The World of Grandpa Don

Pilgrimage 2005

 A Franciscan Pilgrimage to
Rome, Greccio, Assisi & Florence


View a slide show

The Beginning

I have been on a pilgrimage! Twenty five people, mostly parishioners and staff of St. Julie parish, together with several others from a nearby parish journeyed to Italy to renew and enrich our souls and minds. All arrangements were made by Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs headquartered in Franklin, WI.

Sister Gael, of our parish staff, also a Franciscan, organized the event and was an invaluable asset to us on our adventures. On September 9 a bus took us from the parish to O'Hare field for the 8 hour flight to Paris where we changed planes for the 2 hour flight to Rome. Air France pampered us with Champaign, wine and excellent food, all at no additional cost. Of course the cramped seating (8 across) on the big Air Bus doesn't lend itself to total comfort but I had an isle seat and was able to get up and stretch my legs. I did some reading but was not able to fall asleep.

Our late arrival at the Paris airport and run through the terminals was further marred by the fact that in the middle of loading our Rome bound plane, the baggage handlers went on strike. Four of our group and about 100 others arrived on Rome without their bags. It took two days and much frustration for the recovery of their bags.


We were met at the Rome airport by Father Tom Bourque, TOR and Br. Joseph Wood, OFM, Conv, both Franciscan Friars who would be or guides and companions for the pilgrimage. From there we went to our loggings in Rome, the beautiful Residenza Madri Pie, a former school run by an order of nuns, located a short distance from St. Peters.

The beautiful lobby of the Residenza Madri Pie

Rooms were sparse but very comfortable. The one real inconvenience was the showers which were the size of vertical coffins. Even the slim members of our group had problems with them. I was barely able to squeeze into them and it was impossible to bend down when in one. This was common to all three places we lodged. But this was a minor inconvenience, hardly worth mentioning when placed in the perspective of the entire experience.

In Rome and Assisi a typical breakfast included a variety of juices, strong barley coffee. (I liked it) sweet rolls, delicious bread, butter, cold cuts and cheese. This was more than enough for me but as a concession to the American customs, our hosts also provided cereal and milk, enjoyed by many in the group. Our host in Rome also had a bar where cappuccino, soft drinks, wine, beer and some liquor could be purchased. I had time during our stay here to relax there and in their beautiful garden. (See photos 0001 - 3 in the link to the photos - above)

We got bumped by the Pope! On Sunday we were scheduled to have mass at the tomb of St. Peter but the basilica was closed to the public due to the special mass for the opening of the convocation of cardinals. So, we went to the plaza to see what we could see. (photos 0005 - 0010) It was raining lightly but many people gathered to watch the mass on the huge screens set up on each side of the plaza. Speakers broadcast the event as well. At one point we thought that access was being allowed to the tombs and we got in the long line. I was hurting. There had been a lot of walking but I found it impossible to just stand in the rain so I went back to the comfort of our residence to enjoy the solitude, a cappuccino and some reading.

Those who stayed, did eventually get to see the tombs and were further rewarded with the noon Papal blessing. I simply felt blessed to be dry, comfort and ready for the afternoon bus ride to St John Lateran. (photos 0011 - 0033) We first visited the Baptistery, a separate round building where converts were baptized before being allowed into the church itself. (photo 0015 - 0017) While there we were privileged to hold a prayer service in the Canon's Chapel. (photo 0025) This chapel is an early example of antiphonal seating (facing each other) as found in our own St. Julie church. St John Lateran is the first basilica of Rome and the cathedral church of Rome. Since the Pope is the Bishop of Rome it is his church of residence. It was built by the emperor Constantine when he became Christian and accepted Christianity as the Roman state religion. I was struck by it's size and beauty.

For most of the day, there are tourists and pilgrims streaming through this church and the others in Rome but they are not museums but working churches. There are masses in progress as well as prayer services at the various alters. Chapels are set aside for visitors to pray and confessions are in progress in various languages. Even in the Baptistery families were gathered to have their children baptized. Brother Joseph was a reservoir of information regarding the history of the buildings and the meanings and purpose of the artwork here as well as through out our tour.

