Catholic pilgrims give thanks to life on 43-mile trek to Mother Cabrini Shrine

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Pilgrims on the frontage road of Interstate 70 west of Watkins on Friday, August 19, 2022, as they begin a two-day walk to the Cabrini Shrine in the foothills above Golden.

Before the group of 200 pilgrims embarked on their journey, they bowed their heads in prayer. 

Father Paul Robinson spoke to them from the top of the front steps of St. Isidore Church and Priory in the Eastern Plains town of Watkins. He told the crowd to ask God for strength while they walked 43 miles to the mountains during a grueling pilgrimage his parish has made every year for two decades. 

And for this year’s event, he had an extra request: Pray for abortion rights supporters.

“As it stands right now, they do not appreciate life,” said Robinson over a bullhorn. “We want them to change their minds on life.”

The nation’s abortion rights battle was top of mind for participants of this year’s Cabrini Pilgrimage, the state’s largest Catholic event of the sort. The walk drew hundreds of people for a two-day journey from Watkins to the Mother Cabrini Shrine in the foothills west of Golden.

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Prayers during early morning mass at St. Isidore on Friday, before pilgrims set off.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A pilgrim carries overnight bags to St. Isidore Church in Watkins on Friday.

During their walk, participants made anti-abortion prayers, sang songs and led conversations about the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision and its impact on Catholic churchgoers. The event’s T-shirt even featured an image of a pregnant Our Lady of Guadalupe, which Catholics often look to when praying for an end to abortion.

“There is so much going on in the world with abortion,” Robinson said. “That’s unique to this year.”

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The Rev. Paul Robinson, at right, and other pilgrims from St. Isidore cast early morning shadows.

The pilgrimage started 20 years ago. Leaders of St. Isidore’s parish were looking to build a new church for their growing community in Watkins, but the project kept getting stalled due to construction and permitting issues. 

The congregation decided to lead a march to pray for help from St. Frances Xavier Cabrini. Over the next year, monetary donations poured in and church leaders were able to finish the building. 

Now members organize the walk each year as a way to honor Cabrini, the first American saint. It’s also an opportunity for worshipers to set new resolutions and pray on society’s pressing issues. 

Participants start by eating breakfast and attending a special 5:30 a.m. mass. They then line up outside the Watkins church and walk along local roads as they head west. Priests lead the group in prayers and deliver sermons over loudspeakers. 

The leaders encouraged participants to think about ways they could individually respond to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on abortion rights. The list included peaceful protesting, prayer and voting. 

Many in the crowd said the ruling galvanized them into action.

Jacqueline Janacaro, 20, drove with her sister from Topeka, Kansas to join the pilgrimage for the first time. She wanted to make the journey as a way to deepen her faith. She’s preparing to enter a convent in Italy and work to become a nun. 

She said she also was praying to end abortion all across the country in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision. 

“I see it as an answer to our prayers,” Janacaro said. “Of course it’s not over yet. We need to keep fighting for this and we can spread what we believe just by example. People notice.”

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
The Rev. Paul Robinson speaks to his congregation through a walkie-talkie, which is connected to bullhorns throughout a parade of people, as pilgrims set out on the second day of walking from the St. Isidore Catholic Church in Watkins to the Mother Cabrini Shrine in Golden. Aug. 20, 2022.

The walk is a peaceful event, and it also had lighthearted moments to break up the serious overtones. People caught up with old friends while the kids played games. Snack and water breaks were encouraged. 

At lunchtime on the walk’s first day, the group stopped at General’s Park in Aurora. Greg Cummings reached into a cooler of ice and rubbed a few cubes on the back of his neck as he chugged an orange Gatorade. 

“Need some electrolytes,” Cummings said. “Trying not to dehydrate myself.” 

Cummings brought two of his nine children with him from Bennett, Colorado to participate in this year’s walk. He said he wanted to show his kids that there is a large anti-abortion community in Colorado, even though the state has some of the strongest legal abortion protections in the country.

“Hopefully we can work on the people in the state of Colorado to where [the Dobbs decision] actually benefits us here,” Cummings said. “You can make a big difference just working within your own family, raising your kids up to be moral citizens and having good families of their own.”

The number of people walking changed over the course of the two days. The crowd typically swells as the procession makes its way through Denver. After stopping overnight at a church downtown, the group set its sights on Golden. 

For the final stretch, the pilgrimage made its way up the switchback trail leading to the Mother Cabrini Shrine. The monument was built in 1946, the same year the Catholic Church canonized Cabrini. The site now attracts thousands of visitors each year. 

Cabrini, an Italian immigrant, visited Colorado for the first time in 1902 to meet with mine workers. A stone house she helped build in the foothills near Golden eventually became the headquarters for a Catholic summer camp and retreat. 

Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill replacing Columbus Day with Cabrini Day in 2020, honoring her work with a state holiday on the first Monday of October. That’s the same month she became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1909.

St. Isidore’s annual pilgrimage is timed to mark the anniversary of their congregation’s first walk 20 years ago. Organizers say it is not directly associated with the timing of the state holiday.

As this year’s pilgrimage approached the shrine, rain drizzled off and on. Over 100 walkers made it to the end. Micheal Kearney participated in the pilgrimage for the first time this year.  He’s a seminarian from Australia who studies at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Virginia. 

“[The walk] was tough. But then, it's supposed to be tough because we show our love for God's body and suffer for it,” said Kearney. “I think it’s a better appreciation for the necessity of suffering.”

For others who have been on multiple pilgrimages, like Annie Eddy, the weather was nicer than previous years. Eddy, a longtime member of St. Isidore Church, was participating in her 13th pilgrimage.

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Pilgrims head back on the road after a short break in Golden, nearly to their destination after a day and a half-long walk from Watkins. Aug. 20, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
The pilgrims walk the last two miles to the Mother Cabrini Shrine, the steepest portion of their two-day walk.

“I think mainly for me, one of the things I try to focus on mostly with the pilgrimage is on the strengthening of my will. So, not always giving in when I want to quit,” Eddy said. “Sometimes, it can be harder when you're walking to focus specifically on the prayers and on the meditations. Obviously, you focus on those as much as you can. For me, because I have a harder time focusing on that, it ends up turning into more of a strength of will for me.”

The rain held out long enough for the group to reach the steps leading to the shrine, where they took a group photo. Robinson said it was the best pilgrimage he’s participated in during his four years at St. Isidore. 

As the pilgrimage wrapped, some members explored the area around the shrine. Others headed to vehicles waiting to transport them home. This journey was complete, but many left knowing their work still wasn’t done.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Denver and Watkins are far in the distance as the Rev. Paul Robinson and his pilgrims complete their two-day walk to the Mother Cabrini Shrine.