Meet 'Gregory the Pilgrim', a man who visited 150 shrines across the U.S.

Gregory Wietrzychowski at Radio Maria in Alexandria, Louisiana (Source: KALB)
Gregory Wietrzychowski at Radio Maria in Alexandria, Louisiana (Source: KALB)(KALB)
Published: Dec. 6, 2016 at 3:10 PM CST
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Meet “Gregory the Pilgrim”. His real name is Gregory Wietrzychowski.

“Watch your house key,” Gregory said with a smile, explaining how to pronounce his last name. “You say it really fast. Watch your house key.”

These days, he goes by “Gregory the Pilgrim”- a title well-earned. The last week of November 2016 wrapped up his two-year pilgrimage across the United States seeking shrines and holy places. And yes, most of the journey was on foot.

Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Gregory found himself living in Hawaii “just doing the Catholic thing” He would give bible studies, hospital visitation, and for work he would restore large statues.

“I was just searching some Catholic news on the internet,” Gregory said. “And I just happened to come across this interview by Mark Byerly. During this interview, he was telling about this pilgrimage that he was doing. He was going to 150 Catholic shrines…to reduce the radical evil in the world. In order to do that, you do something radically good.”

Gregory went on to explain that the pilgrimage was primarily a means to offer up the hardships, sufferings and sacrifices along the journey as a prayer to help repair the damages of sin in the world.

“I was feeling called to do it,” Gregory said. “This is the moment, you know? I think God was preparing me for this through my life. Now I’m not a young whipper-snapper! I started when I was 53 going on 54. Now, I’m 55 going on 56. But I had the faith.”

Gregory prayed about the journey and consulted with his spiritual director, who encouraged him to begin the pilgrimage. He began by making arrangements to fly to Clear Creek, a Benedictine monastery in Tulsa, Oklahoma for a two-week retreat. There, a priest named Fr. Scott Chemino gave him a special map to get him started. Gregory then followed some of Mark Byerly's route, but ultimately just followed his own GPS, wherever he felt called to go.

The rules of this pilgrimage were that he could not ask for money or a ride, but he could accept, if offered. He was allowed to beg for food, water and a place to pitch his tent. And while there aren’t exactly 150 shrines in the United States, holy places could be substituted such as monasteries, certain churches, and other holy areas.

The pilgrimage began in November 2014. Gregory was given some money for a bus ride to San Antonio. He carefully followed the map, going through Louisiana, to Florida, up the east coast, back to his home state of Wisconsin, over to the west coast, and finally back to Alexandria, Louisiana.

The last stop was at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral. Just as he was taking the last few steps up to the cathedral doors, he heard the bells ringing to signal the time to pray the Angelus, a special prayer to Mary said at noon.

“Providentially”, as Gregory often said. "Not a coincidence."

The entire pilgrimage was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. He would continually ask for her help along the way. There were times when he was feeling ill and he asked for her help. Somehow, he always managed to have food, a place to stay, and whatever help he needed along his journey. Gregory did fall very sick twice along the pilgrimage and was almost at the point of having to abandon his journey. But both times he made a full recovery and was able to complete the mission. He credits his healing to his Marian devotion and his faith.

“I think of her as Our Lady, Searcher of the Lost,” he said. “She searches for her lost children. And when she finds them, she holds onto them. If they do go away, it’s not too far. I ask her to protect me from sin and her enemies and adversaries. It’s a very important devotion because she keeps you in line on your spiritual pilgrimage she can help us to heaven. If you have faith in Christ and in Mary, she takes care of business.”

Looking back on his journey, Gregory said the pilgrimage has definitely changed him for the better.

“I’m going through a whirlwind right now!” Gregory said. “It’s just wonderful. I’m meeting all of these people and I’m able to share. I think this was the fruits of the pilgrimage. I can bring others closer to Mary. I think that’s what this whole pilgrimage was for: to give testimony to the powerful prayers…I’ve found myself praying for strangers I’ve met on the pilgrimage. People at the cash register when I was getting food, people who offered me money, who offered me a ride, the construction worker as I was walking along the highway that said ‘hi’.”

He also suggested that even a small mini-pilgrimage can be life-changing.

“To do a monastery walk, a pilgrimage, if you want to do something significant, it could be a two or three day walk,” he said. “Do a short walk in reparation. To repair the sins that have been done, that’s what reparation means. If you think you can deal with that, in prayer, I would suggest to do it, because it does reduce the radical evil in the world. It’s a saintly act, a holy act, when you deny yourself and imitate Christ. With those sufferings you’re going through, you’re actually doing that in partnership with Jesus Christ and his sufferings. It’s very powerful.”

Greg will be celebrating his birthday on December 8, a holy day in the Catholic Church known as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. He next plans to travel back to Wisconsin to discern a vocation with a Franciscan order, possibly as a monk or a brother.