The wind rolled off the Wabash River in Vincennes, Indiana, one frigid January morning, but that didn’t bother the congregation inside nearby St. Francis Xavier Basilica. The most disturbance anyone might have felt was the talkativeness of a two-year-old during Mass. His father, conscious that worshipers didn’t need such distractions, took him to the back of the red-brick church.
But it gave the young dad a chance to reflect on where he was—both geographically and in time. The Catholics who established and built up the parish, in the years before the American Revolution, had that same January wind rushing over the flat land. But they didn’t enjoy the many ways Americans now have to protect themselves from the elements.
“I just felt this deep conviction, sitting in these comfortable confines, that the people who started this diocese had no comfort at all—no heat, no electricity, no water,” said James F. Schroeder, who was visiting with his wife, Amy, and their five kids. “We weren’t really built on the comforts of those people. There’s an amazing amount of resolve and effort and faith that runs throughout our diocese.”
Visiting churches like this was “probably the most real way our kids and we could experience that,” said Schroeder. The visit to Vincennes was the first stop in a five-and-a-half year “pilgrimage” the family would make to each of the churches in the Diocese of Evansville, Indiana. The family lives in the city of Evansville, an hour to the south of Vincennes.
St. Francis Xavier was the oldest parish and therefore the first stop on the tour. The pilgrimage group, including family and friends of the Schroeders, would visit one church a month, following the chronological order of their founding. Each visit would consist of attending Mass and gathering for a meal at a local restaurant.
Schroeder, who emailed pilgrims a notice of each upcoming visit, including a little bit of the history of the parish, would follow up after the visit with a reflection on what the group discovered. The reflections have been gathered into a book, The Evansville Diocese Historical Tour.
“By the time we reached our final visit on Pentecost Sunday in June of 2017, we had visited 65 churches and traveled roughly 4,500 miles,” said Schroeder. As the months rolled on, word got out and more pilgrims expressed interest in making the visits. The email list grew to about 160, though not everyone showed up for each visit.
“In the meantime, our family continued to grow just as the graces unveiled themselves through this spiritual journey,” said Schroeder. James and Amy, who are both 40, now have seven children, ranging in age from 9 months to 11 years old (twins).
“Some of our kids have spent their whole lives doing these church tours, and the older kids spent half their lives doing them,” Amy Schroeder said. They always looked forward to going to church on the pilgrimage weekend, “because they knew it was filled with lots of excitement with family and friends and usually getting together afterwards to go out to lunch or dinner or something.”
Aside from camaraderie, the restaurant stops were a way to get a “taste” of local life, James Schroeder, a pediatric psychologist, explained.
And the road trips, sometimes as long as an hour and 40 minutes, were a natural way to get the whole family together for “quality time” and family prayer in the car, Amy said. It was also a chance to talk about the history of the church they were visiting.
Before visiting St. Francis Xavier, the visitors walked around the nearby monument dedicated to George Rogers Clark, who led the American military campaign to capture Vincennes from the British in 1779. The area was settled decades earlier by French fur trappers, and Jesuit priests established the first church in 1748. “But the priests were expelled from Vincennes in 1763 when it came under British control,” James explained.
As he was thinking, it wasn’t always a comfortable existence.
“Besides Mass and a meal in a restaurant, if we got there early enough, a lot of these old country churches have their own cemetery,” James pointed out. “One of the things I felt particularly struck by was taking the time to walk through the cemetery, and there were names that would keep showing up over and over. There were certain kinds of crosses that would show up in certain time periods. You’d kind of get a flavor of the land, and some of the history.”
More than the history, though, witnessing the example of faithful Catholics in church after church, month after a month, drove home a lesson. “Seeing these priests, some of whom showed up at multiple parishes, and realizing the impact they have,” James said, “my hope is that would encourage our kids and other kids to consider a vocation to priesthood or religious life.”
Schroeder got the idea when he was looking through a book about the diocese at his in-laws’ house—Amy’s father is a permanent deacon—and was “struck by the history, tradition, and architectural beauty that was within an hour and a half of our home. … Much of it I had never seen, and I realized that I wanted to experience this Catholic heritage for myself and our family.”
“Each visit reflected both the uniqueness of the individual parishes and the collective beauty and history of the diocese as a whole,” he said. “Particularly moving was being able to experience Mass with so many different congregations and with so many different people, in their own space.”
The final visit was to St. Benedict’s Cathedral in Evansville. The Mass, celebrated by then-Bishop Charles Thompson, included the baptism of the Schroeders’ seventh child, Samuel Augustine, and a special blessing for the pilgrimage group. And it was Pentecost Sunday.
“So that seemed a perfect way to kind of go forth and spread the spirit of the joy itself,” James said.
He hopes that his book will inspire other people across the country to take pilgrimages in their “own backyard.” Doing so can make Catholics “naturally more invested in the plight of parishes around you and people in general and more invested in what happens.”
“Not only do I believe that this would further connect people to their Catholic faith (and connect them to the needs of their diocese), and all that lies nearby, but I also hope (including in our own family) that it spurs an even greater consideration of religious vocations given the deep tradition and beauty that exists.”