Bob and Penny Lord of Morrilton have 25 years of experience leading religious pilgrimages throughout Europe
MORRILTON -- In 1976 Penny Lord agreed to go on a pilgrimage with her husband, Bob, but was not excited about it because she had never related to Mary and didn't think the experience would mean that much to her.
The first place they visited was the site where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France, 150 years ago. It was there that something powerful began to awaken in the couple.
"That's when I met Our Lady," Penny Lord said. "I never wanted to leave."
Next they traveled to Italy and visited the shrines of St. Anthony of Padua and St. Padre Pio at San Giovanni Rotondo. Their excitement grew with each place they visited.
Building on their first trip, they returned again and again, experiencing new shrines each time. Before long, they were spending at least a month a year visiting holy sites in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Belgium.
By 1983 they felt God was calling them to share what they had learned with others, so they began directing pilgrims full-time on spiritual journeys to Italy, Spain, France, Portugal and the Holy Land. Eventually they also offered pilgrimages to holy sites in Belgium, Greece, Germany, Poland, Medjugorje (Bosnia-Herzegovina) and Mexico. They stopped visiting the Holy Land in 1988 for safety reasons.
In 2000 they moved from southern California to Morrilton, where they established Holy Family Mission, a place to host retreats, conferences and continue to write books and produce educational videos for EWTN on Mary, the saints, angels, Jesus and miracles of the Eucharist and their shrines. These are based on their pilgrimage trips, which they continue to lead each year.
Penny, 79, said even after all these years, she and Bob, 72, continue to learn each time they go on pilgrimage.
"Our Catholic tradition offers such a wealth of role models, that anybody, not only young people, but old people, people our age can relate to," Bob said.
"When you go on a pilgrimage you can't keep it to yourself," Penny said.
"You get so excited about where you've gone and the impact that a given saint or shrine or apparition of Our Lady or miracle of the Eucharist has had on you, you've got to let it out," Bob said. "These are our brothers and sisters in Christ. These are our ancestors."
Not only do pilgrims bond with the saints, they bond with each other.
"We do develop family. These people are our family and we love them," he said.
"We have a lot of pilgrims that go back with us year after year after year. Sometimes we go to different places but very often they want to go back to some of the same places all over again."
The Lords will take as many as 50, but they usually average 30 to 35 pilgrims a trip. They also always take along a priest who celebrates Mass daily and offers confession and spiritual direction. Their pilgrimages are typically 15 to 16 days in length.
In the past the couple tried leading shorter pilgrimages, but they discovered that pilgrims missed out on too much and were rushed, which affected their overall experience.
"It doesn't make sense to go past so many places that you really want the people to see," Bob said.
Also, a longer trip allows pilgrims to spend more time at each shrine. The length of time depends on the place. In Lourdes, for example, they stay a minimum of two days, while they spend two or three days at the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal.
Bob and Penny also prepare their pilgrims by teaching about the shrines and saints they will visit. Between destinations, they play their videos on the shrines while riding on a chartered bus.
"We teach them again when we get to a shrine and we talk about it as we're leaving the shrine so they don't lose what it is that they've experienced," Bob said.
If traveling to European holy sites for the first time, the Lords recommend going on an organized group pilgrimage.
Bob said when they first started visiting the holy sites on their own, they wasted a lot of time getting lost.
It is also important to be able to speak the language and be knowledgeable about local customs, Penny added. They both speak Italian and French.
"When you consider the amount of money it's costing you to be there, it actually makes sense to go where you can get the most value for your dollar," Bob said. "If you're spending most of your time getting lost, you're not really getting to see the places that you wanted to see."
And for Catholics on a religious pilgrimage, it is important to have guides that understand the faith and the significance of the shrines from a Catholic perspective, Penny said.
"With some of these other groups you'll go to a shrine and you really don't learn anything about the saint or the shrine until you've bought a book there when you're leaving, and by that time, you can't go back," Bob said.
When the Lords began directing pilgrimages, they took people to the places they had fallen in love with, and as a result, those shrines have consistently been most popular among their pilgrims as well. These include the Sanctuaries of Our Lady of Lourdes; Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima; Rome and Vatican City; Shrine of the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano, Italy; Shrine of the Infant of Jesus of Prague, Poland; and the Chapel of Our Lady of Loreto (Holy House of Nazareth), Lozzo, Italy.
Bob and Penny love the Loreto shrine so much, they had a replica of the holy house built at Holy Family Mission in Morrilton. It is open to visitors.
As for popular saint shrines top choices include: the Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua, Italy; Basilica of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, France; Convent of St. Teresa of Ávila, Spain; Tomb of St. John of the Cross, Segovia, Spain; Castle of Loyola, birthplace of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Guipúzcoa, Spain; and the Basilica of Our Lady Help of Christians, Turin, Italy (Contains tomb of St. John Bosco and St. Dominic Savio, who was a student of St. John Bosco).
The most popular, however are the shrines of St. Padre Pio in San Giovanni Rotondo and Assisi, where the shrines for St. Francis, and nearby St. Clare of Montefalco and others are located.
"As far as saints go, (St. Padre Pio) might be one of the most popular shrines," Bob said. "We've been going since 1976 and it's always been crowded there. Even before he was up for canonization, it was crowded there."
The Lords have a particular fondness for St. Clare of Montefalco.
"People will go to that shrine, that little shrine that nobody knows about, and they just grab on to her," Bob said.
The couple have a wood carved statue of St. Clare at their mission in Morrilton. A woman whose late husband loved the shrine donated it. They went on pilgrimage with the Lords many times. The couple are oblates of the Holy Cross, which is an Augustinian lay organization in Montefalco and St. Clare is their patron.
Luz Elena Sandoval-Lord, Bob and Penny's adopted daughter, serves as office manager for Holy Family Mission. Among other duties, she organizes the pilgrimage trips and often attends with Bob and Penny.
"When you travel with a group or say you're traveling with us, we always encourage our pilgrims to ask all of the questions that they have before leaving," she said.
It is better to ask even if it seems like a dumb or simple question, because "that simple question is going to prevent you from being relaxed and free to enjoy the pilgrimage and to listen to what our Lord and Our Lady have to say to you," she said.
"Each shrine has a special message for each one of us, and it's going to touch you in a different way than it's going to touch me, but it's going to touch you," she said.
Journeys of Faith offers this advice to their pilgrims before they leave on their pilgrimage.
"It (Sicily) is considered the most beautiful spot in Europe by Europeans," Penny Lord said. "It's just steeping in tradition, Catholic heritage and ancient tradition."
The cost for both pilgrimages is $4,495 a person and includes airfare, hotels, two meals a day, all entrance fees, videos and chartered, air-conditioned bus. People can register after deadlines based on space availability. For more information, call (501) 354-6100 or visit http://www.bobandpennylord.com.
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