Since the mid-1500s, pilgrims have visited seven churches in Rome and other parts of the world during Holy Week. Some believe the tradition — often called the Seven-Church Walk and which typically is done on Holy Thursday — originated with St. Philip Neri and his companions, who would enjoy each other’s company singing together, eating along the way and pausing to pray at each of the sacred spots.
When Sarah Heidelberger, a parishioner of St. Bartholomew Parish in Villard, read a blog post about the ancient tradition, she thought it would make a memorable tradition for her own family.
“We want to help [our children] have a yearning for their faith and the church, even by doing something as simple as opening the door and walking into seven churches to offer our prayers,” she said.
Last year, in the days preceding Holy Thursday, she and her older children, Lily, then 12, and Jonah, then 9, poured over possible locations and routes.
“With many Catholic churches within reasonable driving distance in our diocese, the goal of visiting seven churches seemed pretty attainable,” Heidelberger said.
“When we were deciding on which churches we’d visit, we wanted to go within close proximity since we just had the afternoon to make our pilgrimage. We also wanted to choose at least a few we hadn’t ever been inside so we could discover what treasures they may contain.”
When the day came for the pilgrimage, Heidelberger packed up her vehicle with Lily and Jonah, as well as her two youngest, Gianna, then 4, and Margaret, then 3, while her husband, Reed, was at work.
“Since I was going to do the pilgrimage with all the kids by myself, we also included a few churches that were closer to Holdingford where my parents live so my dad could join us,” she said.
Though they settled on seven churches, two of the seven were locked when they arrived and they quickly changed their initial route. Despite the little “bump in the road,” Heidelberger says the pilgrimage was amazing.
The churches they visited were St. Paul and Our Lady of the Angels in Sauk Centre, St. Rose of Lima in St. Rosa, Sacred Heart in Freeport, Immaculate Conception in New Munich, St. Mary’s in Melrose and their home parish of St. Bartholomew.
“Once inside each of the churches, if it was one we hadn’t been in before, we took time to explore their interior beauty,” she explained. “We also prayed the prayers for two Stations of the Cross at each parish so that we finished all of them by the time we completed our journey.”
Heidelberger said she was touched to see the character and the faith in each of the parishes and communities.
“Somehow by stepping inside those places of worship, we became more connected to unknown faces in our diocese as we prayed in their spaces,” she said.
Jonah agreed that the pilgrimage was special.
“It was really fun to see how pretty they all were,” he said. “Since Jesus was present at all of them, it made each of them beautiful and unique in their own way. It’s the things that you can’t see that are the best, so I felt God present in each place.”
The Heidelbergers are planning a pilgrimage again this year for Holy Thursday, this time including two more family members — Reed, and the newest addition to the Heidelberger family, 6-month-old Benedict.
“We’ve talked many times in the past year about our seven churches visit and even our now 4- and 5-year-olds recall that day,” Heidelberger said. “As our path has passed these churches or we’ve gone back to them for Mass this past year, we fondly recall how fun and blessed that afternoon came to be. Our Catholic faith is so rich in tradition and so many of them are simple, unknown ones that date back many years and we want our kids to get to experience these gems.”
Reed and Sarah feel it is important to make this trip together as a family.
“We aren’t always able to join in on every Holy Week tradition or Mass during the Triduum each year, but we try to find ways to continue to keep each day holy and special. It’s the week in the church that is so special and we want our children to know why,” she said.
Besides the pilgrimage, the Heidelbergers have engaged in other fun traditions surrounding Holy Week, such as sharing a simplified Seder Meal, which marks the beginning of the Jewish tradition of the Passover, and “Spy Wednesday,” a tradition of hiding coins around the house to call to mind the betrayal of Judas on Holy Wednesday.
Reed and Sarah have also washed their children’s feet on Holy Thursday and made pretzels, a symbol of the cross, for lunch on Good Friday before heading to church.
“The traditions we try to celebrate within our family help us to realize that these days are something special and out of the ordinary,” Sarah said. “These days should be set apart with significance and overflow from the Mass, our physical church building and the people of God into our own domestic church.”