If Ron and Genny Little had their own version of the song “I’ve Been Everywhere,” the locational lyrics in the quicktime verses might look something like this:
I’ve been to Bloomsburg, Doylesburg, Elysburg, Millersburg
Quarryville, Marysville, Bonneauville, Danville
Middletown, Jonestown, Myerstown, Lewistown
Lebanon, Steelton, Benton, Lancaster, Manchester, Ephrata, Columbia and Catawissa…
In the Diocese of Harrisburg, the Littles “have been everywhere, man.”
The retired couple completed an astounding pilgrimage to all 89 parishes and seven missions throughout the Diocese’s 7,660 miles across 15 counties. They started their journey in 2014 and made their final stop in August of 2019.
It’s an experience that has deepened their faith and given them a greater appreciation for the people and history of the Diocese.
The Littles, members of St. Luke the Evangelist in Mercersburg, didn’t start out with the specific goal of seeing every church. Rather, it was an idea that came along after they started thinking about the churches they had seen over their years of traveling.
“We used to take a lot of mini trips, and, if possible, we’d go to Mass in the area that we were at the time. If we couldn’t make it to Mass, we would try to get to an Adoration Chapel,” Ron said. “One day, I was thinking about a church that we had gone to see, and I told Genny I thought it would be interesting to see every church in the Diocese, and she agreed.”
The couple used the Highway of Missionaries: An Illustrated History of the Diocese of Harrisburg as their guide. Published in 2006, the hardback book delves into the history of the Diocese, beginning well before its establishment in 1868, and highlights its parishes, missions and people.
The Littles planned their visits by selecting a church or area to visit, and searching the parishes’ Mass schedules online in order to join in a liturgy if they could. Venturing from their home in the southwestern corner of the Diocese, they’d sometimes set out as early as 5 a.m., depending on their destination.
Specific experiences, sites and churches stand out in their memory, but the Littles wholeheartedly enjoyed every church they saw. “The most beautiful part was Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament at each church,” Genny said.
Among those that stand out: Mother Cabrini in Shamokin, with its display of saints’ relics. The Littles visited the church during Lent, and were welcomed by volunteers making the parish’s famous Easter egg confections.
At Our Lady of Fatima Mission in Jonestown, members of the congregation struck up conversation with the Littles after Mass, and invited the couple to an ice cream social.
And at Mary, Gate of Heaven in Myerstown, the parish custodian gave the Littles a remarkable tour of the church and its St. Gabriel Chapel, dedicated in 2013.
Other notable sites and experiences were the Scripture passages in the stained-glass windows at Sacred Heart of Jesus in Lewistown; the beauty of Corpus Christi in Chambersburg and Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in McSherrystown; and the pastoral land surrounding St. Catherine of Siena in Quarryville and St. Bernard in New Bloomfield.
The Littles said they also came to appreciate the history of the ethnic groups who built the churches and bring their culture to the Church today. They pointed out the German heritage of Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in York, and seeing the Vietnamese community worshiping at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament in Harrisburg and the Korean community at St. Peter Son in Enola.
“The ethnic churches were a new concept for Ron and me, because we grew up in Emmitsburg, Md., with the Sisters of Charity, the Mount, St. Anthony Shrine and St. Joseph Parish,” Genny said. “In some of the churches we visited, you could see the influence of the ethnic group that helped build the church. We have a better appreciation of the layout of the Diocese and why ethnic groups settled where they did, and their sacrifices and efforts to hand-on the faith.”
Growing up under the tutelage of the Daughters of Charity in Emmitsburg, the Littles know well of the Miraculous Medal, imprinted with a vision of the Blessed Mother as she appeared to St. Catherine Labouré when Catherine was a seminary sister
The Littles’ visit to St. Catherine Labouré Church in Harrisburg, near the completion of their pilgrimage, carried special significance as they visited its Shrine of the Miraculous Medal on June 13, 2019. It also happened to be the day that the relic of St. John Vianney’s heart was present for public veneration.
“That was an especially beautiful occasion for us,” Genny remarked. “We saw St. John Vianney’s heart, stayed for Mass, and then saw the relic from the hand of St. Catherine Labouré. That was special for both of us.”
The Littles completed their pilgrimage on Aug. 14, 2019, with a visit to Christ the King Mission in Benton – the northernmost church in the Diocese, some 160 miles from their home.
“It was appropriate to finish our journey there, since it is a mission like St. Luke’s,” Ron said.
“It was beautiful to see every church, and to take it all in,” he added. “It was unique to see towns with several churches, as well as newly-built churches and old ones. I would definitely encourage others to do it. Even if you don’t get to all of the churches in the Diocese, it’s worth seeing.”
As they look through the pages of the Highway of Missionaries and read the notes Genny took throughout the visit, the Littles say their journey has given them a deeper feeling of connectedness to the Diocese and its parishioners.
“Everywhere we went, we felt welcomed. We enjoyed the hospitality of the pastors we met, and the secretaries and custodians who welcomed us in and gave us tours,” Genny said.
“The experience has deepened my faith, and helped me to really understand that were are children of God and that we belong to the family that is the Diocese of Harrisburg. What happens in one location affects all of us,” she said.
“You get a sense of warmth of the people, no matter which churches you go to,” Ron remarked. “We might not think too much about the fact that we’re one big family, but we really are. That’s part of what I miss right now – I miss not seeing these people anymore. Yes, maybe we spent only a few minutes with them, but I felt like I’ve known them all my life because of their hospitality and our connection in the faith. We really are one family.”
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness