TORRINGTON – Through sun and rain and three flat tires, Father James Sullivan and a black-and-white stuffed cat named Bruno led a parade of pedaling priests and seminarians on a week-long, 350-mile ride from Litchfield, Conn., to Emmitsburg, Md., to raise money for Catholic schools.
Although pledges are still coming in, parishes report that to date some $182,000 has been raised for 10 schools. See video here.
Kickstands went up on Our Fathers Ride, as Father Sullivan dubbed it, after an open-air Mass in the grotto of the Lourdes in Litchfield Shrine May 29, with Archbishop Leonard P. Blair the principal celebrant.
It was concelebrated by the shrine director, Montfort Father William Considine; Father John Lavorgna, assistant chancellor and secretary to the archbishop; and the cycling priests: Father Dennis Connell, St. Mary School, Waterbury; Father Joseph DiSciacca, riding through Connecticut only and on behalf of St. Joseph School, Bristol; Father Thomas Hickey, St. Stephen School, Hamden; Father Tim Hickey, St. Christopher School, East Hartford; Father Stephen Sledesky, St. Bridget School, Manchester; Father Anthony Smith, St. John School, Watertown; Father Sullivan, St. Peter/St. Francis School, Torrington; and Father Joe Blenkle, a priest from the Archdiocese of New York, riding on behalf of St. Mary School, Fishkill, N.Y.
Also riding were seminarians Matthew Collins, St. Matthew School, Forestville; and Jerwin Cagampang Penido, St. Mary School, Newington.
The riders, along with Bruno the stuffed cat, stayed at retreat houses along the way and arrived about 4 p.m. June 4 at Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg. They returned – by bus and van – the next day.
“I had a black cat with a white collar named Bruno before I entered the priesthood,” Father Sullivan explained shortly before the ride began. His plan was to Skype students at St. Peter/St. Francis School with updates on the adventures of his eponymous stuffed mascot, whose colors mimic a cassock and clerical collar.
“They’re not going to be too concerned, perhaps, if Father Sullivan or any of the priests, for example, went to York, Pennsylvania,” their destination for day six of their seven-day jaunt; “but they will be interested in how Bruno’s doing every day,” he said.
Bruno and the cyclists fared well, despite Pennsylvania downpours on June 2 and flat tires on Father Sullivan’s bicycle on May 31, June 2 and June 4. “Actually, it’s more of a thrill, an adventuresome thrill, no real surprises,” he said by telephone on June 4. The group was just 12 miles from Emmitsburg, where they would later visit the shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, whose free school was the cradle of Catholic education in America.
“We have the support van, which just pulled beside me right now,” Father Sullivan said. “We’re waiting for the last two riders, and we’re just being safe. A lot of people are praying for us, and we’re praying for a lot of people.”
About an hour later, the seven priests and two seminarians pedaled onto the grounds of Mount St. Mary Seminary and were greeted by a busload of parishioners from Connecticut, who had motored ahead to welcome them.
Days earlier, while riding through New Jersey, three priests from Allentown, Pa., rode 13 miles with them to Bethlehem, Pa.
Onlookers along the way noticed their clerical collars underneath their neon yellow-green reflective vests and asked them where they were from. “When we say that we left from Connecticut, there was a look of shock, obviously. ‘You’re from where? And you’re going where?’ But they were surprised and encouraging and enthused for us,” he said.
Father John Granato, pastor of the Torrington Cluster of Roman Catholic Parishes, told the Transcript that the ride will mean “we will be able to keep a presence here for Catholic education in Torrington. [That] is the primary focus of this pilgrimage.”
As students, teachers and staff at the school gathered in the schoolyard May 29 to wish the riders well, Jo-Anne Gauger, principal, said money raised by pledges of support will be used in several ways. “Part of it ... will be put aside for tuition assistance. Some of it will be for technology upgrades, whatever the school needs. It will be a great thing. Plus we’re going into the multi-age format next year, so we’ll need some new resources, so this will help us with that. It’ll help us immensely,” she said.
At Lourdes in Litchfield later that morning, Dr. Dale R. Hoyt, archdiocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, said the ride would help build a brotherhood of priests as well as help fund Catholic schools. “The money that they raise will be used to help families with scholarships, maybe help with some of the curriculum that is needed, ... and even some capital expenditures,” he said, adding that it would be up to individual priests and schools to decide.
Seminarian Mr. Collins said, “Hopefully it will allow more people to come in and the tuition will go down and we will be able to provide better care for the students and open it up for a more warm and welcoming environment.”
Father Sledesky agreed. “We can award some children some scholarships, help keep the tuition costs down. Every bit helps,” he said.
In his homily, Archbishop Blair elicited laughter when he said that Father Sullivan asked him if he would like to pedal with him from Torrington to Litchfield. “I said, ‘Now is that uphill or downhill?’ And he said, ‘It’s uphill.’ So that’s why I wasn’t with you today,” he said.
He said that Jesus taught us that God provides for those who put their trust in him. “And it’s precisely with that faith and trust that we pray for our spiritual fathers on their bike ride in the coming days.”
On June 8, three days after Father Sullivan returned to Torrington, he made a dramatic appearance at St. Peter/St. Francis School. With his stuffed cat Bruno in hand, and dressed in his reflective vest and helmet, he pedaled his bicycle onto the floor of the school gymnasium, to the cheers of the entire student body. “One of the first questions was, ‘How did Bruno do? Did he like the ride?’” Father Sullivan said.
He assured them that he did.
“Having that stuffed animal in my pocket during the trip made me think of the children, and I was praying for them all the way,” he told the Transcript. “Having that in my pocket made me smile.”