STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. – Father Robert Dunn was a natural choice to be the main celebrant of a Mass during a Sept. 13 pilgrimage of the sick to the sprawling National Shrine of Divine Mercy. Father Dunn, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1995 and now zips around on a sporty red motorized mobility scooter.
“I was in the middle of the ‘Holy, holy, holy’ during Mass when my first symptoms of MS started, in 1990,” he told the 57 pilgrims during a talk after the Mass. It wasn’t diagnosed until five years later, and his progressive debilitation was often mistaken for drunkenness by his congregation. When he finally announced his illness, some well-meaning people told him, “Oh, Father, you could do anything if you put your mind to it. You could run a marathon.”
No, he couldn’t, and he had no interest in trying, he said. When he tried to take part in the MS bike ride over the Tappan Zee Bridge, he got a flat tire. While waiting for help, it started to rain. “I looked up and I said, ‘Got it! Okay!’” He sold his bicycle.
The pilgrimage for malades (French for afflicted or infirm) was the brainchild of Order of Malta Knight Mark Sullivan of Simsbury, with assistance from J. P. van Rooy and other Knights and Dames of Malta. Mr. Sullivan said that 135 took the trip, including five clergy, 15 musicians and singers, 10 caregivers, and more than 50 malades.
Between raindrops at the Mother of Mercy Outdoor Pilgrimage Shrine, malades, caregivers and others took advantage of reconciliation before the Mass. They also washed with water that Father Dunn had brought from the spring at Lourdes, were anointed with oil of the sick, listened to talks, prayed during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, recited the rosary, and more.
Annette Rosca, a two-time cancer survivor from St. Joseph Parish in Windsor, attended the pilgrimage with her husband Rocco. “We read about the Mass in the bulletin,” she said. “We’ve been to the shrine before on other occasions, and we knew that this was a beautiful place, a very peaceful, very healing place. So when we read about the Mass, I wasn’t sure what it was all about, but we knew we could drive ourselves up here. We’re all in need of healing one way or another.”
She said she was also attending on behalf of other family members who suffer with cancer.
Doris Scalia, one of 26 malades from St. Joseph’s Residence in Enfield, an elder care facility run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, said that this was her first outing since she lost the use of her car recently. “I can’t stay in my room all the time, I’ve got to start mingling,” she said. “So that’s what I’m doing. This is my first adventure. I go to the functions there, but I’m a loner. I’ve always been a loner most of my life. I’m doing my best and will see what happens.”
Sharyn Rigby, of Holy Angels Parish in Meriden, attended with her friend, Dolores Hemming, of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Meriden. Ms. Rigby said, “I had never been here before. I was just looking for spiritual renewal, I guess, some peace and spiritual healing. Just the peacefulness of the whole experience.”
Ms. Hemming said, “It helps to be with others who believe in God as we do. I think that part of the spiritual healing is to be together with people who believe the same as we believe. It’s just, I don’t know, there’s just something about it that makes you feel not so much alone in the world.”
Pauline Olsen, a Dame of Malta who also volunteers as a physician with the Malta House of Care mobile medical vans, said that a pilgrimage to a local shrine is much easier than a pilgrimage to Lourdes, and this one was free to pilgrims because it was funded by the Order of Malta and private donations.
“There are a lot of problems associated with bringing malades to Lourdes,” she said. “They have to be well enough to go. That sounds like a contradiction, but it’s very expensive traveling back and forth to Lourdes, and we are limited in the numbers we can bring.”
She added, “The advantage of coming here was that we could bring more people. It’s not a long bus ride.”
Carmen Rodrigues of Hartford was there with her brother, Vidal Rodrigues, who has an esophageal disorder. “This has been a good experience for me, a spiritual reawakening,” he said. “I kind of needed it for a while. I’ve come back to my roots in the Catholic religion. It’s an opportunity for me to get back to the spiritual place.”
Mr. Sullivan said he hopes to conduct similar pilgrimages to other local shrines every year. For information about future malade pilgrimages, call Mr. Sullivan at 860-523-1405.