A bus tour of Rome followed, ending in the center of Rome. It was interesting to see the many landmarks of this great city including the remnants of aqueducts and fortifications among the more modern buildings. However, little is left of ancient Rome due to cannibalization for materials used in rebuilding. We continued with a walking tour of the area which ended at the famous Trevi Fountain (See photos 0033 - 0039) Our Cena (evening meal) was on our own and for me, pizza by the slice at a convenient small café. Afterward we gathered for our adventure back to our lodgings. We walked several blocks to the city bus stop which was to provide our transportation. I was wet, exhausted and my legs screamed for a place to sit. Our bus arrived but was already overloaded. We waited. It soon became apparent that we needed a taxi for some of us but the taxi stand was several blocks away. Brother Joseph and two of the ladies opted go to the taxi stand but my legs would not carry me. Mercifully, the cab riders came by the bus stop and picked me up. Those who continued to wait later reported that after a long wait they had to split up and squeeze on to two very crowded busses. A taxi ride in Rome is 12 euros regardless of distance or number of people and worth every penny of it. Our pilgrims will long remember our "Bus 64" adventure.

On Monday, after breakfast, several of us headed to the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. You must go through the museum to get to the chapel. We waited in line an hour before the ticket office opened (in the rain ... of course) but the outer wall of the Vatican provided a substantial support for me. There was much of interest and beauty in the museum and one could spend days or weeks there but our goal was the Sistine Chapel. As it was, it was a worthwhile adventure. There were also glimpses of the Vatican grounds and many stairs ... going up ... going down. Mercifully there were also benches scattered about which provided much needed rest. And then ... The Sistine Chapel ... Glorious ... Awesome ... humbling ... and surprisingly, with all the people, I found it somehow giving me a feeling of closeness to God. Finding a place on the benches that lined the walls, I prayed. I asked God's blessing on all my friends ... my relatives ... the people of our parish ... my fellow pilgrims ... and myself. Yes, the artwork is great. But the God of creation who inspired the artwork is the one who jumped out at me while in that room.

From there we made our way to St Peters' basilica. I am glad we had seen St John Lantern the day before because it prepared me for St Peters'. If the Lateran was large, ... this was huge. St Peters' is all superlatives in size, beauty and for me, holiness. We had been given the history of its construction during our introduction talk and so we now knew a little about it. There is so much to know about it that it is beyond me to relate it here. I was getting tired and my legs were aching but I could not stop here.

We made our way to the outside entrance to the crypts below the church. This is the place of burial of many Popes. John XXIII is laid to rest in a glass coffin. Many stop to pray. Nearby is the tomb of St Peter. In all, our morning was one of beauty and inspiration. I walked back toward our hotel tired in body but refreshed in spirit. Our group had split into smaller groups and most had gone off to shop. Stopping at a small café, I had a light lunch and did some people watching before returning to my room for a little rest.

At 2:30 we boarded a bus that took us outside the city to the catacombs of San Sebastiano. The story that the Christians hid in the catacombs is now recognized as a myth. The Christian burial grounds were well known to the Romans. We had an excellent guide through these sometimes narrow tunnels with steep changes in elevation. It was explained that the clay soil of the area, when moist was very easy to excavate but when exposed to air, dried like rock. This made it an ideal burial ground. The site also included some Roman graves, the difference being that the Romans used cremation and buried while the Christians, believing in the resurrection of the body did not cremate. The tomb of St. Sebastian, an early martyr, is located here with the church built above it. We had mass in one of its chapels before returning to Rome and Cena at a wonderful restaurant near our hotel.

Our liturgies in Rome and later in the trip were inspirational. not only because of the places we were in but because of our presider, Fr. Tom. A dedicated Franciscan, his homilies sprung from the current setting with meaningful messages. 

On Tuesday after breakfast, we loaded our luggage and ourselves on a very comfortable tour bus and departed from Rome. Rome had been wonderful in spite of my aching legs. And ... I was noticing that they were getting stronger. The bonus is that my blood glucose levels had dropped dramatically and I had to move my belt to the last notch to be keep my pants from sagging. The walking that I had been doing at home prior to the trip had served me well but I could have done more. My inability to keep up with the other people was the result of my own lack of conditioning. Now I know that my doctor was right. He told me to walk but walking hurt. I was blaming it on arthritis but since I have been walking more, there is less pain.


Our bus was a very comfortable Mercedes-Benz vehicle with huge storage spaces for luggage between the wheels and below the passengers. Large windows provided beautiful viewing of the scenery as we journeyed in comfortable adjustable seats. The first stop would be at Greccio and our route took us through beautiful vistas through the mountains of central Italy. Brother Joseph provided historical comment about some of the towns as we passed. We wound up the side of the mountain toward Greccio and parked at the visitor center where comfort facilities were available as well as refreshments.

