GREEN BAY — Stephanie Lemerond’s love of hiking began at a young age while growing up in a suburb of Paris. Her family took advantage of the numerous hiking trails in France.
“Once a month, we would gather with the whole family (for a hike),” she said. “It was something I really treasured.”
Lemerond came to the U.S. during her college years, including studies in California. An internship brought her to northeast Wisconsin, where she met her husband, Brad. She returned to France to complete her degree in international business before moving to Green Bay.
“I started my family here,” said Lemerond, the mother of two teenagers — Roman and Angelique. “We do travel back and forth quite a bit.”
In 2004, around Christmas time, while visiting family in France, Lemerond learned that her mother and uncle were planning to hike to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. She wanted to be a part of the journey, which would provide more than recreation and exercise. A number of pilgrimage routes, known as the Way of St. James, lead to the cathedral, where the remains of the apostle St. James the Greater are said to be buried.
“We decided that we were going to do it one week at a time,” said Lemerond. “From the point we started at in France, all the way to the cathedral, takes about two and a half to three months to hike.”
Unfortunately, health issues prevented her uncle from making the pilgrimage, so Lemerond embarked on the spiritual path with her mother, Michele Decamps, in the fall of 2005. The pilgrimage covered approximately 1,000 miles, which would require one week a year for eight years. It took the mother-daughter duo four years to reach the border of Spain. They made their annual trek in September of each year, picking up where they left off the previous year.
“There is pain involved. It’s hard,” said Lemerond. “”You have to be really willing and strong to keep going every day. Your backpack gets heavy.
“It’s a great time to focus on your life,” she added. “There is a lot of time for meditation and prayer. You are right there in the elements. There is no interference from the rest of the world. You are directly connected with God. The two of us worked together on the trail for eight hours a day.”
The first year, there was a group of hikers. Because the next year they restarted at the point they left off, Lemerond and Decamps were on their own. They stayed wherever they were able, including shelters, convents and little hotels. The scallop shell serves as a symbol for the pilgrimage. Most pilgrims attach a shell to their backpacks and the symbol is found on homes and other places on the trail that provide food and drink.
“Some people are so supportive,” said Lemerond. “One house had lawn chairs in the backyard so you could rest and have some juice. Lots of farmers would leave a table in a field with food like boiled eggs and tomatoes. You could always leave a coin for them. We were able to see the good in people. Many would come out and talk.”
Lemerond felt sadness when they finished the pilgrimage in 2012.
“This was very special,” she said. “I’m an only child. It’s hard to raise kids away from your mom. It was nice to be with her, spending quality time together. It was the end of a journey. I relied on it to keep me strong. It was a renewal, which I looked forward to each year.”
When they arrived at their destination in year eight, mother and daughter took their time entering the cathedral.
“It felt so special being there,” said Lemerond. “We spent a good hour outside. We took our shoes off and contemplated the whole thing. The cathedral is majestic and huge.”
Pilgrims go through a process where they answer questions and fill out documents. They receive a certificate of accomplishment featuring Latin text. A Mass is held on Fridays to welcome the pilgrims.
The year after the completion of the pilgrimage, Lemerond returned to France to hike a trail with her mother and two children.
In Green Bay, she keeps busy with family activities. Her children are involved in scouting and the family owns horses.
“We jump,” said Lemerond. “The kids compete and I casually compete.”
Lemerond works for EuroPharma, a nutritional supplement company, and teaches French. Her volunteer efforts include cleaning Annunciation Church and mission work in Peru. She welcomes opportunities to share her Way of St. James experience through presentations. Lemerond wrote a book about her journey entitled “Witness of Change: 8 Weeks of Discovery on the St. James’s Way” (published through AuthorHouse and also available from Amazon).
She recommends those who are interested and able to make the pilgrimage to do so. It changes you, she said.
“You appreciate more of what you have in your life,” she said. “It gives you time to appreciate the beauty of the world. We don’t take time to do that in our everyday lives.”