Gretta Graffin’s journey back to the Middle Ages

ROBERT COLLINS January 19 1957

Gretta Graffin’s journey back to the Middle Ages

ROBERT COLLINS January 19 1957

Gretta Graffin’s journey back to the Middle Ages


This Manitoba schoolteacher was vaguely troubled and restless, so she searched for answers in an ancient way — through poverty and a grueling pilgrimage on foot across Europe

Probably not one person in a million today would think of living the way his ancestors lived in the Middle Ages. But the summer before last Margarita (Gretta) Graffin, a fortythree-year-old Manitoba schoolteacher, went back a thousand years in a way of living and thinking and became a pilgrim.

Not an airborne pilgrim or a Cook's-tour pilgrim, but the kind of pilgrim who from the time of the Crucifixion to the Middle Ages roamed Europe and the Holy Land, penniless, ill-clothed, sometimes barefoot, not despising poverty and hardship but welcoming them as essentials to a humble questing spirit.

From August 1955 until late July 1956 she visited Roman Catholic shrines in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Britain and Eire. For six consecutive months she walked three thousand miles through rain, heat and snow, begging clothes, shelter and meals of bread and water, after giving away what luggage and money she had.

Today Gretta, a slight, five-foot, brown-eyed brunette, intensely religious but with a down-toearth sense of humor, teaches grades seven and eight at Holy Cross School in St. Vital, a Winnipeg suburb, and regards her exercise in asceticism as no more trying than a Sunday-school picnic.

“There was nothing heroic about it,” she insists. “Oh. it was uncomfortable at times. Some people say the more uncomfortable you are. the more holy you become. If so. there w'ere days I became holy by leaps and bounds! "

Those were the days when her shoes literally fell apart on the road, when dinner after a twenty-five-mile hike was one dry bread roll washed down with water from a pump, when she huddled in doorways out of the rain and wondered where she'd sleep that night.

There was also a day, near Imperia, in northwestern Italy, when a speeding car knocked her down. She got up wúth a nosebleed but refused a lift into town. There was the night a French housewife turned her out in the rain, saying. “Pay or get out.” Gretta slept that night on a pile of damp sacks on a garage floor.

Another time, near Bari, in southern Italy, a band of youths held her up on a lonely road. As usual, she didn’t have a lira, so they let her go. Finally, in February 1956, Europe’s bitter storms drove her briefly to a sickbed in Spain, ending the walking phase of her pilgrimage.

Gretta, whose constitution is as stout as her faith, considered these minor annoyances. The important things were her visit to Turin’s Chapel of the Holy Shroud where Christ's burial sheet is said to be preserved, an audience w'ith Pope Pius XII, a visit to Lourdes’ famous shrine of St. Bernadette and the hours of prayer at countless other shrines and cathedrals.

Not until she actually set out on the road did it occur to her that she was living exactly as the ancient pilgrims did. But now she insists that their harrow'ing way of life promotes peace of mind.

“I don't consider poverty an end in itself,” she says. “1 chose it as a form of penance. Any Catholic does penance on a pilgrimage, just as the ancient pilgrims did. One form of penance is to abstain from what you normally consider comfort. I’ve always lived very simply, so my penance was even more stringent than most. Furthermore I was down to about thirty dollars when I reached Europe, so my poverty was partly a matter of necessity.”

At any rate she found it “good therapy for the mind.” For six months she was engrossed with her prayers and in wondering, “Who’ll feed me?”

or, "Where'll 1 sleep?” Everyday thoughts faded into the background. Petty details that had worried her in Canada became totally unimportant. She says she returned a calmer, less argumentative, more serious person.

She would like to make another pilgrimage and thinks such a journey would be good for any “tired" housewife or businessman, regardless of faith.

But. admittedly, Gretta Graffin was better equipped for the journey than man) would be. In retrospect, all her earlier years seem to have been a preparation for such a pilgrimage. She was born in Belfast and began her education in a convent; hence her Irish humor and solid religious grounding—both assets on the pilgrimage.

