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Article: How the 'Airstream sisters' make a Eucharistic pilgrimage

Jack Figge

June 5, 2024 . 5:09 PM

This story has the makings of a top-rated TV sitcom.

Four religious sisters from the Daughters of Mary, Mother of Healing Love, along with a former Navy lieutenant and her dog, are traveling together for 1,000 miles over 65 days. 

They’re living out of an Airstream trailer hauled by a hulking GMC Denali pickup truck.

If the Lord didn’t make this story for television, surely he made it for The Pillar

The characters? 

(Cue theme music: Sister Act’s “If my sister is in trouble”)  

Mother Mary Maximilian Cote, DMML, who sleeps on the floor every night.

Sister Mary Fatima Pham, DMML, has been often reminded on the trip of the joy of community life.

Sister Theresa Marie Jude, DMML, who despite struggling to wake up in the morning is the group's jokester. 

Sister Miriam Christe Zore, DMML, who is learning to surrender her quiet time to be with her sisters around the clock.

Beth Ness is the handyman, driver, and problem-solver of the crew. 

And don’t forget Angus, Beth’s cairn terrier, the group’s faithful mascot. 

The group is driving together across the country, following the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage’s Seton Route from New Haven, Connecticut, to Indianapolis, Indiana, ahead of next month’s National Eucharistic Congress.  

This is not a trip for the faint of heart.

The sisters are driving across the Northeast in Beth’s bulking, brown GMC Denali, which they affectionately nicknamed the Terror of Demons.  

Behind the GMC, they haul a 35-foot Airstream trailer dubbed Regina Laude, in which they live.

They do their laundry in parking lots every night. Every time somebody rolls over in bed, the entire trailer shakes. But they go about their life on the road with joy, laughing when plans change, fuses blow, or when they experience the unpredictable “Holy Spirit moments,” which seem to come up often on pilgrimages.

Camper, Trailer, and Truck

Two months ago, the four sisters did not think they would be able to travel along the entire Seton route. 

When they tried to apply to be perpetual pilgrims, the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage said that Mother Maximilian and Sister Miriam Christe were too old — the cutoff age for official perpetual pilgrims was 29. 

But then they met Father Roger Landry, who is traveling the entire Seton route as the chaplain, at a parish mission. 

 When the sisters expressed their desire to attend the pilgrimage, Fr. Landry told the group that if they could find transportation and a place to stay, he would be thrilled to have them join the pilgrimage.  

The sisters were hesitant, not knowing if they would be able to pull the logistics together. 

But trusting in the Holy Spirit, they said yes. 

And thus began a series of small miracles that made the trek possible. 

“We weren't fazed when the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage said we couldn’t come. We said if it’s the Lord's will that we go on the pilgrimage, we will go, so we've been praying for it ever since,” Mother Maximilian told The Pillar. “By the end of the day that we had told Fr. Landry ‘yes,’ somebody had paid $300 for some good walking shoes, and somebody had offered to give us a camper, trailer, truck, and a driver.” 

But then the sisters' luck took a turn for the worse. 

Five days before Mother Maximilian began a silent retreat and three weeks before the sisters were supposed to launch their epic adventure, Mother received heartbreaking news.  

The truck broke down, and neither it nor the driver would be able to make the trip. 

“I made a novena to St. Joseph during that retreat, and I prayed to him, telling him to get me a donkey and somebody to pull it,” Mother Maximilian said. “I prayed, ‘Just like how you led Our Lady and Jesus to Bethlehem and Egypt, I need you to lead us to Indianapolis’.”

Her prayers were answered, at least somewhat: A few days after the novena ended, a man offered the sisters his truck for the entire two-month journey. 

But the sisters still did not have a driver.  

So Mother Maximilian and Sister Miriam Christie took it upon themselves to learn how to drive a truck and trailer. 

After watching some mostly unhelpful YouTube videos and taking a few classes, Mother Maximilian knew they needed help.  

“We learned a little bit, enough to think that we actually know something when we really don't,” Mother Maximilian said. 

So two weeks before the crew was due to depart, Mother Maximilian sent a worried text to everybody she knew, asking them to help her find a driver. 

Enter Beth. 

