HAMMOND | A river of mostly Polish Catholic pilgrims, including priests in ankle-length cassocks and baseball caps, flowed down Hohman Avenue Saturday afternoon.
Pictures of Pope John Paul II bobbed above the surging, singing crowd. Whistles buzzed and pilgrims prayed as they walked en masse down the middle of the street.
They walked in sandals and sneakers and high-end hiking boots, with floppy hats to shield them from the sun. They wore yellow scarves and religious pins. They hoisted banners, Polish flags and pictures of St. Mary, an important figure in the Catholic faith. They sang along with hymns that blared from the speakers of support vans.
Strollers lined the entire length of Hohman Avenue late Saturday afternoon after marchers mobilized following a brief rest at Harrison Park in Hammond, where they stretched, slapped their sore calves and sprawled out in any shade they could find. They made their way to the Carmelite Monastery, where they camped out Saturday night.
An estimated 5,000 pilgrims — many immigrants who speak Polish as a first language or first-generation Polish-Americans — made their annual 33-mile journey on foot between a South Side Catholic Church and the Our Lady of Czestochowa Shrine in Merrillville. They embarked on the two-day walk from St. Michael Catholic Church, passing through Hammond and Munster on Saturday while on their way to an icon of the Black Madonna, a longtime symbol of Poland that's believed to have healing powers.
Pilgrims have visited a painting of the Black Madonna in Czestochowa, Poland, for hundreds of years. The Catholic tradition precedes the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which will be observed on Friday.
The long walk is so grueling that many pilgrims spent most of Saturday's break at Harrison Park lying motionless on the ground. But faith prodded them on, said Chicago resident Kinga Ciez, who has walked with her family for the last three years.
"If you believe in God and that you'll get there, you'll get there," she said.
Patrick Grabowski has been marching in the 27-year-old procession — a major event for the Chicago area's Polish community — for four years. He says his legs get really sore but he's learned to bring enough supplies, such as extra socks to change into during breaks. He said the long, tiring walk helps him feel closer to God.
"You feel good about yourself, that you completed the whole journey," Grabowski said.
Robert Sokolowski drove an hour down from the north Chicago suburbs after first hearing of the pilgrimage a few days ago because he wanted his young son Ben to have a spiritual experience. Many of the marchers bought their children, often younger kids in strollers.
"I thought it would be good for him to do something spiritual, having him hear people singing religious songs and, you know, something that people join together to do," he said. "It's under Pope (John Paul II) ... our pope died, but he was our hero and it's under his name, this whole thing. It's a beautiful day. You're out with strangers, but we run into so many people we know."
Marching for such a long distance forces pilgrims to be contemplative, Sokolowski said.
"You reflect on life, what's important," he said. "You have to give something to get something back."