She was eight when her father. John, then a railway section hand, brought his family to Carberry. Man. At secular school she was something of a'n oddity: she thrived on work. She had no patience with teachers who couldn't keep up with her nimble mind. It wasn't easy for the teacher because Gretta took books home every night (homework or not), joined with her parents in hot discussions of the lessons and went back to school full of intelligent questions.

Once she told her mother. “We’re just wasting time in class.”

“Don't tell me, tell the teacher.” said Mrs. Graffin.

Gretta did, with characteristic bluntness, and was temporarily expelled. Later as a teacher herself, she once quit her job because she fell school hockey was interfering with studies.

She grew up restless, bored with the usual social circles and determined to be "completely on my own.” When she was about fourteen she decided on impulse to live like a Hindu. For six months she went without meat and spent hours sitting cross-legged on the floor, to the consternation of her parents. She loved hiking and during the Depression worked, and often walked, around Canada as teacher, clerk, governess, maid, cook and waitress. In the Forties she received a BA in languages from the University of Montreal. She speaks French fluently and Spanish moderately well, another asset on her European jaunt.

Then in 1952 she made a two-week journey to Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine in Mexico.

“It was a surprise,” she says. "I didn't expect to feel different afterward but I left behind some strange malaise, a feeling I wasn't even aware of until it disappeared.”

Therefore in 1955, when the same vague restlessness overtook her again, Gretta thought of a pilgrimage. She had often dreamed of visiting the Vatican, perhaps a few shrines, then teaching in Europe. She had less than three hundred dollars put away but knew she’d never save more (“I always fall

for those ‘buy now, pay later’ plans”).

On impulse she bought a $220 thirdclass ticket to Italy on the Vulcania. Her father disapproved (and still does). Her mother was teaching in northern Manitoba (she has been a teacher for twenty

years). Gretta packed a change of clothing. her prayer book and a few toilet articles in a shopping bag and boarded a bus tor New York. There, deciding a lone shopping bag would cause undue attention at customs, she bought a $2.98 cardboard suitcase, then boarded ship.

On the Vulcania she abandoned her teaching plans and decided on a pilgrimage after talks with Father Rosario Caruana, a Maltese priest. She decided to eat nothing but bread and water while on her wanderings, not because this was required of a pilgrim, but because she reasoned even the humblest homes at which she would call would always have bread, in preparation for what was ahead Gretta began her bread-andwater fast immediately. On her arrival at Naples she spent most of her

remaining cash on a train ticket to Rome.

There the Sisters of Providence convent fed and sheltered her without charge. This became her home whenever she was in Rome. It was two minutes’ walk from St. Peter’s, the world’s largest basilica, where Gretta attended Mass.

“I loved St. Peter’s,” she says. "If I were ever on the verge of a nervous breakdown I’d go there. 1 was absolutely relaxed there.”

One day she attended a mass audience at Pope Pius’ country residence, thirty miles outside of Rome. She roamed

among ancient churches and shrines, venerating the homes, belongings or relics of saints. These were her happiest moments. Now, after studying about saints all her life, she was actually following the paths they trod.

Then one fiercely hot August morning she gave away her spare clothing and the suitcase to the Sisters (she refused to be burdened with unnecessary belongings) and set out for the shrine of St. Francis of Assisi, a hundred and seven miles northeast up the Tiber valley.

On Rome’s outskirts she gave her last

twenty dollars to the first needy person she met—an emaciated gypsy woman carrying a baby. Now she was truly a pilgrim in the ancient sense. She wore a blouse, a dirndl skirt and low-heeled shoes. She carried a sweater for chilly nights, a handbag (which she soon gave away), a rosary and a passport pinned to a picture of Madonna della Strada (Our Lady of Travel).

She also carried documents, one in French and one in Italian, from her parish priests in Winnipeg, proclaiming that "Miss Margarita Graffin. schoolmistress of this parish, enjoys a good reputation. We know of no occasion on which she was the cause of a scandal or any other difficulty.” After a glance at these, priests and nuns gave her food, shelter or a few coins without question.

