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The Rev. John Mennell of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and his wife, the Rev. Sonia Waters, went on a 15-week pilgrimage last fall carrying nothing but backpacks, each weighing about 15 pounds, and walking 10 to 20 miles a day.

They were on sabbatical from August through October. Mennell was about six years overdue for his, having been at St. Luke’s for 11 years. “Clergy typically take sabbatical every five to seven years to refresh and renew spiritually,” Mennell said.

“It energized me,” he said of the sabbatical. “I was really excited to come back and I loved coming back.”

The rector embarked on a domestic and international trip, which included Notre Dame Trail Pilgrimage in Indiana, the Minnesota State Fair, Colorado for a conference, then Nicaragua. He spent most of his time in Camino de Santiago in Spain, then briefly stopped in Amsterdam and Iceland before returning home.

On his way to Notre Dame, Mennell was able to change course to visit Hopkinsville, Kentucky, to view the total eclipse on Aug. 21. “It’s the point of the greatest eclipse, 2 minutes and 38 seconds, it was amazing,” he said. His trip in Spain began with a visit to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

Mennell organized what he described as a “practice run” for the trip two years ago, traveling six days from the Delaware River to the Hudson River. On average, Mennell said, he and his wife would walk 12 to 15 miles a day on the pilgrimage. “Some grueling days were close to 20 miles, some were less than 10,” he said. “It set up this interesting rhythm of life.”

Rev. John Mennell
Parque Natural de Oyambre, San Vicente de la Barquera, Cantabria, Spain. COURTESY THE REV. JOHN MENNELL

Their journey in Spain was a hike through El Camino de Santiago, which translates to the way of St. James. “Camino de Santiago is one of the three great pilgrimage sites in Christianity, behind Rome and Jerusalem,” Mennell said. “It all starts because James, one of the apostles, is buried there. Since the ninth century people have been making the pilgrimage there. It’s amazing, stunningly beautiful. It is a pilgrimage, the idea of getting outside yourself and suffering a little on the way, turning yourself toward God.”

In Spain, Mennell “stopped to smell the roses.”

“One day I decided to take photos along the way, of a lot of flowers blooming on the roadside,” he said. “I took pictures of everything blooming; 75 different flowers. Small things you walk by and wouldn’t notice.”

And, he said, he and his wife met many people on the journey: “Along the main communal routes was great hospitality. You see goodness in other people and willingness to help out.

“Everybody is on their own individual journey but we are on it together and it’s an interesting symbol of life in general.”

Freedom was the biggest lesson that came from the sabbatical. “If prayer is freedom, stuff is bondage,” Mennell said. “Our answer to everything is to get more stuff. Everything I carried was 15 pounds and it was always enough except when it was too much. I probably could have taken less.”

He added: “We spent a lot of time in prayer while we were walking. Jesus teaches us again and again that part of what we are supposed to do is pray. When you are in prayer, there is nothing more important that you can be doing. It is freeing to be doing what you are supposed to be doing and nothing else. I always knew it was important but I never knew it was freedom.”

To view Mennell’s daily journal of his pilgrimage visit

Rev. John Mennell

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
73 S. Fullerton Ave.

Sundays at 8 a.m.— Said Eucharist
Sundays at 9 a.m.— A 30-minute worship service for children from 2 to 7 years old.
Sundays at 10 a.m.— Communion and Music
Wednesdays at 7 p.m.— Service and Healing Prayer

Congregation size: 750 members,
Average Sunday attendance: 200
About 150 church school students

Toni’s Kitchen and Second Time Around Shop are also located at the church.