Pilgrims’ progress: New Bedford parish returns from sixth excursion

By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff

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NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — For Edwin Aldarondo, there are countless real-life examples of heroes to be found among the many saints who have come before us.

“To me, it’s all about the communion of saints,” said Aldarondo, a parishioner of St. Kilian’s Parish in New Bedford. “They could be anyone’s heroes. You don’t have to look at Superman or Batman, just look at the lives of the saints and all they had to go through just for the love of God. It’s extraordinary.”

That’s why for the past six years now, Edwin and his wife Ana have organized annual bus pilgrimages to shrines dedicated to various saints within the United States.

The couple just returned from an impressive three-day jaunt to Washington, D.C. and Emmitsburg, Md., where they and a group of more than 50 pilgrims visited the Franciscan Monastery, or “Holy Land of America,” the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto and Shrine at Mount St. Mary University, and the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine, where the first native-born American saint lived and died.

“When we went to visit St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Shrine, one of the young girls on the bus came up to me and said: ‘How is it possible that, knowing the richness of our faith, people can actually walk away from the Church?’” Aldarondo told The Anchor. “That comment brought tears to my eyes. I said to myself: ‘She gets it. If only other kids could get it like her, we’d be fine.’”

The genesis of these annual excursions dates back to 2007, when Aldarondo’s then-pastor at St. Kilian’s Parish took a trip to Medjugorje, the small village in Bosnia and Herzegovina where the Blessed Mother has reportedly been appearing since 1981.

“When he returned I asked him if he thought it was true,” Aldarondo said. “To this day, he never responded to my question … but, more or less, in my heart I knew he had experienced something extraordinary over there.”

Feeling disappointed that he wouldn’t ever be able to make such a distant pilgrimage, Aldarondo soon found himself asking why there weren’t similar “holy places” closer to home here in the United States.

“I felt guilty about having questioned God,” he said. “So the next day I went to my pastor and I confessed to him. And he told me that because I had questioned God, perhaps I wouldn’t get to go to Medjugorje, but maybe the Lord wanted me to do something here — meaning at our parish.”

His pastor’s words of encouragement inspired Aldarondo to make a promise to the Blessed Mother to organize yearly pilgrimages to various shrines in order to “receive miracles of conversions of hearts,” he said.

Using his work connections and experience as a bus driver with the New Bedford-based Tremblay’s Bus Company, Aldarondo was soon making the arrangements for their first one-day pilgrimage aboard a comfortable motorcoach to New York City. That maiden voyage in 2009 took them to the St. Frances Cabrini Shrine, the St. Vincent Ferrer Church, and the glorious St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where the group closed the day with a vigil Mass.

“For that first year, I just decided I wanted to do these three,” Aldarondo said of the selections. “For every other shrine in each state I went through the same process. If you look into it, there are a lot more (shrines) out there than you think. We don’t have to make these extraordinary pilgrimages to Europe … we have shrines right here, within a reasonable distance to us.”

While he does all the planning work, with his wife “helping out with the paperwork and details,” Aldarondo doesn’t drive the bus on the pilgrimages, opting instead to serve as tour guide.

The large motorcoach-style buses used can comfortably seat anywhere from 55 to 57 people, and Aldarondo said they have easily filled a bus every year since beginning the pilgrimages.

“We get people who call us from all over the diocese, but this past year we didn’t even have to advertise the trip … (the bus) was already halfway filled with returning pilgrims,” Aldarondo said. “If it grows to a point where we need to add a second bus, why not?”

“We started with one-day trips, and now the further away we go, it requires more travel time,” he added. “So we had to add additional days. Now on a three-day trip, we leave on a Friday and we get to our destination and it’s already evening, so we’ve got just enough time to get into our rooms at the hotels, sleep and then wake up for the next day when we officially start going to see the shrines.”

Joseph Trainor, a parishioner of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Attleboro, has been on four of the most recent “St. Kilian’s pilgrimages,” which he admitted have all been “a lot of fun.”