The papers also helped—but didn’t solve—the language problem. Gretta set out with two words of Italian—pane (bread) and aqua (water) — and soon learned pellegrino (pilgrim) and camera (bed-chamber). A nun nicknamed her Signorina Aqua-Pane, and it stuck. Gradually she acquired a passable Italian vocabulary.

Gretta’s long swinging stride covered about forty kilometres (twenty-five miles) a day. Often she prayed as she walked, oblivious to the world around her. She spent the first two nights in convents, but on the third night she couldn’t find a bed. A priest discovered her sitting on a bridge, forlorn and sleepy.

“Pellegrina. Pane? Aqua? Camera?” she asked hopefully. Without even glancing at her character references, the priest led her to a home where the family just as readily took her in and offered wine, cheese and soup, which she refused, settling instead for bread and water, the simple fare she had vowed to live on during her pilgrimage.

“I’ve got news for you”

The next night she reached Assisi, home of St. Francis, who gave up wealth in his youth, adopted extreme poverty and preached peace so earnestly that he was canonized in 1228, two years after his death. Now, seven hundred years later, Gretta felt his peaceful spirit still in Assisi’s quiet streets. She prayed over his tomb, saw the tattered robe said to be his and glanced at her own rumpled clothes, thinking, “How delighted he’d have been with me!”

She plodded back to Rome, rested with the Sisters of Providence and turned south. At first, since southern towns were scattered, she hitchhiked to avoid being stranded outdoors at night. But priests warned against it and she soon learned that women hitchhikers are courting trouble on the Continent. Once a motorcyclist offered her a lift, then refused to let her off. She jumped off, split her forehead and had to have stitches. She walked from then on.

She learned also to read the sun like a clock. On cloudy days she asked the time and begged drinks of water in bars, waving off the inevitable glasses of wine.

She was bolstered by her sense of humor and communion with the saints. She relied on St. Patrick to protect her from danger on the road. If she dozed in church after a long walk, she salved her conscience by remembering that St. Teresa of Avila had the same unfortunate habit four hundred years ago.

In rainstorms she kept up her morale by telling St. Francis (who regarded a walk in the rain as “perfect joy”), "I’ve got news for you. This isn't perfect joy!” In northern Italy it became increasingly difficult to find public lavatories. Finally she said to St. Lorenzo, a much-traveled cleric of the sixteenth Century, ‘i'll put you in charge of bathrooms for this trip.'' She adds with a twinkle, "1 had no trouble finding bathrooms from then on."

But most of this was still ahead of her as she trudged south from Rome after Assisi. The cool September mornings and yellowing leaves reminded her oí Manitoba and school terms. She thought of Canada again at Cassino where some Canadian army fortifications remain from World War 11 and monks were rebuilding the bomb-shattered monastery of Monte Cassino.

At Benevento a crowd of mischievous children hooted at her heels. A bold one slapped her and the schoolteacher in her rebeled.

"1 chased him home." Gretta says. ‘His mother charged out of the house, p ticked off a shoe and shook it at me.

I was ready to take her on. too. but the child was crying. He'd learned his lesson."

She quickly forgot Benevento's curions welcome a few mornings later at S:. Giovanni Rotunda where, in a little church crowded with noisy parishioners, she received communion from Padre Pio. a vigorous man of nearly seventy with mittens covering the wounds on his hands. Like many saints and a few living persons he has the stigmata: open wounds, similar to those suffered by Christ on the Cross. Unlike most other sligmatics. however, Pio's side bleeds daily, his hands and feet frequently, not only on Good Fridays.

Gretta continued on, southwest into the toe of the Italian "boot." At Reggio di Calabria a priest gave her ferry passage to Sicily. From Messina she walked through endless villages and golden orange groves to Syracuse and Our Lady of Tears, a small ceramic Madonna that a few years ago. it is said, "wept" drops of moisture having the same chemical content as human tears.

Four weeks later she plodded into Rome, ragged shoes held together wdth bits of string and wire, feet calloused and aching. It was Oct. 18. At the Sisters of Providence convent she glanced in a mirror and started at the sight of her shrunken face, skinny arms and gaunt body. (Gretta's normal weight is a hundred pounds, but at times during her pilgrimage she weighed as little as eighty.) Only her legs looked normal—and her shoes spoiled that.

Nobody could give her size-four shoes, not even the Canadian embassy. Gretta thought of starting out barefoot but decided that was too melodramatic. At last the nuns found her a thick flannel skirt and a pair of size-nine shoes. As soon as the Sisters’ backs were turned Gretta hacked off the oversize toes and shuffled, clownlike, out of Rome.

Her fortunes rose and fell by turns. A few kilometres north a priest gave her a pair of boy's boots, size four. But at Siena, where someone gave her a bag of ripe wheat instead of bread, she overate and was sick all next day.

At Florence an old lady gave her a long woolen scarf, which Gretta turned into a petticoat one cold night when she slept in a barn. But she still had no raincoat and often cold mountain rains drenched her. She was thoroughly miserable when she reached Padua, near Venice, in early November. But, almost miraculously, Padua solved her problems.

In the great basilica she prayed over the bones of St. Anthony, patron saint of bread—a most important saint on her pilgrimage. Then she asked the priests for food and shelter. At that moment Paolo, a tall blond youth of seventeen, entered the sacristy. The priests beckoned him. In an instant he grasped the situation.

“He was still a schoolboy, immature in many ways." says Gretta, "but I shall always remember that kind gentle boy. He found me a big bag of bread rolls—all shapes and sizes—and warm sweaters and gloves. He guided me to other shrines and took me to his home for supper."

Then Paolo led her to a boardinghouse where a plump motherly woman gave her a free room and a pair of fur-lined boots.

The boots served Gretta well in Milan, where she walked five hours before find-

ing a free bed. and in Turin, where snow swept down from the Alps. But she scarcely noticed Turin’s weather as she sought out St. John Baptist's cathedral and the Chapel of the Holy Shroud.

The shroud is a yellowing strip of linen, fourteen by three feet, bearing vague imprints of a human body with blood stains from wounds in hands, feet, side and brow. Some medical doctors, chemists, theologians and anatomists of many faiths believe this is the burial sheet of Christ.

Between public expositions, held about

every thirty years, the shroud is sealed in a silver urn behind glass. As Gretta touched her rosary to the glass and thought of the Crucifixion, she says a deep unbearable sadness came over her. She stole from the chapel, forcing herself to think of the Resurrection. Gradually everything seemed right again. But often, as she visited shrines, the same overpowering emotion blinded her to the world around her.

She walked south through Genoa and Indian summer and. at a convent, exchanged fur boots and flannel skirt for cotton skirt and blouse. On Dec. 4 she entered France. No delay at customs; she had nothing to declare. She hurried through Monaco, giving only a passing glance to Monte Carlo and never a thought to Grace Kelly.

By Christmas she was trudging north from Marseilles. On Dec. 23 she walked all night without finding a bed. On Christmas Eve she slept in a room off a church at Arles, with bread from the priest as a Christmas gift.

On Christmas Day she hiked to a hamlet near Nîmes, where a festival was on with merry-go-rounds, music and pageants. A priest gave her a few francs for lodgings but every bed was taken. She bought a long French loaf, walked two kilometres to the nearest haystack and celebrated Christmas by “eating out.”

“Then, huddled in a green wool shortie-coat, a recent gift from a priest, she burrowed into the stack, slept fitfully until the church bells rang, walked back for Mass and received Communion.

"By January I was in Toulouse,” Gretta recalls. “What a find Toulouse is for a pilgrim—relics of the Apostle St. James and the philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, a fragment of the True Cross and many, many more.”

It was well worth sleeping in a public dormitory, a bare cheerless place reserved for destitute people or, as she did one day, eating her bread and water in a hen coop. Once she curled up in a railway station but officials chased her out. In Toulon she slept in a hospital.

Another night a French priest let her sleep in a small-town theatre where a rehearsal was in progress. She watched for a while and told the priest, "That male lead is too dramatic. And some of the others need pepping up.” He grave-

ly promised to relay her criticism to the cast. Then she fell asleep on a bench while rehearsal dragged on.

