STAFF PHOTOS BY ERIC MEYER
Sunday’s Mass at the conclusion of a four-day pilgrimage from Wichita to Pilsen to honor Father Emil Kapaun was standing room only.
At the conclusion of their 60-mile walk, a boy accompanying one of the pilgrimage families shared his water with a local dog that joined the procession shortly before it reached the church in Pilsen.
Tired but renewed
60-mile pilgrimage ends at packed service
The cool shade of a grove of trees outside Father Emil Kapaun’s home church lit up with unbridled enthusiasm Sunday as a group of young cousins explained their love for this past weekend’s annual 60-mile walk to the church.
“It’s probably one of the most difficult and challenging things you’ll ever do,” pilgrim Katie Stuhlsatz of Garden Plain said. “Coming up the hill and into Pilsen each year, it’s always the same. And it’s the greatest feeling ever.”
Katie, who described her age as “almost 18,” was among a growing group of cousins who have made the annual walk from Wichita to Pilsen over the past nine years, recruited by the oldest member of the group, Sylvia Stuhlsatz, who this year walked the entire 60 miles while carrying her 2-month-old baby.
Another cousin, seven months’ pregnant, didn’t make the full four-day pilgrimage but came for one day and walked the entirety of the route that day.
Tired, their feet covered in blisters, the cousins changed into their Sunday best before attending a standing-room-only Mass at Holy Family Parish’s St. John Nepomucene Church.
Waiting in shade after Mass for lunch to be served in the church basement by members of the St. Anne Society, their tiredness was nowhere in evidence as they spoke in rapid- fire bursts about the pilgrimage.
“It’s not about you at all,” 15-year-old John Stuhlsatz said. “If you’re injured, you just keep walking.”
That fact also impressed fellow pilgrim Father Bob McElwee of Fort Scott, making his first U.S. pilgrimage after completed several in Europe.
“What struck me most was the dedication, the sincerity of faith, and the sense of community of the walkers,” McElwee said.
One teenage girl, not part of Stuhlsatz’s group, found that her feet were covered in what McElwee called “incredible blisters” at the end of the first day.
“I gave her Band-Aids, but she wouldn’t take them,” McElwee said. “She walked the entire route. She could have ridden but she didn’t. That really impressed me.”
The walk itself was a time for both solitude and sharing.
“You go on the walk to find yourself,” said Stuhlsatz cousin Bernie Olson, 23. “It’s a quiet journey, a time to put away your cell phone and reflect.”
Self-sacrifice is part of that, and stories shared along the way bring that point home.
For 13-year-old John, the most inspirational story was about how Kapaun, a chaplain in the Korean War, “carried a guy for like over 80 miles.”
The pilgrimage, though challenging, was nothing in comparison to Kapaun’s heroics or the devotion of past religious pilgrims, he said.
“People used to do things like this years ago,” he said. “Back then, this was nothing. The pain we feel is nothing like what they felt.”
Among the others joining him pn the trek to Pilsen were 15-year-old Gretchen, 13-year-old Abby, and “almost 21”-year-old Natalie Stuhlsatz.
For them, the pilgrimage was about stories shared. All recalled testimony from another walker, who them he found his faith after a previous Kapaun pilgrimage.
“He was like anti-Catholic,” Katie said. “He would go to protests at abortion clinics and try to get women to go past the protesters and go inside.
“And then, after he came on the walk, he became a Catholic again. Every single time we walk, we hear different stories about conversion.”
Among those who joined the pilgrimate, for at least portions of the walk, were a few local dogs, one of which followed them for the final few miles.
At the church, the dog was rewarded by a young pilgrim who held out his cup of water, sharing it — and a hug — with his new best friend.
“The coming together is what this is really about,” Father McElwee said. “Everybody on the walk knows somebody else. We’re all Catholics and that draws us together. It’s always fun to meet new people.”
McElwee had wanted to make the trip to Pilsen for several years, but, as he put it, “this was my first year without a wedding to perform.”
The service and the church impressed him.
“This is a lovely church,” McElwee said as members of the Knights of Columbus sheathed their sabers after the Mass recessional. “This is what a church should look like. It’s not a Pizza Hut that somebody made into a church.”