We were to then climb a long flight of stairs to the Franciscan sanctuary above. I determined that the climb would be too arduous for me and if I made it at all I would delay the progress of the group. So, while I relaxed with cappuccino and took some photos of the area, including the beautiful Rieti Valley the others went up. (See photos 0048 - 0055)  But what did I miss? In the year 1223 Francis wanted to celebrate Christmas here in a special way. He wanted to experience it as the Holy family did and so, in a cave, the first manger scene was put together and he and his followers were joined by the local shepherds and farmers. The tradition continued and has spread to our living rooms.

The group had Eucharist
in the chapel

Photo by Cheryl Scallon

These photos of the shrine are courtesy of Phil Cederstrom.

Sr Gael gave me a small Fontana manger scene as a memento and Fr. Tom gave me a booklet describing the "The Franciscan Sanctuaries of the Rieti Valley". From there the bus took us to a delightful restaurant in the town of Greccio for Christmas lunch. (Everyday is Christmas in Greccio.) It was a festive affair in this beautiful place perched high above the valley. There were flowers all over as well as olive trees and just below the window a large holly tree. (see photos 0057 - 0058)  A great time was had by all and the meal was wonderful in the Italian fashion. This was followed by a pleasant ride to the city of Assisi.


Busses park outside this walled city and we embarked. Our hosts had arranged for taxis to take the luggage to our lodgings and mercifully, there was room to transport  a couple of us as well. We settled into our rooms at Casa Papa Giovanni where our hosts had Cena (evening meal) ready for us. This was followed by an introduction to Assisi by Fr Tom & Bro. Joseph. The view from my window was breath-taking and the town itself is captivating. (Photos 0069 - 0079) One of the first things that is strange to us in a European lift (elevator) the ground floor is #0 and #1 is the floor above it. The reason becomes obvious in the old fortified cities like Assisi. The ground floor was for the animals and the entrance to the family rooms of the house was by an outside stair which at night was pulled up to make the home easy to defend against the raiding soldiers of a rival city. In modern times, the ground floor has been converted to shops, café's, and living space.

After breakfast on Wednesday most of the group walked to the bus stop outside the wall while a taxi picked up those of us who needed it. We all met in the valley at the Porziuncola where we celebrated mass in one of the chapels. Francis had often prayed at a small chapel located in the marshes of the valley below Assisi even though it was in disrepair. It became the gathering place of his early followers and was rebuilt by him. In 1569 construction of a a basilica was begun enclosing the old chapel to preserve it and to accommodate the many pilgrims who were visiting the place. (See photos 0080 - 0094) We also took the occasion to snap a photo of the entire group.

We then took the city buss back to Assisi but we continued around to a stop near the top of the city for a special treat. You buy ticket for the city busses and when you board using either the front or rear doors, you insert the ticket into a slot and it is stamped with the time. It is good for 45 minutes. Occasionally, a city policeman may board the bus and check for valid tickets. Otherwise it is an honor system. Our special treat was Pronzo (mid-day meal) at the home of Roy Grant, a very short walk from the bus stop. A friend of Bro. Joseph, Roy retired from the British diplomatic service to live in Assisi. He purchased two ground floor rooms which had been a pig sty in former years. They were remodeled under his direction and modern facilities added. His bed is under an ancient Roman arch and the rooms are resplendent with artwork that he has collected. He made us all feel welcome and served a splendid meal. All the time we were there Roy related the stories of his acquisition of his antiquities. I felt honored to have met such a fascinating man. After eating, some of the ladies pitched in to do the dishes. The photos taken at Roy's include the view from his narrow patio. (See photos 0097 - 0108)

On the way back to CPG several of us stopped at the Cathedral of San Ruffino. This is the church in which both St. Francis and St. Clair were baptized and later where he often preached. It now is the place of Clair's tomb and houses the famous San Damiano crucifix. (Photos 0113 - 0114) The group split up for shopping and wandering the streets and I made my way to our hotel.  Back at CPG I settled in the quiet of their garden. (Photo 0119 - 0120) To get there you go to the 3rd floor (actually the 4th), then go up several steps and out the back at the next level of the mountain. It was a great place to listen to the birds and read or just meditate. It was one of my favorite places. Cena (evening meal) was at 7:30. Several of our guests went shopping later but the doors are locked at 10:00. Yes, a trio of adventurers did get locked out and had to pound on the door to arouse someone to let them in.

We were, in the visits to these places, not only being exposed to great artwork in their frescos, statues and great architecture, but we learned much about the lives of St Francis and St Clair. Their stories are fascinating and inspirational in that they took a course in their lives that led them to hardship and sacrifice in serving God and their fellow man when Francis could have led the life of a well-to-do merchant and Clair put aside the life of her ruling class family. We also learned much of the customs of the time, a mind expanding experience.

