For spiritual seekers, a pilgrimage offers double the blessings: a chance to travel to an exotic place and a simultaneous soul recharge.
But for those reining in the spending (and who's not these days?), a visit to a holy site such as Rome, Lourdes, Fatima or Medjugorje may not be feasible.
So the Rev. Len Plazewski, director of vocations for the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, came up with an alternative. It costs nothing more than a tank of gas.
"We've got a rich history right here in our own backyard," he says. "Yet most people only know what's going on in their own parish. They're going to be amazed by the treasures here in their community."
After a year of research, his office recently unveiled the booklet "Catholic Driving Pilgrimage: 25 Tampa Bay Religious Sites." The guide covers the diocese's five counties - Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Citrus and Hernando - with brief descriptions of the selected locations.
Plazewski got the idea after seeing a pamphlet from another diocese that gave a short background of each one of its churches. A history buff, he decided he could expand on that with a more varied and comprehensive listing and break it into a regional tour by county.
"Many people in our diocese weren't born here. They have a sense the church didn't even exist until they got here," says Plazewski, who grew up in San Antonio in Pasco County. "What they don't know is that our history dates back five centuries."
From the start, he kept the project a closely guarded secret, inviting only a few of his cleric friends who knew the area to participate. If he opened it up for suggestions, every priest would offer his own favorites and "I'd end up with something the size of a telephone book."
He also didn't want to limit it to churches. The 25 selections also include a monastery, cemeteries, schools, parks and chapels, all with a unique historical or religious quality. Yes, some of the selections were no-brainers, such as the diocese's oldest church, Sacred Heart in downtown Tampa, a grand and breathtaking jewel; and the recently restored Church of the Holy Cross at the Saint Leo Abbey in St. Leo.
But he also highlights lesser-known finds, such as St. Stanislaus Chapel, circa 1915, an old Florida clapboard church in Brooksville, and the site of the 1528 Narvaez Landing in Jungle Prada Park in St. Petersburg, where the first Catholic leaders arrived in the Bay area with a fleet of ships carrying Spaniards.
As soon as the booklet was published, Plazewski knew he was in trouble.
"I got a lot of phone calls, mainly saying, 'Hey, you missed this.' I knew that was coming," he says with a laugh. A second edition is not out of the question, he says.
But for now, the priest is hoping that budget-minded spiritual seekers will take advantage of the opportunity to make a local pilgrimage. Although it's geared toward Catholics, the tour is educational and should be of interest to anyone, he says.
Everyone can benefit from taking time out to be with the Lord, Plazewski says. He suggests calling the places or checking their websites in advance for public hours, Mass schedules or availability of tours, such as the docent-led presentation at Sacred Heart.
"Ultimately, I hope that people will take the time to go to these places and pray," he says, "and that this will help them realize who has gone before them and the sacrifices that were made.
"We're the heirs and recipients of that, and we can all be inspired by it."
Driving Pilgrimage highlights:
St. Louis Cemetery
606 E. Harrison St., Tampa
Downtown workers come and go and likely never know that the diocese's oldest Catholic cemetery is right across from the bustling bus terminal, in the shadow of modern office complexes and high-rise condominiums.
St. Louis Cemetery, founded in 1874, was the final resting place for parishioners of the area's first church, St. Louis (now Sacred Heart). Located in the north section of Oaklawn Cemetery, the Catholic portion includes some of Tampa's most prominent settler families, their graves marked by worn granite markers and headstones. Among them: Vicente Martinez-Ybor, who brought the cigar industry to Tampa, and five pioneer priests, including three who died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1887-88.
In his research for the project, Plazewski made an unexpected discovery at St. Louis Cemetery: the grave of Cecelia Morse and five of her children. She was the foundress of his alma mater, St. Anthony of Pedula School in San Antonio. A widow with six children, she came to the Catholic colony north of Tampa in 1883. When she learned there was no school, she started one of her own in her kitchen, teaching her children and eight others.
"The minds of the children now here won't wait," she told the colony's founder.
