By Kyle Eller
The Northern Cross
“You need to be in shape mentally, physically, especially spiritually,” Curtis Chambers told a crowd at Holy Family Church on the Fond du Lac Reservation in Cloquet March 3.
Chambers was describing the quest he’s been on to snowshoe in the steps of Ven. Frederic Baraga, the famed “showshoe priest” and first Bishop of Marquette, Mich., who is renowned for his missionary work across the region among the Ojibwe, for his care for those in need, for his role in preserving the Ojibwe language, and in these parts for his famous miraculous landing at the Cross River on the North Shore of Lake Superior.
|Michele Beeksma, left, presents gifts to visiting Curtis Chambers, including a print of a painting of Ven. Frederic Baraga’s miraculous landing at the Cross River on the North Shore of Lake Superior. Chambers has spent five years snowshoeing the same paths Baraga did during his ministry and missionary work. (Kyle Eller / The Northern Cross)|
Snowshoeing is how Chambers got to Minnesota, in fact — picking up the route he has been following for five years, a week or two every February, the same route Baraga followed.
Chambers, a former chairman of the Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and a resident of Cheboygan, Mich., said Baraga’s name kept coming up in his life, including during his time as a tribal chairman. He was observing with deep concern how many people were leaving the Catholic faith, which was so important to his family.
“So I hoped to somehow address that,” he said.
He got involved with runs to prevent teen suicide. “There’s such an emptiness that causes young people to do this,” he said, and it’s God who can fill that emptiness.
He said the idea to snowshoe in the footsteps of Baraga grew over time, and in conversations with friends who are Protestant ministers and with now Archbishop Bernard Hebda, when he was bishop of the Diocese of Gaylord, Mich.
“All I did, and all I do, is take walks in the woods,” Chambers is fond of saying.
And he admits that he’s more protected, in his 21st century cold-weather outdoors gear, than Baraga was. He cited a passage from Baraga’s journals that reads, “Joy of joys! They packed me two wool blankets.”
He said the saintly bishop would hear of someone in need and sometimes set off all on his own if guides were not ready. At times they found him by following the tracks of his bleeding feet in the snow.
Chambers is following many of the same routes and says he’s seeing some of the same places and perhaps at times even the same trees Baraga saw.
He enjoys the February walks, he said, and feels blessed to be able to do it, even as being alone out in the woods is not something he takes lightly.
He describes his experiences with lyrical beauty.
“After snowshoeing all day and making camp, you crawl exhausted into your sleeping bag, only to wake after midnight and crawl outside,” he wrote, in a passage quoted in Faith Magazine, the official publication of the Gaylord Diocese. “The air is so cold it hurts your lungs to inhale, but it’s the purest air you’ve ever breathed. The silence is so deep it almost hurts your ears, but it is incredibly peaceful.
“When you look up, the stars are so bright they hurt your eyes. You feel so small and alone.
“And then it’s like God himself reaches down and puts a finger on your heart. The warmth grows from your innermost being, and in that instant you know you’re not alone; you never could be alone; and only one thing is necessary — to love and serve God and each other.”
Chambers told the gathering in Cloquet, which drew people from as far as the Brainerd area, that he sets himself a 20 mile limit for each day and that he spends much of his time of solitude in prayer.
“[God] talks to us all the time, every day,” he said. “… I truly believe he talks to us.”
He starts off his day with a rosary and has devotions to saints like St. Joseph and St. Francis, and he also prays for the many intentions he is given to pray for along the way.
“The things people ask you to pray for, it’s so humbling,” he said.
And there are often special things that happen along the way. Joking about how he sings in the woods, Chambers said that once near Houghton, Mich., he had blanked out on one of the verses of a favorite Gospel song of his. The next morning, right in a tribal casino where he had stayed the night, the whole song played on the speakers.
Chambers trek has now brought him from Cheboygan, Mich., to the Diocese of Duluth.
Ven. Frederic Baraga’s cause for canonization is still ongoing. Visit the Diocese of Marquette’s website, www.dioceseofmarquette.org, for additional details.