Romeo Meleca's 'Pilgrimage of Love'

  • July 14, 2010
Romeo MelecaTORONTO - For nearly 30 years, Romeo Meleca has shared Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross each time he has made his yearly 240-km trek to the Holy Cross of Teopoli in Gravenhurst, Ont.

“I’m always thinking, when I have pain, I think of God, (of) Jesus dying, nailed on the cross. I want to do more and more for Him,” Meleca said, sporting his trademark red banner, a pilgrimage shirt and hat. During the walk, he also carries a wooden cross adorned with a red banner.

It’s a pilgrimage Meleca has done since 1981, five years after he was diagnosed with severe arthritis. At 33, he was walking with crutches, taking 168 pills a week and doctors had predicted he would end up in a wheelchair.

The former hairdresser, who turns 79 a week before the walk, says he was inspired to start the annual trek by Sr. Carmelina Tarantino of the Passionist Sisters of St. Paul of the Cross who was bedridden in Toronto’s Riverdale Hospital due to illness for 24 years but counselled and prayed for thousands of visitors, including Meleca. (Tarantino’s cause for sainthood is being reviewed by the Vatican.) Meleca and his wife, Anita, visited Tarantino at the hospital each week for more than a decade. During one of their visits, Tarantino suggested Meleca make a pilgrimage to the Holy Cross of the Teopoli Catholic Spiritual Centre. The centre was founded by Passionist Father Claudio Piccinini in 1972.

Calling it a “Pilgrimage of Love,” Meleca said he wanted to do the walk to share God’s love with others. One of the ways to share this love, he said, is by raising money for children who can’t afford to attend Teopoli’s summer camp. (In the pilgrimage’s early years, Meleca raised money for arthritis research.)

“I felt that as a Christian, a servant of God, I should try very hard to bring people together to share not only financially but to share a little love with the sick and the poor,” he said in a letter dated 1982.

About 10 men and women belonging to the non-profit mission Società Unita/The United Society, which was also founded by Piccinini, plan to join Meleca for this year’s walk. From July 24, pilgrims plan to walk up to eight hours a day until they arrive at Teopoli on Aug. 1.

So far this year, the pilgrims have raised $7,800. Last year, $25,000 was raised for Teopoli’s summer camp.

During the eight-day walk, pilgrims have endured pouring rain, scorching heat, blisters and wounds on their feet. But Meleca says it’s all worth it.

As Meleca walks to his car to accompany a visitor outside, he doesn’t show the pain of arthritis — which keeps him up at night — and the toll it’s taken on his body. He doesn’t complain about it either.

“ I have a lot to thank God for. He’s always there for me and I will try always to be there for Him any way that I can.”

As to whether he will continue next year, Meleca said, “As long as I can crawl, I will walk. That’s my attitude towards God... If I have to walk on my knees, I’ll do that.”

Friends call Meleca “special” and are long-time supporters. Bruno and Nicolina De Marco understand Meleca’s passion for the pilgrimage. The De Marcos have been making the pilgrimage together for the past 24 years. This year, they won’t be able to make it because one of their daughters is getting married at Teopoli a few days after the pilgrimage.

Bruno, who went blind in his 30s, walks side by side with his wife who takes his arm the whole way.

“It’s difficult to walk but with your faith you can do it because God helps you,” said Nicolina.

Pilgrims will depart from All Saints Catholic Church on Royal York Road after the 8:30 a.m. Mass. They will head over to Steeles Avenue and Yonge Street, following Yonge until they reach Gravenhurst. At the Teopoli Spiritual Centre a Sunday Mass will be celebrated on Aug. 1.

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