At first, Beth had no interest in making the pilgrimage to Indianapolis. She had only converted to the Catholic faith a year and a half ago, had just retired from her job at the shipyard, and was in the middle of building her new house. 

In other words, the timing was not ideal.  

So when a mutual friend forwarded Mother Maximilian’s plea for help, Beth told the friend that she did not think it was right. 

Two hours later, another friend forwarded her the same message.  

Again, Beth said no.  

The next morning, Beth went to adoration.

While she was praying, the parish priest, Fr. Paul Gousse, sent her a message explaining Mother Maximilian’s dilemma and reminded her of a prayer she frequently prays. 

“Every time I go to adoration, which is twice a week, I always ask God to show me what you want me to do,” Beth told The Pillar. “When this came up, I had completely forgotten that I was always asking that. And the words that Father Paul gave me reminded me of that prayer.”  

“My truck’s license plate says ‘YHWH 1st,” Beth continued. “When I walked outside adoration and I saw my license plate, I thought my decision was a no-brainer. I called my general contractor to see if he could finish the house for me, and he didn't hesitate to say yes.” 

“I immediately texted Mother and said, ‘You have me for the entire trip’.”  

And it is a good thing they have Beth - without her, the sisters say they would be helpless. 

“Beth was a lieutenant in the Navy; she's driven ships the size of two football fields; she’s an engineer, and so she understands electronics, fuses, and things like that,” Mother Maximilian said. 

“We don’t know electronics or fuses. We just know how to blow them.” 

Community Life To the Extreme

Bringing with her a life of experience and professionalism, Beth traded in a warship for an Airstream and a crew of stone cold sailors for a bubbly, joy-filled quarter of religious sisters.

That motley crew has proven to be the company that Beth never thought she needed. 

“I'm starving, starving for information” about the Catholic Church, Beth said. While she became a Catholic a little more than a year ago, she’s still learning much of the richness of the Catholic faith.

“I want to know about our traditions, about the Lord,” she said. “This has just been so fruitful for me. The Lord knew that I was the right person for this task and that I needed to come. These sisters are great. They're hilarious.” 

And so, the unlikely crew set out on their journey from the convent in New Hampshire to meet up with the perpetual pilgrims in New Haven. 

Then they began walking with Jesus through America's streets.

But traveling across the country in a trailer comes with its challenges, especially when the members of the group were largely new to camping.

A few days into the journey, Beth encountered a major problem. 

The trailer's septic tank was full, and she had no idea what to do with the contents.  

“None of us have ever camped before, but I know gray water and black water from being on ships and so forth, and you know how to get rid of it and whatnot when in the water,” Beth said. “But when you're on land, it's a little bit different, and I had no idea what to do.” 

(Pillar readers are invited to google the difference between gray water and black water at their own discretion.)

So, Beth began calling friends who informed her that she would need to find a dumpsite or somebody to come take care of it. 

She found one person, Frank, who said he would empty the tanks the following day for $350. 

 Not wanting to pay, she kept searching. 

 But the Lord came through. 

Frank called her back that afternoon and said that he did not know there was a group of sisters living out of the trailer. He offered to stop by that evening. 

“He took care of everything, and when we were cleaning up, I said, ‘Frank, what do I owe you?’ He said that it was free,” Beth said. “If that's not a blessing from heaven, I don’t know what is. My main concern was having a safe, clean place for these folks to stay. And it was taken care of.”  

In return for Beth’s generosity, the sisters try to take care of her any way they can, such as by making her coffee in the morning.  

“When Beth has her shower in the morning, we all go to get coffee, and so we started figuring out ways that we can serve Beth, and making her coffee is one of those small ways,” Sister Miriam Christie said. “We learn how to give and take for each other, not for our sake but to make things easier for other people.” 

“You can’t move when waiting for coffee because there's four people and [the walkway is] only one person wide,” Sister Miriam noted. “You first kind of stand there, and you pray to the Lord and thank Him for this beautiful opportunity to practice the virtue of patience.” 

So far, the entire pilgrimage has felt like a crash course in patience as the sisters and Beth adapt to living in tight quarters with one another. 

“Camper life can be difficult. They used to put Christians with animals to die in the Coliseum; now they stick them with each other,” Sister Mary Fatima jokingly told The Pillar.  

