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500 Miles on Foot: One Teacher’s Take on the Camino de Santiago

4 years ago

Strong shoes. Trekking poles. A rosary. And a phone for emergencies.

For 500 miles and 38 days, Archbishop Ryan High School theology teacher Donna Hnosko counted on this small handful of reliable items as she crossed mountains, valleys, and plains — all on foot.

Her journey, undertaken for more than a millennium by Catholic role models like Saint Frances, is known as the Camino de Santiago or “On the Way of Saint James.” And while a good number of believers have completed this long and testing journey before, not all of them have been 59-year old teachers from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

It turns out Hnosko’s teaching role was the source of her inspiration to take on such a physically and spiritually demanding pilgrimage. As part of her sophomore Theology course, she chose to show her students the 2011 film The Way. Starring Martin Sheen, the film tells the story of a man who chooses to walk the Camino de Santiago to honor the memory of his son. Hnosko originally intended to inspire her students with a tale of spiritual transformation, but found herself swept away with the idea of taking on the challenge herself.

In less than two years, she was on the Camino. Hnosko had convinced a lifelong friend to accompany her, hiking together in direction but separately as a matter of spiritual and mental focus. The women chose to keep speaking to a minimum during their daily trek, dedicating the majority of the day to silent prayer and self-reflection.

In Hnosko’s case, this reflection was focused on a special book she carried with her at all times. In it were the names of hundreds of friends, students, and other acquaintances that had signed it ahead of time as a sign of support for her incredible journey. During each mile of the journey, she dedicated intention, thought, and prayer to one person who had signed her book. “This is who I am doing it for,” she would say.

At the end of each leg of the journey, Hnsoko and her friend would catch up at one of the many scattered inns, hostels, or cathedrals along the Camino route. It was at these locations Hnosko would also have time to meet and speak with other pilgrims from around the world, and learn about how this journey was changing their relationship with themselves and with God.

Hnosko kept a digital journal of her Camino de Santiago pilgrimage — sharing photos, stories, and descriptions of what she observed along her route. Her dedication and commitment led her to spiritual and physical accomplishment we are genuinely proud of!