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April 26, 2009

Seven churches, one solemn night Catholic’s accompany Jesus on traditional Holy Thursday pilgrimage

By Michelle Martin


The group on the small white bus laughed and chatted, talking about the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper they had just attended and speculating about where they would go next.

With people in each of the 30 seats – and even a couple of children on laps – the mostly female crowd took the opportunity to enjoy themselves as they prepared for Easter.

But when they would enter a new church and locate the altar of repose, all of them would kneel quietly and pray aloud psalms of penance, led by their pastor, Father Charles Fanelli.

St. Thomas More Parish, 81st Street and California Avenue, has hosted a bus pilgrimage to seven churches on the evening of Holy Thursday every year since before Fanelli became pastor five years ago.

For Fanelli’s part, he has been leading such pilgrimages since he was pastor at Northlake’s St. John Vianney Parish.

Such pilgrimages allow worshippers to figuratively walk with Jesus on his path toward his crucifixion, death and resurrection, Fanelli said, and to step into the role of the apostles who went with Jesus when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The centuries-old tradition is modeled after a traditional seven-church visitation that pilgrims take in Rome, visiting seven major Catholic churches. Traditionally, they are St. John Lateran, St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Mary Major, St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, St. Lawrence Outside-the-Walls, Holy Cross in Jerusalem and St. Sebastian Outside-the- Walls.

After the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, many churches remain open for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament so that worshippers can pray until midnight, reenacting the actions of the apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane, whom Jesus told, “Remain here and keep watch with me” (Mt 26:38).

St. Thomas More parishioner Luann Bloom said she has been visiting churches on Holy Thursday night “on and off, my whole life.

“I remember when my parents used to walk to seven churches,” she said. “It’s just going to see Jesus.”

She likes the pilgrimage organized by St. Thomas More, she said, because it goes to a different area each year. One year, it was Bridgeport, another year, Lemont. This year, it is fairly close to home, covering an area only a few miles north of St. Thomas More, with parishes mostly in the Marquette Park and Chicago Lawn neighborhoods.

The third church on the list is St. Rita of Cascia, at 63rd Street and Fairfield Avenue. It also happens to be Fanelli’s home parish.

When he enters, he points out some of the new things in the church – such as the immersion baptismal font in the center of the nave – and tells the pilgrims about what the church used to be like. It’s one of the largest churches they will visit, and signs point the way to the altar of repose in a side chapel.

Before going in to pray, the pilgrims pause to look at the church, noting details like the stalks of grain carved into the capitals of the pillars that surround the sanctuary.

Their voices echo in the bare space.

“It’s very stark when they take the altar cloth off the altar and the Eucharist is taken away,” Beth Roland said. “But that’s what this night is about. Jesus was taken away.”

Roland, who accompanied Bloom on the pilgrimage, is a parishioner at St. Walter Parish.

Later, on the bus, Bloom reflects on why she takes time to perform the devotion, which is purely personal and not required.

First, she laughed and said that an Irish belief held that God would grant three requests made when you enter a new church, and the pilgrimage provides plenty of opportunities.

But then, more seriously, she said that she feels there would be something not quite right about celebrating the Easter feast without making the effort to accompany Jesus on his journey.

“It’s like when you go to the wedding reception and skip the ceremony,” she said. “You always feel a little guilty.”