Bella Vista Catholics plan pilgrimage

18 pilgrims from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, as well as from other parishes and Texas, will make the pilgrimage in July to Indianapolis for the National Eucharistic Congress. (Bonnie Salyards)
18 pilgrims from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, as well as from other parishes and Texas, will make the pilgrimage in July to Indianapolis for the National Eucharistic Congress. (Bonnie Salyards)

As thousands of American Catholics travel to Indianapolis for the National Eucharistic Congress July 17-21, one northwest Arkansas parish has grown even closer by planning its own pilgrimage. 

St. Bernard Church in Bella Vista plans to send 18 pilgrims from their parish and other parishes in the state to the first National Eucharistic Congress since 1941. 

Parishioner Peggy Siefert said the adventure started in June 2023 with a simple question: “Do you know if anyone is planning a trip to the National Eucharistic Congress?” 

“We have a group of people that regularly attend daily Mass at St. Bernard,” Siefert said. “And several of the couples and individuals there are involved in a lot of different activities in the parish and usually know quite a bit about what’s going on. I just happened to ask one of the couples after Mass one day, ‘Hey, do you know if anyone is planning a trip to the National Eucharistic Congress?’ And they said, well, we haven’t heard, but we could ask the Men’s Club or the Knights of Columbus and see if anyone has planned anything.”

Siefert and several other parishioners approached Dean Mechels, a parishioner and Knight of Columbus who has organized several trips for the parish. Mechels used to own a bus company and was familiar with the ins and outs of planning large church trips. 

Mechels said that while he was retired, he was more than happy to help parishioners as St. Bernard planned its trip. 

“He sat down and did a little bit of research and pulled together information about where to stay and got us a hotel in Indianapolis and organized a bus for us,” Siefert said. “Then he handed me all of that awesome foundation for a trip,” in July 2023.

Jeff Hines, director of the diocese’s Office of Faith Formation, said the diocese decided to allow parishes to plan their pilgrimages and events for the Revival. 

“Early in the Eucharistic Revival, Bishop (Anthony B.) Taylor asked the diocese to emphasize the Eucharistic Revival at the local level, in parishes where Christ is present and accessible to everyone,” Hines said. “For this reason, the diocese is not organizing a trip but encouraging everyone to participate in their parish.”

Siefert said parishioners began advertising their pilgrimage in the fall of 2023 at Mass, in the bulletin and with posters across northwest Arkansas to gauge interest. Finally, 18 Catholics — 15 from St. Bernard and the other three from other parishes across the state and Texas — signed up. 

With 40 people needed to fill a bus, the pilgrims were undeterred — they’ll be carpooling to Indianapolis instead.

Congress organizers encouraged pilgrims to buy their tickets by December 2023 since thousands of pilgrims are expected. Siefert said the group reserved hotel rooms in fall 2023 in Troy, Ill. After staying overnight, the pilgrims will take a guided tour of the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis, attend Mass and drive the rest of the way to Indianapolis.  

Another pilgrim from St. Bernard is Linda White, who is converting to Catholicism and began attending St. Bernard two years ago.

“Since that time, I’ve just become more and more enamored with the Catholic Church,” she said. “I’m waiting for an annulment to go through, and so here I am, going to a Eucharistic conference, and I’m not going to be able to participate in the Eucharist,” White said with a laugh. “But that’s all right. I’m there, and I believe in taking the Eucharist spiritually. I’m just biding my time and waiting. I’ve learned so much and made so many great friends through this church that I’m really excited about it.”

Like Siefert, White is excited for the music and speakers, many of whom are authors whose works she’s read and loved. 

“I think it’s going to be great fellowship with the other parishioners I’ve come to know, as well as 50,000 other people that you’ll run into during the different talks and things we’ll be participating in,” White said. 

To help prepare, White said she enjoyed watching “The Veil Removed,” a short film that emphasizes the importance of the Eucharist and has recommended it to everyone she has visited with since. She hopes the conference will lead more Catholics to believe in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. 

Pilgrim Pat Constantine always thought pilgrimages were interesting but often too long or expensive. 

“So when this came about, I thought, you know what? This is my pilgrimage. What better pilgrimage can you have than the Eucharist itself,” she said. “So that’s why I really wanted to do this and help deepen my faith.”

Constantine has felt her parish grow closer in the weeks and months leading up to the pilgrimage. 

“I think it’s brought us closer together, because all of us understand more what it’s all about, and we’re getting excited about doing it together and not feeling alone,” she said. “I’m hoping and praying that once this is over and we’ve come back that we can help, even those that couldn’t go … and to bring back what we learned there."

Katie Zakrzewski

Katie Zakrzewski joined Arkansas Catholic as associate editor in 2023 after working in local media and the environmental sector. A member of St. Mary Church in North Little Rock, she recently completed her master’s degree in public service from the Clinton School.

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