An Okotokian completed the trip of a lifetime last week.
On July 17, 77-year-old John Stitsen departed for Edmonton on an electric mobility scooter, intending to arrive in time for Pope Francis’ visit to the province.
The trip held personal significance to Stitsen in a few ways, namely his late wife’s connection to the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, having volunteered at the church for several years.
Ultimately, he made it a day early and attended two masses, one of them being the pope’s mass at Commonwealth Stadium.
Stitsen says the journey impacted him in ways he’s still discovering.
“The joy of these kinds of journeys is not that you set out to do something and you get it done, the joy is the people you get to meet along the way, and some of them are wonderful, innocent, straightforward, loving souls. Once you meet them, you wish you’d met them 100 years before.”
The first few day's worth of travel were stifled by the scooter’s battery, which wasn’t getting him the mileage he had anticipated.
Luckily, he was able to find some help.
“There’s a guy in Red Deer called Battery Boss. Took my bike apart, showed me everything so I had a rudimentary understanding of what the bike is all about, closed it up, and charged it up for me. I don’t know what he did to it, but it doubled what I was able to do before.”
He also recalls sharing a particular connection with someone soon after arriving in Edmonton.
“I ran into a young lady who had recently lost her husband five or six months ago. The grieving part of my pilgrimage was, after 25 years, carrying my wife’s ashes with me on the trip up to gently find a balance in that particular process for myself. I guess she was in a similar situation, though in a much shorter period of time. She was a truly exceptional lady, wonderfully spiritual, just a really, really great friend.
“Never got her last name but her first names are Martina-Theresa. Theresa being the name of my wife, it kind of worked out. If there was an unbelievable silver lining in this process, it was getting to meet her and having her advocate for me as we maneuvered through the three days of being there.”
His good friend of over 50 years Rod Walker rode with him for the whole journey.
“He was my sounding board for all the emotions I went through, not all of them being gentle and polite, or caring, or loving. We survived and on our trip back he shared with me that he’d been on a pilgrimage of his own.”
Stitsen was able to attend a mass at the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, where two members of the congregation were presented with blankets for their work on the weekend’s events amid the papal visit.
John, who was sat in the front row, found himself draped in one of those two blankets after Father Mark Blom introduced him and his story to the congregation.
He describes a warmth at that moment that he’d longed for many years.
“I looked out and in a whole brand new different way, saw a group of many folks expressing a sense of joy and a sense of love that I’d never felt.”
On Tuesday, July 26, he and Rod attended the pope’s mass at Commonwealth Stadium, and after some help from some kind strangers, he was able to enter the stadium on his scooter.
The experience, says John, was overpowering.
“The impactful emotion and love the pope was able to exude… no words. No words.”
For Stitsen, the trip was overwhelmingly profound.
“For somebody who had promised himself he was never going to grow up, in two weeks' time, I grew up. I haven’t figured out exactly what that means yet, but I have grown up. The approach, the understanding, the, if I might say, wisdom is gradually coming through in how I address myself, how I address what I do, and how I address the folks that become part of my life.”