In the footsteps of missionaries

By Jeff Kurowski | The Compass | August 26, 2022

Pilgrimage group makes journey to Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine

The Office of Vocations hosted a road trip to New York state in July for four young men in the process of discerning the priesthood. Pictured are John Larson, left, Fr. Mark Mleziva, Taylor Geiger, Jacob Sterns, Nicholas Weslow, Ben Schoeni and Juan Altamirano gathered on the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland, Ohio. Fr. Mleziva, Geiger and the four “discerners” stopped to visit with Altamirano, a seminarian of the Diocese of Green Bay who is completing his clinical pastoral education in Cleveland. (Submitted Photo | For The Compass)

ALLOUEZ — Fr. Mark Mleziva had options. When planning a visit to Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine in Auriesville, N.Y., he could have chosen for the group to fly east, spend time at the shrine and fly back.

Instead, Fr. Mleziva, vocation director for the Diocese of Green Bay, designed the trip as a driving pilgrimage along with Taylor Geiger, vocation coordinator for the diocese, and four young men described as “serious discerners.”

“There is something about being in a car together. We hope they take with them not just what they saw, but what the Lord showed them in prayer,” said Fr. Mleziva about the experience for the discerners. “It was also about the camaraderie.”

The group departed Green Bay on July 10. En route to their destination, they traveled to Marquette, St. Ignace and Niles, all in Michigan. The pilgrimage, sponsored in part by an anonymous donor, also included stops at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and in Cleveland, Ohio, before making their way to Buffalo, N.Y.

The path provided an opportunity to learn about three missionaries who were influential in the Catholic Church in Northeast Wisconsin — Bishop Frederic Baraga (Marquette), Fr. Jacques Marquette (St. Ignace) and Fr. Claude Allouez (Niles).

“Bishop Baraga came down to our area. He was in Minnesota for a little while, so he also had a connection to all these different dioceses. Fr. Marquette’s remains are in St. Ignace,” said Geiger. “Fr. Allouez’s remains are somewhere near Niles, Mich. No one is really sure where his remains are, but he has a nice memorial cross, a stone cross in the middle of the woods. There’s a little path to get to it.”

The trip “was an opportunity to learn about their stories,” said Fr. Mleziva. “For these guys, four of which are open to the priesthood, for them to learn and, hopefully, if there is a call to the priesthood, to enkindle that fire a little bit in their own hearts. It certainly did for me as a priest. We think we’ve got it tough. We had no hot water one morning. That was the least of the worries for these missionaries.”

Those accepting the invitation to join the pilgrimage were John Larson of St. Mary Parish, Luxemburg; Ben Schoeni of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Parish, Greenville; Jacob Sterns of St. Patrick Parish, Stephensville; and Nick Weslow of St. Patrick Oratory, Green Bay.

“We wanted to open it up to some who we think are serious discerners, really open to the priesthood,” said Geiger. “We had a working group of guys, probably over a dozen. We sent a letter to invite them. This is the group that responded affirmatively.”

“Certainly, we talked about the priesthood and reminded them that none of us calls anyone to the priesthood. The Lord does,” said Fr. Mleziva. “There’s something about an experience bringing guys together,” he added. “The (vocation) events and talks are all great, but we really came together. None of them knew each other. There were some inside jokes and stupid stuff from being in a car five hours a day.”

Geiger arranged for lodging on the trip. He sought some “solidarity with the missionaries and martyrs” by “not staying in hotels the whole time.” Rooms on the third floor of a rectory in Marquette and a church basement in St. Ignace are examples of their accommodations.

“We had a structure of prayer with the guys,” said Geiger. “Every morning, we prayed morning prayer together from the Liturgy of the Hours and every evening, we prayed the evening prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours. During the car ride, we prayed the rosary.”

They sometimes also prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet and the Angelus. They joined local congregations for Mass or Fr. Mleziva celebrated Mass for the group.

“Every evening, we also had a conference with them,” said Fr. Mleziva. “We would give them a talk … a recap of the day, but also a talk to help prepare them for what is likely coming the next day, what they were going to see, what they were going to hear, what they were going to learn. It was a way to help them unpack how the Lord is working in their hearts.”

Our Lady of Martyrs Shrine, the final destination, introduced them to North American Martyrs St. Isaac Jogues, St. René Goupil and St. John de la Lande. The three, along with five Jesuit priests martyred in Canada, were canonized in 1930. They are the only martyred saints of North America. The
shrine also marks the birthplace of St. Kateri Tekakwitha in 1656.

“Their blood is in here somewhere,” said Fr. Mleziva. “They walked these grounds. These men, these very brave, courageous men, walked these grounds. That struck me in a very deep way.”

Sterns, who is homeschooled and beginning his senior year, enjoys reading about saints. So to walk in the footsteps of the martyrs, he said, was inspiring.

“It’s also encouraging to know that I share in the same mission as (the) North American Martyrs. That is spreading the Catholic faith to a land deeply in need of it,” he said.

Schoeni, who is beginning his junior year at St. Mary Catholic High School in Neenah, said that a highlight of the pilgrimage was visiting St. Peter Cathedral in Marquette, Mich., and “learning about Bishop Baraga because he was someone I had not heard about before.”

Larson, a graduate of Luxemburg-Casco High School who will attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison this fall, said the celebration of Mass outdoors in the Ravine at Our Lady of Martyrs was among the highlights of the trip. He said the pilgrimage was a “much-needed wake-up call to
form a deeper relationship with Jesus, like the North American Martyrs.”

“I believe that this trip was a large step forward in discerning the priesthood, as it gave me a sense of certainty that I want to do similar work to the saints and missionaries throughout my life,” said Weslow, a senior at Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay.

“The three things we focused on were their conviction, their courage and their trust,” said Fr. Mleziva, who returned with the group on July 17. “The conviction of the need for all people to know Jesus, the courage (of the missionaries/martyrs who) had to go into the unknown to bring the faith to
the natives and then their trust in the Lord that he would be with them.”

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