By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
GRANDVIEW — They come from a place where they teach mountaineering in high school.
So when John Woodhall heard a presentation about the plight of Most Holy Mother of God Parish in Vladivostok, Russia, he heard yet another reason to take a fund-raising cross-country bike trip in celebration of his 70th birthday.
“When you see what those kids (in Vladivostok), have to do to survive, you have to help,” Woodhall said.
“I didn’t know what we could do until we were backpacking in the Sierras (Sierra Nevada mountain range), and then I thought of this,” Woodhall said.
The presentation he heard was given at St. Patrick Parish in Grass Valley, Calif. by Father Daniel Maurer, one of two priests along with Father Myron Effing serving in the only Catholic parish in the far eastern Russian city of some 600,000 people, near North Korea.
Woodhall roped in Kevin Rick, a former student and now a junior high school teacher himself, during that 70-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Rick, a Boy Scout leader, in turn convinced fellow leader Bruce Dodds and his son, Neal, an Eagle Scout, into the adventure.
And Mike Weaver simply showed up and signed on, also in celebration of his upcoming 70th birthday.
“My wife and I have been married 38 years. She has a very responsible job, so I get to do things like this,” Weaver said.
“I told her I wanted to bike cross-country, and one day she picked up a flyer at church and handed it to me,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll be generating some money.”
The group’s goal is to raise $10,000, as well as awareness, through various stops along the way.
Their stop on June 30, however, was special.
Not only did they meet parishioners at Coronation of Our Lady Parish in Grandview, which is a sister community to Mary, Mother of God in Vladivostok, but they also met Sister Julia Kubista and Sister Maria Damiana Lee of the Sisters in Jesus the Lord, an order of religious women now based at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Raytown whose mission to is to train sisters for service in Vladivostok.
Sister Julia told the men that $10,000 would be a Godsend for the Vladivostok parish.
“Things are so difficult for them right now that they have had to lay off several of their long-time employees,” she said.
Sister Julia also reported that the order was recently able to send three sisters to Vladivostok, thanks to the intercession of Sister Marie de Mandat-Grancey, whose sainthood cause is being sponsored by the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
The early 20th century nun is famous for locating the house near Ephesus, Turkey, where tradition says Mary, mother of Jesus, lived out her life until her Assumption.
When the Sisters in Jesus the Lord couldn’t find housing for their sisters in Vladivostok, they turned to prayer.
“We prayed to Mary, telling her that this was her idea,” Sister Julia said. “We also prayed to Sister Marie since she was able to find Mary’s house. Within a week, an apartment became available and we got it.”
That’s just the kind of news Woodhall and his adventuresome party needed to hear halfway through their 3,000 mile journey to Washington, D.C.
The men began their trip June 6 in Auburn, Calif., during a not-unusual for that area late spring snowstorm.
All hailing from rural towns nestled in mountains and near national forests in eastern California, between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, the snow was only a minor inconvenience.
So was the 70,000 vertical feet they climbed through 17 mountain passes. So was the extreme heat they encountered as they hit the Great Plains in western Kansas.
No big deal, they said. And what they have seen along the way, a gorgeous nation along the traffic-avoiding backroads.
The highlight so far? While camping at the Herrington Reservoir in Kansas, they all saw, for the first time in their lives, fireflies.
“I’m a science teacher and I had never seen fireflies before,” said Rick. “You’ve got some great ones here. They are so bright.”
There are also the people.
After experiencing a Kansas thunderstorm, the group met a man who had lost his home to a tornado.
“He lost everything he owned, and yet he was still generous with us,” Rick said. “That’s what I enjoy the most, the people we meet.”
Woodhall said that whatever hardships the group has encountered pales in comparison to daily life in Vladivostok, where Catholicism is still barely recovering from 70 years of Communist suppression.
“It’s such a dismal life, and alcoholism is rampant,” he said. “There are so many kids living on the street. If you are an orphan in Vladivostok and you turn 15, they just turn you loose.”
And that is what keeps the group moving forward.
Information concerning the ride can be found at www.vladmission.org, where online donations will be accepted. Checks written to Mary Mother of God Mission Society with the notation “Bike Across America” can be sent to the society at 1736 Milestone Circle, Modesto, CA 95357.