One hundred years to the day on which the Blessed Virgin Mary first appeared to the three shepherd children of Fatima, delivering a heavenly message of penance and sacrifice for sinners, nearly 200 students, alumni, faculty, families and friends of The Avalon and Brookewood School communities processed more than 20 miles through the sprawling countryside of upper Montgomery County to honor Our Lady.

The 10th annual pilgrimage, which began with morning Mass at The Avalon School, Gaithersburg, was held on Saturday, May 13, the same day Pope Francis canonized St. Jacinta and St. Francisco Marto, the sibling visionaries who became the youngest non-martyr saints in Church history.

Richard McPherson, president of Avalon and Brookewood Schools, spoke of the special significance of this year’s pilgrimage on the Fatima anniversary.

“The message of Fatima, penance and the rosary, is certainly lived out during the pilgrimage,” he said. “Twenty-one miles of walking is not easy but it is a satisfying accomplishment and, for many, it is true penance.”

Along the way, before reaching the final destination of St. Mary’s Parish and Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Barnesville, the weary pilgrims stopped to rest and recite the mysteries of the Rosary at Mary of Nazareth Parish, Darnestown; Our Lady of the Visitation Parish, Darnestown; Our Lady of the Presentation Parish, Poolesville; and at Owens Park in Beallsville.

“The love of the rosary is something we want to instill in all of our students. St. Jacinta and St. Francisco are wonderful examples of holiness for our students to imitate,” said McPherson.

Throughout the day, groups of students took turns leading the pilgrimage while carrying a large statue of the Blessed Mother, Our Lady Most Pure, adorned with bouquets of red roses.

Theresa Downey, an Avalon and Brookewood parent and a parishioner of Holy Redeemer Parish, Kensington, said she and her family have walked nine of the pilgrimages. She describes it as a prayerful occasion woven into the traditions of both schools.

“It’s a really beautiful event. Every year it’s like a family reunion,” she said. “I look forward to seeing friends from the previous pilgrimage and meeting new people. It’s fun to walk a mile with someone you’ve rarely spoken to and end up sharing so much.”

All day, under cloudy, but dry skies, the steadfast pilgrims navigated northern Montgomery County’s narrow country roads, passing farms and lush green meadows where cows and horses grazed. At times, drivers in cars passed by, honking or waving in support. One driver slowed down and shouted to the large group, “Where are you heading?” A young pilgrim’s quick reply was, “Heaven!”

As evening fell, the pilgrims reached St. Mary’s Parish and Our Lady of Fatima Shrine, where Father Roberto Amoruso and Father Ettore Ferrario, priests of Avalon and Brookewood Schools, concelebrated Mass. “A journey is always a challenge. We are here, listening, following the same as Francisco and Jacinta and Lucia,” said Father Ferrario in his homily.

Marta Stohlman, a 2014 graduate of Brookewood, said not only was this year’s pilgrimage a commemoration of the first Fatima apparition, but also a beautiful reminder “that both schools are entrusted to the Blessed Virgin Mary and placed in her hands to always guide and protect.”