“Going with them … you’re able to just sit, say prayers and relax on the trip down,” he said. “And I get to take pictures and visit some shrines that I probably wouldn’t have been able to see on my own.”

When asked what shrines made the biggest impressions on him, Trainor cited their 2010 trip to Fonda in upstate New York to see the Shrine of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, and their visit this year to the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine in Maryland and Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

“It’s the biggest Roman Catholic church in America,” Trainor said of the basilica. “I think you could take three or four St. Anne’s Shrines in Fall River and fit them inside and still have room left over. It’s massive.”

Having been deeply moved by the St. Kateri Shrine in New York, Trainor is also looking forward to a planned 2016 excursion to Canada to visit the site where the Native American saint is buried.

“I know Edwin is planning a trip to visit St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s grave in Ontario, and then go to Montreal to see St. André Bessette’s shrine up there, too,” he said.

Linda Nason, a parishioner of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Seekonk, is likewise looking forward to the 2016 pilgrimage to Canada, to which she hopes to bring her three granddaughters.

Having joined the St. Kilian’s group on three previous trips, Nason initially took one, and then two of her granddaughters with her on successive pilgrimages.

“I wanted to teach the faith to (them) and I thought it would be a great opportunity to do so,” Nason said. “I started off with the oldest and when the other made her First Communion, she joined in. By 2016 I’ll be able to take all three of my granddaughters with me — that will be my goal.”

“The fact that so many children are attending these pilgrimages every year is also what excites me the most,” Aldarondo said. “They are the future of our Church and they are learning, first-hand, what the Catholic faith is all about.”

Of the 55 people aboard this year’s bus, Aldarondo said almost half — about 20 — were youth. 

“A lot were members of our youth group and CCD program who have been confirmed, but instead of walking away they decided to stay and help out,” he said. “Some are now aids in the CCD program, while others are lectors and altar servers, but one way or another, they are still committed to the Church.”

Nason, who admitted that all three of her pilgrimages with Aldarondo have been “great trips,” said her favorite was probably the 2013 trip to Philadelphia to visit the National Shrine of St. Katherine Drexel, because “she teaches about helping other people and how important the Eucharist is.”

As the perpetual adoration coordinator for her parish, Nason retains a particular affection for St. Katherine Drexel.

“I think we need to look to saints as examples because we can all become saints,” she said. “By reading about their lives, we can learn about them and realize they weren’t all holy at the beginning, they had to find God and learn to not stray off the path and achieve holiness. Once you love God, you can also love and help other people.”

Now that he’s completed his sixth pilgrimage and fulfilled his initial promise to the Blessed Mother, Aldarondo said he’s going to take a one-year sabbatical in 2015 to spend time with his family; but he’s already gearing up for the planned 2016 venture to Canada.

“Next year would be my seventh year, and the Lord rested on the seventh day, so I decided to rest on the seventh year and take some time to be with my family and just pray,” Aldarondo said. “We may live our own pilgrimage, but we need to re-energize for whatever 2016 may bring.”

But Aldarondo stressed this is only a temporary hiatus from the pilgrimages.

“I fulfilled my promise to our Blessed Mother when we went to the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception … and I’ve seen conversions taking place where many people who are already committed to one or more ministries in their parishes want to do more,” he said. “But I keep praying that if it continues to bear fruit, why stop it?”

That’s good news for Nason and her three granddaughters.

“I explained to them that (Edwin) is taking a little rest next year, but I promised they would go on the next trip in 2016,” she said. “It takes a lot of work to put it all together, but it’s a great evangelization tool.

“Even if you can go only once in your lifetime, there’s just something about going on a pilgrimage that helps you to live your daily life. To me, your whole life is a pilgrimage, your whole life is a journey, and the ultimate goal is to reach Heaven and to reach God and also to know that Jesus came here for a reason: to show us how to love Him, how to do service for other people, and the prize will be waiting for us at the end of the journey.”

For more information about future pilgrimages, visit St. Kilian Church on Facebook.

Those who do not have access to the internet can call the church rectory at 508-992-7587 or Edwin at 508-998-8603.

© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts