Pilgrims often scoop dirt from a small hole in the floor of the Shrine of Our Lord of Esquipulas in Chimayo, N.M. (Courtesy roadsideamerica.com via CNS)
Pilgrims often scoop dirt from a small hole in the floor of the Shrine of Our Lord of Esquipulas in Chimayo, N.M. (Courtesy roadsideamerica.com via CNS)
A pilgrimage offers Catholics a chance to work on their faith and North America has scores of opportunities to teach, inspire and renew.

With COVID cases down and travel restrictions easing, this summer might be the next chance to try a pilgrimage. Before setting out on your pilgrimage, be sure to check each location’s website for the latest Mass times, operating hours and restrictions.

California Mission Trail

California’s El Camino Real (The Royal Road) was named to honor the Spanish monarchy but it was a higher kingdom that called Franciscan Father Junipero Serra to build 21 missions along the route stretching from San Diego to Sonoma. While a pilgrim could walk the 600-mile trail in about two months, bicycling or driving might be the more practical way to go. Much of El Camino Real has evolved into Highway 101, making for a very civilized journey. Even visiting just one section of the trail would be rewarding.

Father Serra friar built the missions to spread Christianity among Indigenous peoples starting in 1769. Today, many missions are still active parish churches, some with museums attached. At San Diego Alcalá, the first mission, Mass is celebrated in the 209-year-old church every morning except Saturday and every evening of the week.

Farther up the coastline in Oceanside is Mission San Luis Rey, often called the “King of the Missions” for its architectural beauty and its 56 acres of peaceful and inspirational surroundings. Inside the hand-carved church doors, visitors can see the original, hammered-copper baptismal font which was made by Native Americans. The retreat center is available for individuals and spiritual direction is offered by appointment.

In the Bay Area sits the first California mission named for a woman, Mission Santa Clara de Asís. It was founded by the order of the Poor Clares and then turned over to the Jesuits in 1851. The Jesuits later opened what would become Santa Clara University, the first institution of higher learning in California.





St. Peregrine Cancer Shrine – Mesa, Arizona

A diagnosis of cancer can produce emotions ranging from fear to anger to sadness. The St. Peregrine Cancer Shrine offers “a sanctuary for spiritual healing and emotional peace,” according to its mission statement. The patron saint of cancer patients, St. Peregrine Lazosi, was born in Italy in 1260. After defying the church in his youth, he received a vision of Mary and became an inspiring and effective Servite friar. Sickened by cancer and awaiting surgery to amputate his foot, St. Peregrine spent the night praying. The next morning, his foot was completely cured. A relic of St. Peregrine, a bone fragment, is kept at the Arizona shrine.

Dedicated in 2009, the shrine has a perpetual adoration chapel, with the Eucharist exposed 24 hours each day of the week. At least two adorers must be present at all times. Pilgrims can register for time slots in person or by emailing adoration@ctk-catholic.org.

A team of volunteers knits, crochets and quilts prayer shawls and lap blankets for cancer patients. Each creation is prayed over and touched by the relic of St. Peregrine being mailed out. The shrine also features a wailing wall where prayers can be written on pieces of paper and wedged into the cracks.

The Grotto in Portland has its own small St. Peregrine shrine.


Santuario de Chimayo – Chimayo New Mexico

The Shrine of Chimayo in northern New Mexico is often called the Lourdes of America and in pre-pandemic times attracted as many as 300,000 pilgrims each year.

On Good Friday in 1810, Don Bernardo Abeyt was praying in the hills near here when he saw a light coming from the valley. When he investigated the glowing ground, he dug into the dirt discovering a wooden crucifix, about five feet tall. Don Bernardo and fellow worshipers alerted the local pastor, and the group carried the crucifix back to their church in Santa Cruz. The next day, however, they discovered the crucifix was gone. Somehow it had returned to the original site. Don Bernardo and his friends carried it away again, but the crucifix returned to the original site once more. Eventually they figured out that God wanted the crucifix to remain at Chimayo.

New Mexico is home to a number of inspiring churches. About 35 miles to the south in Santa Fe is the oldest church structure in the continental United States. San Miguel Chapel was constructed more than 400 years ago. The original adobe walls and altar were built by Tlaxcalan Indians from Mexico under the direction of Franciscan friars around 1610. The chapel only survives thanks to centuries of repair and restoration work that continues to this day. To protect the buildings, mud plastering must be applied to the bases and tops of outside walls every spring and fall.



St. Louis Cathedral – New Orleans, Louisiana

In the heart of the French Quarter stands the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States, the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France. Since the city’s founding more than 300 years ago, three churches have existed on this site. Now its triple steeples rise above the manicured Jackson Square, which almost touches the Mississippi River. In 1964 Pope Paul VI designated the cathedral as a minor basilica. The 1987 visit by St. John Paul II is memorialized by a plaque positioned between flagstones in front of the cathedral proclaiming the area "Place Jean Paul Deux." The interior features stained glass windows and Rococo-style paintings and a gilded altar.

A four-block walk down Chartres Street leads to the Old Ursuline Convent, the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley and an excellent example of French colonial architecture. Besides serving as a convent for the Ursuline nuns the structure has been a school, an archbishop's residence, the archdiocesan central office and even a meeting place for the Louisiana Legislature.


Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception – Washington, D.C.

The largest Roman Catholic church in the United States — one of the ten largest in the world — inspires the soul with majestic architecture and stunning art. The nation’s church can accommodate 10,000 worshipers at a time and has been visited by St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis, St. Mother Teresa and one million visitors each year. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has designated the basilica a pilgrimage church.

Construction began in 1920 and was not finished until 2017. The Romanesque-Byzantine style symbolizes the faith and love of the United States for its patroness, the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title of the Immaculate Conception.

One-hour tours include chapels on the crypt level and the great upper church, the history of the shrine, the architecture and artwork. Mosaics that span the chapel domes have been described as magnificent. The artistic embellishment of the basilica, both inside and out, is in keeping with the building’s design. The exterior of the basilica contains both heroic size figures of saints and finely sculpted features and archways.


Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe – Mexico City

With nearly 10 million visitors each year, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is second only to the Vatican as the world’s most visited Catholic site. It was here in 1531 that Mary appeared to Juan Diego and asked him to build a chapel in her honor. His bishop doubted the story until Juan returned and presented a cloak miraculously imprinted with the Virgin’s image. Many in the area were healed from their sicknesses and injuries and pilgrims have ventured to the site ever since.

A chapel was built and almost two centuries later became part of a larger and more ornate basilica. The current basilica, which can accommodate 10,000 people, was completed on the same site in 1974 and is where St. Juan Diego’s cloak is now displayed. There are nine chapels on the upper floor and ten more on the lower floor.

Guided tours tell the story of the many miracles associated with Our Lady of Guadalupe and explain the soaring architecture and sacred art. Masses are celebrated several times each day and baptisms can be scheduled any day of the week. The exposition of the Blessed Sacrament occurs daily in the Old Basilica.


St. Joseph Oratory – Montreal, Quebec

Canonized in 2009, St. André Bessette of Montreal now lies in the main chapel of St. Joseph’s Oratory. When the humble Holy Cross brother died in 1937, a million people passed by his coffin. The massive structure is a minor basilica and national shrine that overlooks the city and can be seen from miles away.

Brother André had a special devotion to St. Joseph and when visiting the sick would pray for the saint’s intervention. Many claimed to have been cured thanks to Brother André and St. Joseph, but André never took credit and instead began a campaign to build a chapel to honor the saint. A small chapel was built in 1904, followed by construction and expansion of the basilica that stands today. The oratory is currently in the midst of a major development project that aims to increase access and create new visitor experiences.

The oratory welcomes pilgrims and offers a schedule of spiritual devotions including the rosary, adoration and Mass. The shrine’s website directs travelers to travel and accommodations information as well.

Montreal is rich with splendid churches to visit. Mark Twain famously observed, “This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.” Happily there are plenty of unbroken stained glass windows there for the seeing.