A powerful pilgrimage touched the hearts of Lasallian Volunteers (LVs) and others as they more deeply connected with the story of Brother James Miller, FSC, a Wisconsin-born De La Salle Christian Brother who was shot and killed February 13, 1982, while serving in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. In November 2018, Pope Francis approved a decree recognizing that Brother James died as a martyr. Brother James will be beatified on December 7, 2019, in Huehuetenango.
Ahead of the beatification, the pilgrimage was an opportunity to celebrate the life of Brother James, taking more than 90 LVs, Brothers, former Brothers, Lasallian students and educators, family and friends of Brother James, local community members and others through Wisconsin locations significant to Brother James’ life.
“One of my biggest takeaways from Brother James is his dedication to the work,” said LV Rachel Aubart, who will return in the fall for another year of service. “Brother James knew how dangerous his assignment was and he knew how the Brothers were being targeted, yet those fears did not get in the way of his work. Even when given the opportunity to leave, he stayed because his love for his students and their safety and education was greater than his fear. His dedication to the most vulnerable continues to show me that our students are number one, no matter what.”
Organized by Brother Michael Kadow, FSC, Auxiliary Visitor of the Midwest District, and Brother Ed Phelan, FSC, director of Senior Brothers for the District of Eastern North America and a longtime supporter of the LV program, LVs took part in the multi-day pilgrimage. It included a one-day pilgrimage open to all on May 29, 2019, from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, where Brother James was a student to Ellis, Wisconsin, where Brother James is buried. The pilgrimage included stops at Pacelli High School, Brother James’ alma mater, Sacred Heart Church in Polonia, WI and the farm where he grew up in Ellis, WI.
Brothers Michael and Ed spent a year planning the pilgrimage, to which Brother Michael felt a strong connection. He served at Pacelli High School and recalled fond memories of meeting Brother James. “This pilgrimage impacted me emotionally, primarily because I was here at Pacelli as a young teacher when Brother James died. It brought back that whole experience,” Brother Michael said. “I learned that a person like Brother James, because of his story, a lot of people could connect to him. He wasn’t extraordinary, and yet he was. I wanted to help to continue to tell the whole story of Brother James Miller, to also remember his time in Nicaraguawhere he served for ten years in addition to his time in Guatemala.”
Brother Ed was excited by the involvement of the Lasallian Volunteers. “It’s amazing that the young LVs were attracted to this and wanted to celebrate it,” he said. “They are glad they did. They journaled faithfully, and they participated in the reflections.”
The Lasallian Volunteers who participated were: Chris Lackey, serving at LaSalle School in Albany, Jumari Callaway, serving at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis, Amy Siebenmorgen, serving at San Miguel School in Chicago, Rachel Aubart, serving at De Marillac Academy in San Francisco, Jake Remsing, serving at La Salle Academy in Philadelphia, and Maddi Larsen, serving at The San Miguel School in Providence.
Each day, the group shared prayer and fellowship and spent time learning about Brother James’ life. Lackey and Brother Paul Joslin, FSC, who served with Brother James in Guatemala, spoke at an assembly for students of Pacelli High School. Brother Paul said of this experience,”As Brother James’ beatification quickly approaches, it is important to remember that he represents what happened to over 200,000 voiceless, innocent people. The pilgrimage has been a powerful, appropriate, surreal pre-beatification experience. This is something that I never thought would happen in my lifetime.”
Lackey spoke about his experience of being a Saint Mary’s University graduate and a Wisconsin native, both traits he shares with Brother James. “On this journey, through Brother James’ example, I have been taught how important it is to follow the call in your heart,” said Lackey. “The small town farmer from Wisconsin has inspired and influenced so many because he nurtured the seed planted in him when he was 15. He is an example of how that nurturing can lead to beauty. I have a new and renewed call to intentional accompaniment with the students I encounter. I believe a seed has been planted in me, and I feel a duty to spread the fruits of Brother James’ life to plant new seeds in his name.”
As part of the pilgrimage with the larger group, they walked from Stevens Point to Ellis, and then to Sacred Heart Church for benediction and lunch. The route was along roads dotted with farms and fields, which helped everyone gain a sense of what it would have been like for Brother James to grow up there.
Second-year LV Amy Sibenmorgen, who will be an LV scholar at Christian Brothers University next school year, could relate to the small towns they visited since they were similar to her upbringing. “I think it really struck me because when we talk about saints they are of history in mystic, faraway places, but Ellis isn’t even on a Wisconsin map,” she said. “This has left me with the idea that we are all capable of becoming saints, or simply someone good and inspiring. Brother James Miller became an inspiration because of the love that rooted him and he passed on this love to the children he taught in Central America, so why can’t we all do the same where God has called each of us? As a Lasallian educator, I should be teaching my students as if they are future saints and extraordinary stories, because why not?”
Along the way, the group met people from Stevens Point who had known Brother James, know the Miller family, or had lived in the area their entire lives. The volunteers were touched by their warm welcome and listened to stories that created a three dimensional picture of Brother James as a person.
“I learned a lot about James Miller as not just the Brother and martyr, but the actual brother, friend and person,” said Jumari Callaway, who will be a Lasallian Fellow at St. Mary’s College of California next year. “Leaving the pilgrimage, I feel that I encountered the spirit of Brother James, and understood the love and service he inspired in his community.”