by Joe Bollig
WILLIAMSBURG — The feast day of St. Francis of Assisi dawned bright and cool this year — perfect weather for a group of junior high and high school-aged students to hike the seven miles from St. Patrick Church in Emerald to Prairie Star Ranch here.
The pilgrimage, called “Prairie Fire,” was sponsored by the archdiocesan office of youth evangelization.
Twenty-six youth participated in the Oct. 3 event, about half from the youth group of Sacred Heart Parish in Emporia, and the others from the ReachKCK youth outreach ministry in Kansas City, Kansas. A group from Divine Mercy Parish in Gardner and Edgerton had to drop out.
This was the second pilgrimage held in preparation for World Youth Day, originally scheduled for Lisbon, Portugal, in 2022 but postponed until 2023.
“It started out last year as ‘Fire on the Mountain,’ and we called it ‘Prairie Fire’ this year,” said Rick Cheek, consultant for the archdiocesan office of evangelization and Catholic formation for youth.
On Sept. 14, 2019, the archdiocese sponsored a 15-mile pilgrimage over hilly terrain from Sacred Heart Parish in Mound City to the St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Park in Linn County.
This year, the going was much easier, with a shorter hike and flat terrain.
“We thought there is no reason [even with the pandemic] why we couldn’t do this outdoor pilgrimage,” said Cheek. “We’ll just have to find one more place to pilgrimage.”
On the way, the pilgrims prayed the rosary and the Divine Mercy chaplet, and heard talks given by the adult chaperones about saints.
“We highlighted St. Francis and St. Thérèse the Little Flower,” said Blake Vajgrt, director of evangelization at Sacred Heart Parish in Emporia. “[When] difficult times arose, the saints had a distinct response. St. Thérèse had her ‘little way.’ That is a model to show us we might not be able to do great things based on the circumstances around us, but we can always do small things with great love.”
It was “Open Gate Day” at Prairie Star Ranch, so the pilgrims had the opportunity to try their hand at archery, go on a rosary walk or do an outdoors Stations of the Cross. Father Matt Nagel, director of the Didde Catholic Campus Center at Emporia State University, celebrated Mass for them and, after a cookout, the pilgrims were given rides back to Emerald.
Audrey Sheeley, a sophomore at Emporia High School and member of Sacred Heart Parish, thought it would be fun to revisit Prairie Star Ranch and do something with her friends.
“I’ve missed a lot of things I’ve usually done over the summer,” she said.
“This was my first time on a pilgrimage,” she added. “I didn’t know we’d be walking so much, but it was really fun, and I had a good time being with friends and catching up [on things] with them.”
Twins Marco and Onterrio Robinson, 15, sophomores at Emporia High School and members of Sacred Heart Parish, went to get a little boost in their prayer lives and see some rural sights.
“It was nice and peaceful, out in the middle of nowhere,” said Marco. “We’re city people. I hadn’t seen cows in forever.”
“It was pretty nice,” agreed Onterrio. “We talked the whole way, bonding, having fun.”
And the walk? No big deal. All they required were water bottles.
The spiritual aspect of the experience was rewarding. Neither of the boys had heard of St. Thérèse before. Knowing there were holy teens like St. Thérèse made them think that they, too, could be that kind of person.
“It was a pretty good experience,” said Marco. “We might go on more of these trips.”