Seminarians from New York stop in Wilmington as part of 1,400-mile bike ride to promote vocations
WILMINGTON — After more than three weeks on the road, five priests and seminarians bicycling their way from St. Augustine, Fla., to New York arrived in Wilmington June 8 to students cheering wildly and ringing cowbells. To the five men, the sounds were proof that what they set out to do was having its intended effect.
“Riding into a church, St. Elizabeth has been by far the best. You guys are clearly pro-vocations,” said Stephen Rooney, 20, a seminarian with the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y.
Rooney came up with the idea of a marathon bicycle ride to promote vocations after a trip last year from Providence, R.I., to San Francisco to raise money and awareness for affordable housing.
“I was struggling with my prayer life, which took a toll on me in every way in life,” he said. “I was really struggling as a person at that time. The other aspect was that I saw the lack of priests across the country. That really startled me. I think the Holy Spirit inspired me to bike across the country again, maybe the East Coast this year, this time for vocations.”
He and the others along for the ride include Father Joe Fitzgerald, vocations director in Rockville Centre; Father Marc Swartvagher, academic dean of Cathedral Seminary in New York; and fellow seminarians Steven Diaz, who is studying for the Archdiocese of New York, and Dominik Wegiel, from Rockville Centre. They were joined by a support staff of two.
As they arrived on a sunny morning at St. Elizabeth, the riders high-fived students, who quickly surrounded them. Father Fitzgerald led the group in prayer, and he and the others mixed with the youngsters to answer questions about the ride and their lives. Rooney, for example, talked eagerly with a group of students before heading across the street to Canby Park to play football with them.
Father Fitzgerald, a member of the 1996 United States Olympic handball team, said the ride has been a very positive experience. The most difficult terrain, he said, was in Virginia, where they ran into hills they didn’t anticipate.
“It’s been a wonderful, wonderful trip. It’s been an incredible experience, especially the encounters with the people, the radical hospitality, the greetings. Even today, having St. Elizabeth School out here to meet us, was really incredible,” he said.
The 1,400-mile trip, in addition to raising awareness of vocations, has given Father Fitzgerald a boost. “Just … seeing these young men and their love for the Lord has been a renewal for me in my priesthood.”
During the trip, they have said Mass everywhere from cathedrals to hotel rooms. At St. Elizabeth, they stayed in the former convent. Bishop Malooly was on hand to greet and bless them, and two Wilmington seminarians were there as well. This was their second day in the Wilmington diocese; they rode from Baltimore to Childs, Md., on June 7. Father Fitzgerald was able to pray at the grave of an uncle who was an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales.
Rooney said most Catholics choose the married life, and that’s great because families are the source for candidates for priesthood and religious life. He just wanted to talk to young people and “open their heart to God’s call. We desperately need priests in this country.”
After leaving St. Elizabeth on June 9, the group had a few short days remaining, with just one ride of more than 50 miles – from Trenton to Newark, N.J. Reactions like that at St. Elizabeth have been sustaining.
“The kids were stoked, and it put joy in all of our hearts,” Rooney said.