ALLOUEZ — When the seventh annual Walk to Mary begins Saturday morning, May 4, Deb and Ken Wiebelhaus will be among the more than 2,000 pilgrims participating in the 21-mile walking pilgrimage. It begins at the National Shrine of St. Joseph on the St. Norbert College campus in De Pere and ends at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion.
The Wiebelhauses, members of Sacred Heart Parish in Horicon, located in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, have walked the pilgrimage (held on the first Saturday in May) every year. “We listen to Relevant Radio and, way back in 2013, they talked about it,” said Deb.
“I was excited to hear about the first walk. It sounded like a day set aside for the Blessed Mother and I have much to be thankful for,” added Wiebelhaus. “So what a way to give thanks.”
The 2018 Walk to Mary was more than the usual physical challenge for Wiebelhaus, 65. In January 2018, she slipped on a patch of black ice while attending a granddaughter’s wrestling meet and broke a hip.
On the way to the hospital, Wiebelhaus said she was already worrying about missing the 2018 Walk to Mary.
“I got to the hospital and one of the first questions, probably before I went to surgery,” was whether she would be able to walk 21 miles by May, she said. The nurses and physical therapists told her she would be up and walking soon after surgery.
According to Wiebelhaus, her faith and a community project in Dodge County helped make last year’s walk possible.
Blue Zones Project of Dodge County is part of a global initiative that seeks to improve healthy living. Its name comes from a best-selling book, “The Blue Zones,” written by Dan Buettner, that studied communities (blue zones) around the world where people live the longest.
In researching these communities, Buettner found nine lifestyle habits shared by all of them, which he labeled the “Power 9” principles. The research led to encouraging communities to adopt practices that make healthy choices easier so that individuals can live longer. According to blue zones.com, Albert Lea, Minn., was the first Blue Zone Project community in the United States. It was introduced to Dodge County in 2016 through the support of Beaver Dam Community Hospitals.
Wiebelhaus said Blue Zones encourages walking groups called moais. Blue Zones Project defines moais, a Japanese word, as a “social support group that forms in order to provide support from social, financial, health and spiritual interests.” She walks on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Dodgeland High School in Juneau, and on Wednesdays and Fridays at Sacred Heart Church in Horicon. Both are “Blue Zones Project Approved” sites, she said.
She and up to 10 others arrive at the church at 6:45 a.m. and walk around the church narthex and classrooms. Then they recite the Divine Mercy Chaplet and rosary at 7:25 a.m. and attend Mass at 8 a.m.
Wiebelhaus said the Blue Zones Project Walking Moais helped prepare her for the Walk to Mary after her surgery and her fellow moai walkers provided encouragement and support.
When Wiebelhaus arrived for the Walk to Mary last year, she said it was an emotional time.
“Sitting in the chapel (at the Shrine of St. Joseph), I was emotional because I was so happy to be there,” she said. “I knew there would be tons of people walking and supporting me.”
By the first five or six miles, Wiebelhaus said she began to experience discomfort. “It got tougher, but I would pray a little harder and push myself through it,” she said. “I had all of this support, people walking with me. I kept thinking I can quit any time, but I really wanted to make it.”
Two miles before the shrine in Champion, two of her daughters and their children joined them for the remaining walk, which provided additional motivation, said Wiebelhaus. She found herself offering up her pain for the sake of others, she said, “giving it to the Blessed Mother.”
When she arrived at the shrine, Wiebelhaus said she was overcome with emotion. “It is so nice to be with so many youth and younger adults in this walk,” she said. “Walking the pilgrimage with Mary and our Lord, together with many people of all ages, is a true blessing. We all need each others’ support.”
Soon after the walk, “my husband and I were talking about and looking forward to Walk to Mary 2019,” she said.
Pilgrims who complete the walk receive a Walk to Mary lapel pin and Wiebelhaus proudly displays her pins in her home. “Sometimes I wear one on my jacket,” she added.