A sign describes the historic background of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Chapel in Flagstaff. (Jeff Grant/CATHOLIC SUN)

ST. GEORGE, Utah — As our tour bus rolled out of the still mostly darkened parking lot of Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted told us to “be prepared for whatever God has to show you.”

This pilgrimage to Utah, the third such trip to another part of the Western United States in as many years, was part of God’s plan for each of our lives, and we were urged to allow His Spirit to speak to us, allowing us to experience Him and draw closer to Our Lord.

“God is behind everything that is involved,” the bishop said.

The message to the 45 of us was to be open. Learn, and be ready for the unexpected.

“I try to have no expectations. That’s what I did last time, and it was amazing. You have your heart open to what God has planned. I was able to get closer to God,” explained Nikki Salgado. The 28-yer-old Ss. Simon and Jude parishioner took part in the Friends of the Cathedral’s first pilgrimage in 2016 to New Mexico. The trip took members to sites signifcant to the history of the Franciscan order, which first evangelized the area.

The current excursion is taking about 45 pilgrims to historic and religious sites throughout Utah, from Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park in the southwestern part of the state to the Cathedral of the Madeleine, the Carmelite Monastary and the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. There are also stops in Flagstaff before and after the visit to Utah.

The exterior of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Chapel in Flagstaff March 17. The sections in pink are severely deteriorating. (Jeff Grant/CATHOLIC SUN)

An historic church with an uncertain future

It was the first of these sites — the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Chapel — where we encountered one of those experiences Bishop Olmsted told us to be open to.

Built in 1929 — construction began a month before the October stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression — the church’s pink decorative stone on its exterior includes volcanic material that is contributing to its accelerated deterioration, according to Roberta Wallace, coordinator of an unfolding effort to preserve the building.

Over the years, the material’s contact with precipitation has created an expanding gel that is breaking the decorative concrete apart, explained Wallace, whose great grandfather joined the effort in building the church. Replacement, rather than treating the concrete containing the material, is the best longterm solution, Wallace said. And because of the extent of the deterioration, along with other considerations such as repairing the roof and restoring the stained-glass windows, “We have essentially one shot to do this.”

“It would be a tragedy [to lose the church]; I can’t imagine downtown Flagstaff without it,” she said, fighting back tears. “I was raised in this parish and baptized here, my mother was married here, I was married here; we are fourth generation.”

My fellow pilgrims and I were struck by the story as well as her emotion; a number of us offering prayers and encouragement as we departed.

The images of the decaying pink concrete on the church’s bell tower still fresh in our minds, we sat down for a quick lunch downtown, then boarded our bus for the six-hour ride to St. George, Utah, where we spent the night.

A day on the road and God’s majesty in the rocks

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted delivers reflects on the life and witness of St. Patrick in his Homily homily during Mass at the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Chapel Church of the Nativity of the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary in in Flagstaff Saturday, March 17. (Jeff Grant/CATHOLIC SUN)

As we traveled to St. George, we were reminded that winter is still very much present, both on the calendar and in the atmosphere. The sky gradually filled with clouds, and the sub-45-degree temperatures that greeted us in Flagstaff continued.

I visited with some of my co-travelers during this, the longest portion of straight travel.

Andy Groft, my seatmate and a Ss. Simon and Judeparishioner , had a special role on this trip.
“They [the parish] asked a few of us if we’d like to come to sing. I kind of have a job here.”

During Mass at the Nativity Chapel, we were treated to Groft’s talents as his a capella voice led us in the musical portions of the liturgy.

Sharon Sharp, a choir member from St. Thomas More in Glendale — my parish — is on her first pilgrimage with the Friends of the Cathedral.

“I thought it would be a good opportunity to travel, and it seems appropriate during Lent,” she said.

Salgado’s mother, Elizabeth, is looking forward to hearing from the Holy Spirit.

“I learned on the first trip to trust,” she said, referring to her initial pilgrimage. She also attended the 2016 trip to New Mexico.

After collecting some thoughts, a fellow pilgrim made it easier for me to write, lending a pillow to place under my laptop, allowing me to withstand the frequent bumps and jostles while we traveled the two-lane highway in the Marble Canyon area in far northern Arizona.

As I studied the multi-colored layers of rock rising from the canyon floor, I was struck by God’s power and authority, and how we can encounter Him, as Romans 1 tells us, through creation. I was reminded that He knows every inch of the land He made — spoke into existence — along with the rest of the universe. Hours before, I had studied the hand-blown, stained glass Gothic-style windows back at the church in Flagstaff and thought, “God knows each of these panes’ intricate detail, and knows every hair on the head of every person who worked on them.” How could we not fall on our knees in awe, speechless perhaps, when we finally meet Him face-to-face?