UNIONTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Pilgrims who attended the 79th annual Pilgrimage to Our Lady of Perpetual Help at Mount St. Macrina near Uniontown this Labor Day weekend felt their spirits lifted and enjoyed taking part in a tradition their families have enjoyed for decades.
"You definitely leave here a better person," said Anna Tombazzi, 18, of Cleveland. "It renews you, and if you are slipping away from God or a lifestyle or you find yourself impatient — you come back here and say 'This is what I want. This is important.'"
Tom Dirda, 64, of Robinson Township, Pa., noted, "It's spiritual. You thank the good Lord for what he's given you. . And it's tradition. We've been coming all our lives. It makes you feel good."
The annual pilgrimage is hosted by the Sisters of St. Basil the Great and conducted under the patronage of the Byzantine Catholic Metropolitan Church of Pittsburgh. Metropolitan Archbishop William C. Skurla of the archeparchy of Pittsburgh and Sister Seraphim Olsafsky, provincial of the Sisters of St. Basil, are pilgrimage directors.
Several pilgrims were interviewed throughout the grounds Sunday afternoon before the start of 4 p.m. Hierarchical Divine Liturgy celebrated by Bishop John Pazak of Canada at the Mother of God Shrine. Pilgrims filled the grounds Sunday, always the busiest day of the pilgrimage.
Throughout the weekend, pilgrims had opportunities to attend Divine Liturgies, confession, anointing of the sick, processions and special services as well as to visit shrines and walk the beautiful grounds. In addition, they were able to purchase items at the religious gift shop and special cookies called medovniki at the Trinity Center. Many have relatives who are buried at Mount St. Macrina Cemetery.
Tom Dirda's brother John Dirda of Northfield, Ohio, and his wife, Mary Dirda, sat under a canopy with other pilgrims, recalling the activities of the weekend. They are natives of the area and talked about years of coming here with family members, many of whom helped with preparations for pilgrimage.
Asked what they gained from the pilgrimage this year, John Dirda said, "You feel satisfied because you want to do it."
Mary Dirda noted, "I wouldn't want to miss it."
The pilgrimage also included special activities for teenagers and children that were coordinated this year by catechists from Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in Annandale, Va., part of the Eparchy of Passaic, N.J.
Tombazzi spoke in the lower level of the prayer garden where events for the teenagers where held, including special presentations and discussions about faith geared especially to them.
Tombazzi, who has attended the pilgrimage all her life, said, "It takes you away from the world's modern influences. Everybody comes here to grow in their relationship with God. And it's good to have people to relate to."
Mary Ellen Kepick and Marlene McCracken, who coordinated the pilgrimages for the teenagers and children, were also in the prayer garden where they set up discussion groups this weekend for teenagers to talk among themselves and with seminarians about religion.
"It's a good experience for them, and they come back every year," said McCracken. "Although we're catechists in our church, now we get to experience this with youths from all over the country. You feel re-energized."
Kepick said, "You just feel so good about the kids and listening to them talk about God and how they relate. It makes you think there's hope for the world."
Helen Wegman, another volunteer from Epiphany of Our Lord, was overseeing efforts in the children's tent where the youngest pilgrims spent the weekend making icons and prayer ropes called chotki.
"This is an opportunity to connect with the next generation, to pass on our beliefs and traditions and to help people feel a part of our Slovak/Ukrainian/Carpathian-Rusyn heritage," said Wegman, who added, "It's really exhilarating to see the kids engaged. They relate so well at this age to the strengths of Eastern Christian values and beliefs."
Yuliya Lutsyk, 9, of Chicago, took a break from her craft to explain this was her first time at the pilgrimage and said, "It's nice here."
She added, "You feel closer to God. You feel safer."
Headed toward the House of Prayer where he would be a cross bearer in the afternoon procession was John Sedlak of Clifton, N.J., a member of St. Michael Byzantine Catholic Cathedral in Passaic. This was his first time at the pilgrimage.
He said of the experience, "You drain yourself and you cleanse yourself of negatives on the inside, and then you build yourself up spiritually from the heart. That's the foundation. Step by step, you fill yourself with peace. And interacting with the clergy, the sisters and people from different parts of the country, you find out how much you are alike. Altogether, it provides strength for us spiritually, emotionally and mentally."
The procession, which featured the Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, traveled from the House of Prayer to the Mother of God Shrine for the 4 p.m. Divine Liturgy that attracted several hundred pilgrims. They filled the benches and then took places on the small hillside and road where they sat on camp chairs and lawn chairs they brought with them.
The air was humid, and light rain drizzled on and off at the beginning of the liturgy but eventually stopped, and the sun shone brightly on the pilgrimage, which used the theme "Theotokos, Steadfast Foundation of Faith."
In his sermon, Pazak talked about Mary, calling her "that humble person who recognized who God is" and said, "We need to look at her example. She shows us how to come to her son."
Olsafsky addressed the pilgrims with words of gratitude at the end of the liturgy, saying, "Your presence lights up this mount, and the shadow casts a peaceful glow over Mount St. Macrina throughout the year."
The closing of the pilgrimage took place following the 7:30 p.m. candlelight procession. A 9:30 a.m. Divine Liturgy was to be held Monday for the Sisters of St. Basil and any pilgrims still on the ground.
Information from: Herald-Standard, http://www.heraldstandard.com/