Readers of this blog will know that I enjoy a good pilgrimage. I caught the bug two years ago when I first went on the Aussie Camino from Portland to Penola (see also the official Aussie Camino website here). Since then, I have done the Aussie Camino another one and half times, the Christus Rex Pilgrimage from Ballarat to Bendigo, and led two “Pilgrimages of Mercy” – one from Boronia into the Holy Door at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, the other from St Philip’s in Blackburn North to the Holy Door at St Brigid’s in Fitzroy North.
While doing the Aussie Camino last April, I was struck by the fact that we were walking to Penola – which, while a very significant place in the life of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop (being the place where she entered religious life and founded the order of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart), is NOT a official shrine – diocesan, national or otherwise. It could be, but it isn’t.
The official national Shrine to St Mary MacKillop is in North Sydney, which is also the place of her burial. I concluded that, if one was to do a proper Aussie pilgrimage dedicated to St Mary of the Cross, it would have to have her shrine and tomb as its ultimate destination. Logically, given that I live in Melbourne, the starting point should be her birthplace, 9 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy.
So over the next few months, I began to think about a possible route. In November 2014 I had travelled to Stanwell Tops just south of Sydney for the Christian Motorcyclists Association National Gathering. I rode home with my brother and a friend down the South East Coast of NSW and back into Victoria from Eden to Orbost and through Gippsland. It struck me at the time as a very beautiful and inspiring bit of countryside. So, given the two options for a pilgrimage from Melbourne to Sydney were either the Hume Highway or the Gippsland/East Coast, the latter was definitely the more attractive.
The full distance would be around 1300kms. That would take at least two months to walk. I don’t have two months holiday up my sleeve, but what I do have is annual leave. I decided that I would walk from Fitzroy to the North Shore of Sydney over four years, utilising the annual Easter Holidays to do two weeks walking at a time. The first leg would take me to Bairnsdale, then in 2017 I would walk to Eden, then the next year to Bateman’s Bay and finally in 2019 walk the last leg into Sydney.
Part of my inspiration for this came from the fact that 2016 is the 150th Anniversary of the founding of the order of St Joseph. Another cam from the fact that in March 2016 I turned 50 years old. I’m not getting any younger, I thought. Now is the time.
It was an ambitious plan, and I mentioned it when my I next met with my friend Sean Deany, one of the original developers of the Aussie Camino route. Actually Sean had mapped out and travelled (by foot and by bicycle) a much more ambitious route which he called “The MacKillop Woods Way”. This trail led from Port Augusta to Penola to Melbourne to Sydney (via the Hume Highway). He immediately said: “Can I come with you?”
Actually I was glad of his offer. Together we have spent the last 8 months or so planning this journey. Sean is a very experienced pilgrim, having done the Camino de Santiago a number of times, and last year walking the new Ignatian Way in Spain over a distance of 1600kms. Australia is a very different environment for pilgrimage, but his experience and ideas have been invaluable.
Then another friend, Josh, said that he wanted to join us – although on the first leg he was constrained by the fact that he only had one week’s holiday to spend with us. Why not?, I thought. The more the merrier.
The planning has taken a lot of work. There are no “albergues” to stay at along the way, so we had to arrange accomodation, and plan our trail and walking days to fit in accordingly with what we could find. We don’t have any back up vehicle or crew, so we have to carry all we need on our backs.
To cut a long story short, today, on Easter Monday, we set out on our pilgrimage to the Shrine of Mary MacKillop on the “MacKillop Woods Way”.
Cathy drove me in to the city this morning, we picked Josh up from his hotel, and then went around to Sean’s place for breakfast. Next we walked to the birthplace of the Saint, where we had prayers commemorating her, and Cathy took pictures of us together. Then followed 9am mass at the Cathedral and the pilgrims blessing by Fr John Salvano after mass. A final farewell to my wife, and we were off. We went via Richmond, to St Ignatius Church where there is a fine stain glass window of Saint Mary, and then (after a quick coffee in Swan Street) to Brighton Street where there is a small plaque marking the place where Saint Mary lived for a few years from 1858-1861. The rest of the way was walking along the Main Yarra Trail and the Gardiner’s Creek trail down to Malvern, where we had lunch a the Jack & the Beans Talk Cafe (Josh introduced me to a “Reuben’s Sandwich” washed down with a Hawthorn Pilsner). From there we proceeded eastward along the railway line to Holmesglen, and onward to Glen Waverly. We crossed the Dandenong Creek at Shepherd’s Bush, and arrived at our destination, St Paul’s Missionary College in Nortons Lane, Wantirna South, at 5:30pm.
The full distance, according to Google Maps, was supposed to be 27.3kms. My GPS app measured us at 32.44km. Two kilometres at least should be added to the GM measurement for our detour to get lunch, so I make it about 30kms in all. My feet are sore, and my shoulders very sore (I am carrying a pack weighing about 11kgs), but otherwise Day One was completed without any mishap. The weather has been fine, light winds, a mainly cloudy day with a top of about 19 degrees C. Perfect walking weather. And it looks as if we will have this for the rest of the week.
There were many more cyclists on the path today than walkers. Families were out in strength on Easter Monday on their bikes. We could not walk side by side on much of the path, as we had to leave room from cyclists to overtake us. That didn’t stop Josh and Sean chattering away for most of the walk – I’m glad I brought them both along as it saves me from constant conversation. I do enjoy the depth of conversation that is possible on a good long walk, but I also find walking and talking exhausting.
There were cyclists who, passing us, saw the shells on our pack and called out “Camino!” or some such thing, so it is good to see some recognition of what we are attempting to do. During one break we began talking to an older woman out doing her walk. She wanted to know how far we were walking (seeing us packed up like packhorses). When we told her about our Camino to Mary MacKillop’s shrine, she told us of her childhood education by the Josephites in the Western suburbs. “I went to the Brigidines on this side of the city for my secondary education,” she said. “Archbishop Mannix didn’t think that we in the West needed educating.”
St Paul’s, our home for the night, is run by the Focolare movement, and is the closest thing to staying at a monastery that we are going to experience on this journey. They had a nice meal waiting for us when we arrived – pasta, salad, chicken and beans (washed down with a mezzo liter of red wine I brought with me). After dinner, the three of us went up to the chapel to say evening prayer together (Novus Ordo – Josh had already said the Traditional Latin Vespers, but as he said, too much liturgy is not enough!).
We now we are preparing for bed to rest for the next day’s journey, a little sore and weary in the feet and shoulders.