“I'm used to being a lot quieter and being alone a lot of the time at the convent,” Sister Miriam said. “It’s a lot of people crammed into a very small space. During the first couple of weeks, I was a little bit on edge at times as I got used to having that many people around me 24/7.”  

But the sisters told The Pillar, often, that they love all of the time they have together. They see this pilgrimage as an opportunity to live the communal life to the extreme. 

“I love community life like I just love being with my sisters…Yeah, it's difficult, but that's because the Christian life is a challenge,” Sister Mary Fatima told The Pillar. “Nurturing community life is never a waste, as you can always improve your community life. Everything about this Eucharistic pilgrimage has been about community.  

“I love being able to be with my sisters 24/7. To me, it's been so much fun.” 

Still, while they’re having fun, the sisters and Beth are also learning a lot about one another.

For example, everybody knows that Sister Theresa Marie is not a morning person. And despite what Sister Theresa Marie says, they know she is not a night owl.  

“I like to say that I'm more of a night person than a morning person, so it's slower for me to get going and be cheerful,” Sister Theresa Marie told The Pillar. “Some of them say I'm not a night person either, as I can get cranky.” 

“But it's really beautiful because, like Mother Maximilian was saying, we're very easygoing, and it has been so much fun to spend a lot of time together.”

Spilling out joy

This is not a vacation for the sisters, nor are they undertaking this trek for their individual benefit. 

They see their pilgrimage as an opportunity to serve the broader community and be witnesses to the joy of consecrated life.  

“So many people in so many dioceses have never seen women religious, and there's a generation that hasn't experienced the presence of women religious in the church,” Mother Maximilian said. “We just want to help restore, you know, the desire for young women to give themselves to the Lord in this way.”

The sisters' joy, and witness to the Gospel, have captivated a variety of people from all walks of life along the journey, Beth observed.

Everywhere the sisters go, they seem to have another divinely inspired encounter—a moment that affirms their call to be on this pilgrimage.  

Whether talking to people in the back of a procession or at a veterinarian clinic, those conversations make up the sisters’ ministry.

“One evening, a man invited us to have dinner and stay at his family’s house,” Mother Maximilian recounted. “We just had the most beautiful conversation and blessed time as we got to talk with his young daughter, who was 16 and is beginning to discern where to go to college. It was a unique experience. But there are a lot of little miracles like that that have been happening all along the way, like every time we turn around, there is another conversation that leaves us deeply moved.”  

One evening, Angus was bit by a much larger husky, leaving a sizable wound that needed stitches.  

The sisters piled into the Terror of Demons and drove to one of the few veterinarian clinics still open at late hours, which they described as another divinely inspired encounter. 

While sitting in the waiting room, two men came up to the sisters and began talking with them. 

At first, they thought nothing of it, but then the men explained that they were in a civil marriage and had just begun the in-vitro fertilization process with a surrogate mother.

During the conversation, the sisters began talking about the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage and how they were following along for 65 days. 

Both men were astounded and wanted to learn more. 

The sisters explained the Eucharist to them and invited them to learn more and even participate in a procession.  

Touched by the sisters' joy and love, the men said that they would look into attending and were interested in learning more about the Catholic faith. 

They said goodbye and left. 

When Beth went to pay, she learned that the two men had covered Angus’ vet bill out of gratitude for the sisters. 

“Angus entered into a brutal passion and suffered injury so that souls may be saved,” Mother jokingly told The Pillar as she recounted the story.

“These sisters that I am with just spill out joy. And that's because they love the Lord,” she continued. “There's nothing on my heart more than that people would open their hearts to the Lord. And I think that through our joy and witness as consecrated sisters, we are able to help people encounter the Lord in a unique way.”

Graces abound

Even though they are only three weeks into an eight-week journey, the Lord has already touched their hearts beyond the people they have encountered. Each sister and Beth shared that this has been one of the most powerful experiences they have undertaken. 

For Sister Mary Fatima, the pilgrimage has been a continuous reminder that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist and how that is evident in community life.  

