state this fall, arriving at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis on St. Rose Philippine’s feastday, Nov. 18. Information can be found at: https://societyofservantpilgrims.com/saint-rose/.
To see a gallery of photos from the June 29 dedication of a new sculpture of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne outside the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, go to: https://societyofthesacredheart.smugmug.com/FY2017-18-Events/Sculpture-Dedication-6-29-18/n-pfqF25/.
Here are some websites about St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, her shrines in the St. Louis area, one of her schools, and the 200th anniversary of her arrival: