By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
PITTSFIELD, Ill. -- Putting one foot in front of the other walking alongside the road might be commonplace for many, but the Rev. Mark Schulte sees it as a form of spiritual renewal.
Senses sharpen step by step as he takes in what goes often unnoticed from a car -- the sounds of the birds, the frogs and even the does barking a warning signal to their young, the smell of ripening corn and fresh (or no longer fresh) roadkill.
"You're very much aware of what is going on around you, including your own body. That can be a very spiritual experience," Schulte said. "You say your prayers while walking, pray for your people, acknowledge the strength God gives you to undertake something as simple as a walk. Every breath you take, every step you take is a gift."
Schulte, pastor at St. Mary Catholic Church in Pittsfield, is walking 80 miles in Pike and Scott counties this month as a way to raise money for a new altar as part of the church's renovation project and, more importantly, to recall the efforts of pioneer priests who often covered long distances on foot to serve their congregations.
"There's a word in our liturgy, ‘anamnesis,' a Greek term, which means ‘to remember.' I thought it was very important to try to remember the efforts these pioneer priests put forth to bring the faith to the people," Schulte said. "We get in our cars and travel long distances, but it's not the same as walking from one place to another. I wanted to get a greater sense of appreciation for what they did."
Along the way, the 62-year-old priest will offer Mass in parish churches and private homes, provide pastoral care and answer questions from people who stop to offer a ride to the man dressed in black and wearing a straw hat.
He's covered a little more than half of his journey so far, fitting legs of the walk between his pastoral duties at St. Mary and St. Mark's in Winchester, the only remaining Catholic churches in the two counties.
"Sometimes we don't realize what we can actually do when we put our mind to it," Schulte said. "It's been a very good experience."
Last week's cooler temperatures provided a good time for the longest part of the trek, the 20-mile stretch between Winchester and Pittsfield.
He started walking at 4 a.m. in Winchester, facing the traffic along Ill. 106 and periodically flashing his flashlight to warn oncoming drivers, and arrived in Pittsfield by 11 a.m. He carried plenty of water along the way and snacked on a peanut butter sandwich, eating half at the Florence bridge and half at Detroit, along with two oranges, rabbit jerky and trail mix.
Crossing the Illinois River at Florence meant walking in the road, "so I said a prayer to my guardian angel to give me safe passage," Schulte said. "The many truckers who pass over that bridge gave me room and didn't appear to be angry when I looked up into their cabs. I was very appreciative of that."
A fisherman and hunter, Schulte's comfortable in the outdoors and in his well-worn work boots, but he still wasn't sure what to expect on the first leg of his journey -- the 13 miles from St. Patrick's in Bluffs to St. Mark's.
"You step out on faith," he said. "I wasn't doing a footrace. I could take as much time as I needed."
Admittedly sore the next day, his muscles soon became accustomed to walking the long distances. The day after his 20-mile trek, he was doing a full day's duties "not feeling the worse for the wear."
The walk takes him to communities like Barry, Griggsville and Bluffs, which had churches that closed over the years.
"This is a way I felt I might let folks in different places know they're not forgotten. They're always in my prayers," Schulte said. "When you make a decision to walk someplace, that's a commitment. This walk I'm doing is a sign of that commitment that I'm making to the people of my parishes."
Schulte intended to use the altar top from the former Holy Redeemer Church in Barry in the St. Mary renovation project, which also includes new flooring, heating and air conditioning. However, the marble was too fragile, so a new granite altar top is being fabricated for the church.
"That costs money," Schulte said. "I figured with my walk, if folks wish to, they could offer a donation for that altar while at the same time honoring the pioneer priests that went before us."
Walking helps Schulte remember some of the earliest teaching of the church. Parables like the sower and the seed become more real as Schulte walks on the hard road surface, the gravel on the shoulder and weeds and tares alongside.
"Jesus walked everywhere. He didn't ride in a chariot. He walked with his disciples using natural symbols to bring his message of the gospel to the people," Schulte said.
HOW TO HELP
The Rev. Mark Schulte, pastor of St. Mary's in Pittsfield, will walk 80 miles through Pike and Scott counties to recall the efforts of pioneer priests. Anyone interested in supporting his effort may donate 50 cents per mile, or any amount, toward a new altar at St. Mary's. Donations may be sent to the church in care of the renovation project to 226 E. Adams, Pittsfield, IL 62363 or through the parish website, stmaryspittsfield.dio.org. More information is available by calling the parish office at 217-285-4321.