The next spring, classes were moved to the church. She balanced citrus-raising and teaching duties, getting help when the Benedictine religious order arrived in 1889. The widow moved her family to Tampa a few years after that, possibly because of the 1897 freeze that destroyed so many of the citrus groves in the area. She died on June 13, 1926 - the Feast of St. Anthony.
"What Mrs. Morse accomplished in that era was amazing," Plazewski says. "She was the true pioneer of parochial education in this diocese. Her mark continues on to this day at St. Anthony's, which is still going strong."
Her grave is now marked with a commemorative plaque. Plazewski says the goal is for all of the pilgrimage sites to eventually have similar markers, which cost $800 to $1,500, depending on the size.
Our Lady of Good Counsel Chapel
8888 E. Gobbler Drive, Floral City
Good Counsel Camp, tucked away in scenic Citrus County, is located on 150 rural acres with moss-draped massive oaks, an expansive lake and - get this - actual hills. The coed camp is a throwback to the old-school summer sleep-away experience. There's no air conditioning in the rustic cabins, no cell phones or computers allowed, no fancy recreation center or built-in pool. Just the stuff we remember from yesteryear: archery, riflery, arts and crafts classes, swimming and boating in the waters of Lake Tsala Apopka, and roaring campfires at night with scary stories and s'mores.
Established in 1948, the Catholic camp serves kids ages 7 through 15. Most of the college-age counselors are former campers whose fond memories bring them back for a summer job. About 450 kids are enrolled this season; most come for one- to two-week sessions.
At the camp, every day begins with Mass in the 12-sided circular chapel in the woods, an open-air sanctuary with no walls, built with native brick, cypress and pine. Wooden pews seating up to 250 surround the simple altar made out of a giant ancient cypress hauled from the now-closed Lacoochee sawmill. On Sundays, Mass is open to the public.
"There is nothing like it in the diocese or even the whole state," the Rev. James Johnson declares. He speaks with authority: The diocesan priest has been a fixture at the camp, either as a counselor or in his current role as director, for 25 years. When camp isn't in session, he's the parish priest at Our Lady of Fatima in Inverness.
"It's a real privilege to serve here," Johnson says. "The natural beauty of the grounds makes you feel closer to God. And getting away from all the noise and technology of the outside world, that just makes this an even better experience. I've worked in the metropolitan area and I've worked up here and, to me, there's no comparison."
Like the campers, Johnson bunks in a cabin, lulled to sleep by a chorus of frogs from the nearby lake and the occasional hoot of an owl. He keeps in touch with the outside world through newspapers he gets in the mail, "so I'm always a few days behind."
"Good Counsel is a place to leave your cares and concerns behind," he says. "Adults need that, but so do kids, especially these days."
2405 Philippe Parkway, Safety Harbor
We all know it as Tampa Bay. But before that, the body of water that surrounds us was christened Espiritu Santo, Holy Spirit Bay, by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto upon his arrival here on Pentecost Sunday in May 1539.
Ten years later, famed Dominican missionary priest Luis de Cancer sailed here, arriving on the shores of what is now Philippe Park in Safety Harbor. His purpose was to spread the Gospel in a peaceful manner, much like his successful efforts with the native people in Central America. However, the locals were rightfully suspicious of their visitor, given the bad treatment they had endured from the mercenaries who preceded him.
For six weeks, de Cancer mingled among the leery villagers, even celebrating Mass on the Feast of Corpus Christi. His luck ran out June 26, 1549, when he was warned not to come ashore on the northeast edge of the bay near a Tocobago village. His greeting of peace did not protect him; he was clubbed to death after leaving his boat.
According to accounts of the event, his last words were, "Help me, Lord."
"His death sent a shock wave through the missionary world because he was so well-known," Plazewski says.
The Jesuits tried evangelizing the American Indians about 20 years later, even building a chapel near the site where de Cancer was martyred. That effort, too, was short lived.
Centuries later, in 1960, a Spanish-style mission church called Espiritu Santo was dedicated atop a knoll overlooking the site of the failed attempts by the 16th-century missionaries. A stained-glass window depicting de Cancer lifting a cross toward the heavens on the shoreline is a centerpiece of the sanctuary.