Thursday morning of our pilgrimage, when I awoke the view from my window was totally obscured in fog. Actually, it was clouds which completely engulfed Assisi. After breakfast there was a visit to the Church of Santa Chiara which entailed a brisk walk down and back up. I chose to skip the adventure, investing my time in reading and prayer. The beautiful little chapel in our building served well as a place of meditation. (See photos 0122 - 0123) At about 9:30 a.m. several taxis gathered and we were off to the Carceri located on Monte Subasio above Assisi. As we wound upward on the narrow road the effect was breathtaking. The sun broke through and we found ourselves high above the clouds which enshrouded the city and the valley below it. We soon arrived at the visitor center and gift shop and then took the short but steep walk up to the Carceri. Until the 13 century there was merely a small chapel here near the top of the mountain. It was a place where St. Francis and his followers came to pray and meditate in the caves found in the area.

I can see why St. Francis loved it here. It is a place, high above the city, ... and higher above the valley. There is only the sound of birds and the rustling of the leaves of the trees. Signs have been posted to maintain the quiet of the place and pilgrims and tourists alike speak in whispers so as not to disturb those who wish to meditate. At one time, Francis had decided to remain here in solitude, but Clair came and convinced him that his preaching was needed by the people. People scratch crosses on the rocks and bend or tie twigs in the shape of crosses and leave them in crevices along the trails. After some free time to explore the paths through the woods and visit some of the caves, we gathered in the chapel for Eucharist. I should note that since our choir director and several choir members were part of our group, the sung prayer of our liturgies were exceptional. Father Tom, himself a very spiritual Friar, added inspiration as well. After mass, our taxis took us from the sunlit mountain, back down into the clouds of the city. (Photos  0115 - 0118)

A delicious lunch at Casa Papa Giovanni was followed by 'free' time. Some shopped or revisited shrines. I did some reading and after a brief thunderstorm, took some photos of clouds over the valley. (0120 - 0131) It had been a glorious day!

Friday morning after breakfast the group walked to the Basilica of St Francis. It was down hill all the way and we gathered at the entrance to the lower church and went to St. Francis' tomb below the main Alter. There, at the chapel we celebrated Eucharist. A number of other tourists joined us in our liturgy. Afterward, we were equipped radio headsets and Brother Joseph conducted a historical tour of this amazing two level basilica. Parts of it were still being restored following earthquake damage several years ago. Frescos in the upper church depicted events in the life of St Francis. Brother Joseph is writing a thesis on them for his Masters degree. (Photos 0132 - 0146) It was an enlightening experience as well as inspirational. This basilica was the first church built in the Romanesque style, the first that included stained glass windows.

A couple of us chose to taxi back up the hill to the main plaza and there we enjoyed a cappuccino in the Minerva Cafe across from the old temple. It had been misting but as I came out, ...  the sun did too. The plaza was alive with vendors selling their wares and a gelato store caught my eye. I walked out into the plaza with a dripping pistachio gelato (creamy Italian ice cream) and heard the sound of beautiful music. I was in heaven! Oops ... it was just the beauty of the moment enhanced by an elderly gentleman playing a flute. Now I really felt the reason Roy Grant decided to retire in Assisi. The beauty and spirituality of the place saturates your spirit. I had tears in my eyes.

At 1:00 p.m. we were treated to Pranzo, a wonderful farewell noon meal at CPG. (Photos 0147 - 0150) The photos include a couple shots of the ceiling of our glorious dinning room. The meal capped our days in and around Assisi which was full of the history of Francis, Clair, and the church as well as introducing us to the way people lived during the lives of these saints. It brings our lives into perspective ... what is important ... what is not. Much of that which we fret definitely is not important when we include God as our Father and Heaven as our goal.

A few of us squeezed into the taxis with the luggage and  were soon joined by the walkers down at the bus stop. Our bus was loaded and we were off through the beautiful valleys and mountains to Tuscany and Florence. A very pleasant 2-1/2 hour drive.


After a pleasant ride from Assisi, past several large lakes and the many vineyards nestled in the mountains of Tuscany we emerged into a flat valley and the city of Florence. Our bus took us down the wide boulevard along the Arno river to the Grand Mediterranean Hotel. After unloading our luggage and settling into our modern rooms (with TV) we had a brief introduction to the city, after which some of our group ventured out to the shops. It was raining so several of us simply went next door to a pizza restaurant to sample their fair. (The Italians don't know how to make pizza!) I returned to my room to catch up on CNN news and learned of the earthquake in Pakistan and the Kashmir.

