Holding the hand of his father Paul Meleca-Mazzuchin (right) and his grandfather Romeo Meleca (left) 9-year-old Zachary tries out leading the pilgrims up Islington Avenue during the first morning of the eight day journey. Photo by Evan Boudreau

Romeo Meleca grooming successor for ‘Pilgrimage of Love’ [w/ audio]

  • July 13, 2012

TORONTO - After 31 years Romeo Meleca knows that he won’t be able to make too many more 200-km pilgrimages on foot to the Holy Cross of Teopoli near Gravenhurst, Ont.

“I did this in 1981 by myself and I’m willing still to carry on as long as I live, as long as I can,” said Meleca after beginning his annual journey at All Saints Church in Etobicoke on July 7. “On July 17, two days after the walk, I’ll be 81 years of age so I don’t know how many more years I will be able to walk, but I hope to able to live until I’m 100 and able to walk until I’m 100. That’s quite a wish but it doesn’t cost anything to wish.”

Wishes aside, as the eldest participant in the annual pilgrimage — he is joined this year by nine others — Meleca knows the reality of physical hardships associated with age. At 37 he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and less than a decade later, he needed crutches to walk.

In 1976 he became dependent on support staff for mobility. Doctors said he would be in a wheelchair within five years.

Requiring 24 pills a day for pain and to slow the arthritis’ crippling progression, Meleca took the advice of Sr. Carmelina Tarantino and visited Teopoli in 1980. Tarantino is the late Passionist Sister of St. Paul who was bedridden at the then Riverdale Hospital in Toronto for 24 years with an unexplained illness. During that time she was visited by thousands seeking spiritual direction, including Meleca, who along with his wife visited Tarantino weekly for more than a decade.

After seeing the massive wood cross at Teopoli, life changed for Meleca.

“I kind of put myself in the Lord’s hands and I said, ‘God, do whatever you want to me. If you want to cure me fine, if you don’t want to cure me whatever, I accept,’ ” said Meleca, who gave up his medication after that first visit to Teopoli. “Something touched me up there, at the cross. As I came home I kept thinking one day I’m going to go to Teopoli on foot to thank you God for giving me my legs back because I could see that my legs were starting to get better and better.”

One year later, at 50 years old, he began what would eventually grow into an annual pilgrimage doubling as a fundraiser for the Società Unita, a Catholic spiritual centre that runs summer camps for children.

The money raised, about $10,300 this year prior to the pilgrimage, is used to give less fortunate children the opportunity to attend camp.

-- AUDIO --
Romeo Meleca says a few words and a prayer before leaving All Saints Church on the morning of July 7

Until 2006 Meleca only made the journey once every three or four years to reduce the burden on those he sought donations from.

“But then a few years ago I thought, I’m not going to point guns at peoples’ head that they got to give me money, it’s up to them if they want to give money for the poor children, but I’m going to walk every year,” said the grandfather of five. “I also started thinking, I’m not a young kid any more. I was 50 years old when I started walking and if I’m only going to go every three or four years, well then, that’s only a few more walks I could do.”

Now Meleca knows there’s another step to ensure this pilgrimage continues. He needs a successor and, among the more than 115 people who’ve followed him over the years, one person stands out.

“To be totally honest with you, I hope and I wish that one day he’ll take over for me,” said Meleca.

That person, the youngest pilgrim, is his nine-year-old adopted grandson Zachary Meleca-Mazzuchin, who first made the journey in 2003 as a four-month-old infant. He spent most of that pilgrimage in the arms of his grandfather.

“It means almost everything to me,” said Zachary, that his grandfather looks to him to become the new leader. He added that he will “probably” take over when  Meleca can’t continue.

For information about how to donate call Società Unita at (416) 243-7319 or phone Meleca at (416) 249-0131.

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