“The National Eucharistic Pilgrimage has helped me to pinpoint our Lord and that he is truly present in the Eucharist,” Sister Mary Fatima said. “It has helped me remember that the reason why community life is so fulfilling is because every time we all go to Mass and receive communion, my Lord is sitting next to me. He is standing next to me because when we receive Holy Communion, there's tabernacles walking all around.”  

While they are traveling with the Lord for the entire trip, most people they encounter are only spending a short time on the pilgrimage. Watching these brief encounters has reminded the sisters not to grow complacent on their journey.  

“The danger in this whole thing is complacency, believing what we are doing is commonplace and thinking, 'Oh, another procession; we did that yesterday and for the last three weeks,” Sister Miriam Christe said. “But going to these parishes where they only have the pilgrimage there for 15 minutes and seeing how they pour out their hearts in their praise helps me to really remember how precious every second that we have with the Eucharist really is.”  

Mother Maximilian said that she has been struck by her encounters with clergy along the journey.

“What has impressed me is that with no priesthood, there would be no Eucharist,” she said. “Part of our charism is to support our priests, so what has touched me most is that we are so blessed to have met so many priests and bishops that have just touched my heart with their generosity and their warmth. It has just reminded me that we need to pray for them to stay strong.” 

For Sister Miriam Christie, journeying through the American Northeast has been a reminder of the universality of the Church.

“The beautiful thing has been to see how each parish receives the Lord and then walks with him to the next parish,” she reflected. “It's easy if it was just one parish in the procession, or one diocese. It becomes insane when you see parishes going to another parish and handing off Jesus, and then bishops going to other bishops and handing off Jesus. It is one continuous thing as the Eucharist heads across parish [and] diocese lines.” 

As for Beth, who has only been Catholic for a year and a half, the pilgrimage has imparted a deeper understanding of the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

“I've gained a deeper understanding of what it means that the Word becomes flesh,” Beth said. “I've read it, and we've talked about it, but especially this last week, my thoughts and my meditations about the Eucharist have become a lot more contemplative. I tend to pray that I am there with Jesus at the Last Supper as he's explaining. ‘This is my body, I'm giving up for you. And this is my blood, the new and everlasting covenant’.” 

‘Herding Cats’

Beth noted that the trip has also challenged her to grow in the virtue of patience, which is not a virtue she comes by naturally.

“I was in the Navy for almost 23 years. When I would tell somebody something to do, they would get up and do it. Then I worked at the shipyard for nine years after that, and I ran circles around those guys because I had a different work ethic than they did. But I had no patience, so I would go do something that they were not doing,” Beth shared. 

“But this whole trip, I have devoted all of my energies towards supporting these four people who are supporting the Lord's work. I'm here for them in whatever they need.”

But her commitment to the sisters doesn’t mean that she always finds her role easy.

“Often I feel like I am trying to herd cats, as they are always off somewhere else.” 

The sisters learned pretty quickly that they had better do as Beth says in order to stay on her good side. 

“Beth’s in charge. Do not get her upset; that's Rule Number One,” Mother Maximilian said.

“Do everything she says and add four squirts of espresso to her coffee, and she will be happy.”  

Rarely do members of the crew become upset or disheartened. Mother Maximilian calls the other sisters her “joyful butterflies” even when the living conditions are not ideal. 

Every night, they have to pull out the small washing machine to clean the one habit they each brought. And during the long processions, they often resort to consuming Gu Energy Gels, which deliver near-instant sugar hits to the bloodstream.

But the challenges and the exhaustion are worth it, for the many moments of community, ministry, and prayer.

Each night before bed, the sisters and Beth share the graces they’ve experienced that day. On the long car rides, they pray the liturgy of the hours or a rosary.

“This is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. It's a privilege to be here,” Sister Theresa Marie said.

“I am excited to be able to share the fruits of what I've seen the Lord do in the lives of those we've encountered on the way to Indianapolis when I head back to New Hampshire in July.”

But already, these sisters are leaving quite an impression - even on the other religious sisters they’ve encountered along the way.

“This is hilarious, just hilarious,” Sister Isabel, a Sister of Life, recounted after seeing photos of the DMML sisters doing their laundry. 

“They are crazy,” Sister Esther Marie Massad, DMML, told The Pillar while she was visiting the sisters for a day. 

“They are crazy for the Lord, but still crazy.” 


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