On Saturday, nothing was planned for us during the day. After breakfast I went with a group led by Sr Gael, taking the walk to the Piazza della Signoria, a beautiful plaza replete with statuary, sidewalk cafés and the great Palazzo (palace) Vecchio. (Photos 0153 - 0160) The palace is now what we would call the city hall of Florence with the upper floors preserved as a museum. After having a cappuccino sheltered from the light rain by the large umbrellas of a café, we toured the museum, This was once the home of the Medici family and housed Popes and dignitaries of Rome, Italy and the world. (Photos 0163 - 0167)  I can't imagine what it may have been to live in this splendor. As we toured we looked down into "The Great Hall of 500" where a ceremony honoring members of the city police department was being held. (Photo 0168).

As we left this beautiful building, Sr Gael ordered a couple of taxis for the group. She had reserved tickets for us at the Gallery of the Academy which houses Michelangelo's David. We waited but the taxis didn't arrive and we would be late. And so we walked as fast as we could through a steady rain to the Academy. The lines were backed up when we arrived but our wait was not too long. This is not a large museum and after viewing other artworks we were soon looking down a hall at this famous statue. It is truly remarkable. (Photos not allowed) It is a colossal statue (4.3 meters - over 14' tall) carved from a single block of marble. For more on this incredible work of art see and .

The Academy also has many other works of art on display and after viewing them I decided to strike out on my own for the hotel. My pace was slow as I made my way through the Plazza Del Duomo with  the famous Duomo Cathedral, Bell Tower and Baptistery. I continued on to the Piazza della Signoria where I took refuge from the rain, and to rest my legs, at the same sidewalk café that the group had visited earlier. I satisfied my hunger with a serving of fresh strawberries and a chocolate milk shake. It was very refreshing as I soaked in the beauty of the scene. Thus fortified, I continued my walk back to the hotel. I am sure that this was by far the longest walk of the trip and I was amazed and gratified that I was able to do it.

Squeezing into the tiny shower stall, I refreshed myself and indulged myself with a short nap. At 6 we met in the hotel lobby and set out for the Church of Santa Croce where we were scheduled to celebrate Mass. Again we were bumped and instead joined the Italian mass with the local residents. It was strange to participate at mass and not know the language.

Back at the hotel, we had a festive farewell dinner. Formal good-bys were said to Brother Joseph and Father Tom although Bro. Joe would be returning to Chicago with us. Dinner was great and everyone was in a joyous mood.  We retired to our rooms full of the spirit of the trip.

The Conclusion

Sunday morning, we had breakfast. Our hotel provided bacon and eggs but the bacon was under-cooked and the scrambled eggs over-cooked. But they tried! We were bussed to the Florence airport. I selected window seating for the trip back and enjoyed the view of the Alps as we headed for Paris. My seat on the Paris to Chicago flight was behind the washroom in the middle of the plane and so I had extra leg room. As on the outbound flight, the food was very good and so was the wine. Back in Chicago, we gathered our luggage and cleared customs without undue delay. Our bus was waiting and we were all glad to be on the last leg home.

However, I was in a state of quandary. I had not seen my house and car keys since leaving my car at the parish parking lot when we departed. I could not remember where I put them. When we arrived at St Julie's several people helped search my bags and they were found in a ziplock bag in my carry-on bag ... deep beneath everything else. I had put them there so they would not be a problem going through security checks at the airport. Arriving at home, Anne Marie and Tom were waiting. Tom brought my bags upstairs but they didn't get unpacked for two days. It was so good to be home.

It was a great trip, an adventure I will not forget. I have seen pictures of some of the places but pictures can not convey the spirit of them. I have a deeper appreciation of the history of these places as well as an incite into the lives of people who lived in bygone ages. It was indeed, ... a different world. I sense a deeper spirituality in myself as a result of these experiences and for that I am grateful.

But there is an added benefit for me. I had been convinced that I had arthritis in my hips which made it too painful for me to walk. But knowing I would be walking on the pilgrimage, I forced myself to start walking in preparation.  It was painful but as my upper leg muscles strengthened, the pain diminished. When I got to Italy, I had a difficult time but that last long walk in Florence convinced me that I had been experiencing more muscle pain than anything else. Short rests revived me and I was able to continue. The added benefit was in the fact that during the trip, as I checked my blood glucose levels each day, they dropped appreciably.

----- Donald J Plefka


At the Carceri  on Monte Subasio with Father Tom.

Pilgrimage 2005

   Home Page
In My Life Main Page
The World of Grandpa Don

Free JavaScripts provided
by The JavaScript Source