In mid-January she reached Lourdes, at the foot of the Pyrenees, near Spain. As she entered this city of St. Bernadette she began to cry uncontrollably, partly from fatigue, partly from nervous excitement at finally reaching this famous shrine. Here, ninety-eight years ago, the child Bernadette Soubirous—subject of lhe film. The Song of Bernadette —claimed she witnessed a series of visions and saw a fountain miraculously


Oh, tenderly nurtured little blossom,

Why so fond of playing possum?


spring from the rocks. Hundreds of sick pilgrims have since bathed in its waters and claimed cures. Gretta spent four days at Lourdes, praying where Bernadette knelt and dipping her rosary in the fountain.

On Jan. 29 she entered Spain. Fierce winds and snow howled through Europe. The Pyrenees broke the wind and kept her from freezing, but she was miserably cokl in her latest hand-me-down outfit: cuban-heeled shoes (which collected ice and sent her slithering down hills), a thin skirt, two sweaters, a kerchief, an umbrella and a “raincoat”—a piece of plastic with a hole for her head. She had fleas too. But she couldn’t help giggling. “Hope I don’t meet anyone from Winnipeg now!”

It grew colder. At Andoain, about twenty-three miles from the border, she was too weak to continue. The Sisters of Charity put her to bed in their convent and Father Don José, the local priest, said, “You must not go on.” Gretta gladly obeyed; in fact, she had no choice.

For days she hauled herself out of bed with a walking stick, hobbled to Mass but was too stiff to kneel. Since she was obviously grounded for weeks and unable to earn her keep, she wired home for money. Meanwhile, for nine days, she continued to fast. But one day when she asked for confession Father Don José said sternly, “If you do not eat like the rest of us, I will not hear your confession.”

“So I began to eat, after six months,” Gretta says. “And I really 'fell off the wagon.’ ”

She begged for second helpings but the nuns wisely rationed her in deference to her weak stomach. She consoled herself by scraping out other bowls when everyone left the table. Once the cat tried to join in; she chased it from the room.

In a week her appetite was back to normal. In a month she could walk, but only haltingly. Accordingly, she adopted a more conventional pilgrimage. With eighty dollars from home she traveled by train, plane and boat to Dublin, via shrines in Paris and England. At Dublin, fifteen dollars and some clothing reached her from Manitoba.

She worked for two months as a waitress in a Catholic home for orphans and the aged, visited several Irish shrines, then spent her savings on a passage to Fatima, Portugal, north of Lisbon—a shrine now as famous as Lourdes.

There, in 1917, the Virgin Mary is said to have revealed herself on seven occasions to three peasant children, predicting the end of World War I, the coming of

World War II and predicting also that only the conversion of Russia (just then turning to Communism) could save the world from disaster. During the seventh vision seventy thousand people, including some skeptical newspapermen, assembled on a plain and reported that the sun turned pale, emitted brilliant colored rays, appeared to spin three times and, seemingly, plunged toward the earth.

Gretta reached Fatima one evening but this time, even before visiting the shrine, was rendered helpless with emotion. For a time she couldn’t speak; then, only in garbled Spanish and French. A priest found her a room. In the morning she visited the shrine, lit a candle to the statuette of Our Lady of Fatima and returned immediately to her room.

When she had sorted out her thoughts she wired her parents for return-passage money. It had been a rich but strenuous year. Now, it seemed, she could bear no more. She had achieved her goals. It was time to go home.

Today Gretta still loves to walk and often hikes the two miles to Holy Cross School in St. Vital, Man. But apart from feeling “stronger and better” she has virtually forgotten the pilgrimage. Occasionally she shows her thirty-seven pupils a memento of the journey — perhaps a colored print of the Virgin or a medallion blessed by the Pope. Otherwise she doesn’t talk about it and her pupils rarely ask about it.

“They’re Roman Catholics,” she says. “They know thousands of Catholics go to shrines and thousands more face just as many difficulties, of a different kind, in their daily lives as I did. They wouldn’t listen five minutes if I traced my route on a map and told them of my hardships. They’d probably just tell me to go back to Europe and start walking again.” ★