By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
A parishioner at the Cathedral of St. Peter is criss-crossing southern Illinois in search of brother- and sisterly communion.
For three years, Pete Joergensen has been attending Mass at churches throughout the diocese. His eventual goal: to celebrate the Eucharist in every parish in the Diocese of Belleville.
He says his pilgrimage has helped him fill the hole in his life caused by the death of his wife Virginia, while giving him a new appreciation for the Catholic community in which he lives.
“I’ve always wondered about these little towns throughout the state,” Joergensen says. “And I thought, these are my family, my brothers and sisters. I want to meet them.”
So far, he’s visited 79 parishes – he only counts a church as an official visit if he’s attended Mass there.
The task Joergensen has set for himself is a daunting one – the furthest church from his home base at the Cathedral of St. Peter is St. Joseph Parish in Elizabethtown, a distance of 164 miles and two hours and 41 minutes. “I’m driving on all these little back roads,” Joergensen says. “Once, on the way to Renault, my Garmin (GPS device) got lost.”
For the farthest churches, he drives an RV down beforehand and spends the night. He may attend multiple Masses in a weekend, sometimes following a priest from church to church as the priest tends to a far-flung flock.
At each church, he takes care to position himself outside before Mass, shaking hands and meeting people.
“Eventually, people ask, ‘Who is this guy?’ and I let them know, ‘I’m your family, you’re my brothers and sisters in Christ.’”
Sometimes, he’s invited by the priest to speak about his pilgrimage to the congregation. Joergensen says he encourages the congregations to appreciate their pastors – invite them to dinner, adopt them into their families. Joergensen jokes that after revealing to one parish that their priest enjoyed lemon desserts, the priest was inundated with pies and cakes and cookies.
Along his journey, he has developed a great appreciation for Catholic life in the small rural parishes that make up much of the diocese.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the spirituality and holiness I’ve found at these small churches,” Joergensen says. “There’s always a core group in each parish who take on the responsibility of keeping the parish going.
“I think about the faith in these farm communities – how much faith it takes to put a seed in the ground and hope,” he says.
He hears all the stories about the histories of the parishes.
When he met with parishioners at St. Joseph in Elizabethtown they proudly told him about their German ancestors who had started the church. In Tipton, parishioners revealed that the name of their community came from “Tipperary town,” in the settlers’ native Ireland, whose green hills looked so similar to their new home.
Joergensen hangs around after Mass to talk to everyone, and visits the cemeteries to learn even more about their histories.
In 2018, he arrived at St. Joseph Church in Equality as the parish held its last Mass before closing. “It was packed,” he says. “Everybody was telling me about how their child was baptized there, they were married there. There were lots of tears, and I got to feel that pain.”
In fact, several of the original parishes on his list closed before he had the chance to visit. He still has more than 20 to go. “I plan to get to them all,” he says.
This quest is only one part of 78-year-old Joergensen’s busy life of faith and service. Despite his heavy travel schedule, he’s still a fixture at the Cathedral, attending the 6:45 a.m. Mass every weekday, and often serving at the altar.
In his wife’s final years, he cooked for her every day, and he decided to take culinary lessons at SWIC after she died. Now certified by the American Culinary Association, he dons chef’s whites each Saturday to cook in the Notre Dame Academy’s kitchens for the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s breakfast for the needy and lonely.
He helps teach the RCIA class for Belleville-area parishes. As Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus Council #1028, Joergensen asked for and received funding to take priests out to dinner regularly to thank them for their service.
And bit by bit, parish by parish, Joergensen works his way around southern Illinois, crossing churches off his list and spreading his own brand of Catholic fellowship.
“I don’t have a certain time frame, but I will finish it,” he says. “There are still people out there and I want to meet them.”