Polish walk in pilgrimage from NJ to PA

August 6, 2008 8:42:47 AM PDT
As thousands of Poland's Catholic faithful embark on an annual religious pilgrimage to the shrine of their nation's patron saint, Polish immigrants in the U.S. will carry out their own version of the centuries-old tradition. Instead of crossing Poland for hundreds of miles on foot - as many of their relatives will do in the coming weeks - Polish immigrants from across the Eastern United States will replicate the pilgrimage by walking from New Jersey to Pennsylvania.

After a four-day trek that begins early Thursday morning, they'll arrive Sunday at The National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa - also called "The American Czestochowa" - in Doylestown, Pa.

The American version of the pilgrimage has grown so large since its 1988 inception that more than 2,000 pilgrims participated last year. Most of the pilgrims walk 57 miles to Doylestown from Great Meadows (in northwest New Jersey); smaller groups take shorter routes from Trenton and Philadelphia.

Despite a massive logistical operation that involves communal campsites, makeshift kitchens, flatbed trucks hauling portable toilets and cargo vans stuffed with luggage - the pilgrims remain largely under the radar as they walk along rural back roads, singing and praying in lines that often stretch for miles.

"It's amazing," said Jolanta Derkacz of Lawrenceville. "You get to see how much stronger you are as a person, how you can adapt to your surroundings, and the things you feel - it can change your life."

Derkacz, 25, has been walking the route with her family since she was 9. She says the chance to unplug from her bhe image or a belief that centuries of candle residue caused it to darken.

But the Virgin of Czestochowa has taken on racial symbolism for other groups - many of whom now join the Doylestown-bound pilgrims. Groups of Haitians from Brooklyn and elsewhere now march alongside the Poles, seeing in the Virgin's dark complexion and distinctive cheek scars a reference to their African heritage.

Creole prayers have been added to the proceedings in recent years, along with English and Spanish prayer groups.

Bozena Bienkowska, a Polish native who lives in Trenton, marvels at the mix of people that join the American pilgrimage each year. She sees it as a chance to bond with other Christians as part of a wider immigrant experience in America.

"It's very important, especially when you are away from your homeland, that you need to be with others," she said. "I can pray in English, but I don't feel it. In Polish, I really feel it, because I grew up praying in that language with my parents."

Bienkowska, 52, said because she grew up in Poland under Communism, her first chance to celebrate the Polish pilgrimage tradition came when she immigrated to New Jersey 20 years ago.

"In Poland, I didn't go, I was dreaming and hoping that one day I would join," she said. "I never dreamt we could have this here in the United States. As you see, here, any dream can come true."

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