Way to St James – Pilgrimage through the Huon Valley
Under the looming presence of Sleeping Beauty Mountain, a group of intrepid pilgrims took the first steps on their ‘Way to St James’.
The ancient Sleeping Beauty range dominates the rural hamlet of Mountain River in the Huon Valley. Ancient, immutable and deeply peaceful, it was an inspiring backdrop to the start of the ‘Way to St James’ two-day pilgrimage to St James Church in Cygnet.
Around 230 people participated in the inaugural pilgrimage through the Huon Valley, inspired by the famous ‘Carmina de Santiago’ or ‘Way of St James’ pilgrimage to the Shrine of St James the Apostle in Gallicia in Northern Spain.
On the morning of Friday, January 8th, 2016, the pilgrims, support crew and their well-wishers gathered to collect their scallop shells and passports, similar to those carried by the pilgrims on the setting out on their journey to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and to listen to the final words of encouragement and direction from Huon Valley Parish Priest, Father Michael Tate.
Father Tate hatched the idea for the pilgrimage at the start of 2015, when came to take up his appointment as Parish Priest in Cygnet. It happened that he arrived during the biggest weekend of the year, when the small town puts on the annual Cygnet Folk Festival, an extravaganza of music, arts and street culture.
Impressed with the festive buzz, Father Tate was also taken with the Spanish style of St James Church and thoughts of creating an event in the tradition of folk religion and celebration began to take hold.
‘Pilgrimage is a part of the religious rhythm of most religions’, says Father Tate. ‘The practice of walking allows spiritual insight to take place.’ Participants in the ‘Way to St James’ could be of any faith or no faith at all.
The Huon Valley is blessed with outstanding natural beauty and Father Tate says there is a deep connection between the natural and the divine. ‘By allowing the beauty of the Huon Valley to seep in, people are opened to divine beauty’.
Leaving Mountain River mid-morning and setting a cracking pace, the pilgrims walked over the hills to Crabtree, then onto gravel roads through Lucaston to Ranalagh where the new St Mary of the Cross Catholic Church became their base for the evening.
Each pilgrim carried a scallop shell, a tradition of the Santiago de Compostela. The scallop shell has long been associated with St James for reasons perhaps lost in the mists of time. There are a number of explanations but Father Tate refers to the practice of pilgrims collecting a shell at Finisterre, or Land’s End, to signify the completion of the pilgrimage.
A team of dedicated volunteers kept everything running smoothly.
Day two of the walk began with a short stroll to Huonville then a bus ride to the junction of Channel Highway and Cygnet Coast Road. This was to avoid the dangerous narrow section of the channel highway out of Huonville. The route followed the Huon River for a while then turned into Silver Hill Road for a hot and tiring climb over the hills and eventually into Cygnet.
The Folk Festival was in full swing and Cygnet was pulsing with crowds, colour and music.
In the spirit of the Folk Festival, the pilgrims were joined by a choir and brass band in preparation for a parade the final couple of blocks to St James Church.
The pilgrimage also collected the St James icon to carry the last stretch. This artwork was designed as a ritual object by John Vella, head of the Tasmanian College of the Arts, and Sarah Owen, a Tasmanian graphic designer. The icon is made of copper on a wooden frame and was created by digital injet printing onto copper, which was then lacquered to ensure it will survive years of being lovingly polished. Fabrication work was done by art student Murray Anthill.
The procession to the church was triumphal, joyful and of course musical.
Finally the icon was placed in the Church and pilgrims completed their pilgrimage by offering their pebble burden to the Saint.
The church rang to the sounds of Olayo Jiminez singing Cante Jondo in the Spanish flamenco tradition and to the voices of the Melbourne Georgian Choir.
Father Tate spoke of the power of pilgrimage and beauty to lighten the burden and reorient the life of the pilgrim. The Festive Ritual finished with the burning of incense in the tradition of the Botafumeiro de Compostela, the huge thurible in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
The ‘Way to St James’ is set to become an annual event, and numbers are expected to grow every year. The success of the pilgrimage and the interest it has generated shows that the Huon Valley is an innovating and creative place, open to ideas and with the enthusiasm to pick up and run with them. The natural beauty of the Valley is the backdrop, but also the wellspring of inspiration for the vibrant, creative energy of our community.
Congratulations to Father Tate and the Catholic Parish of the Huon Valley on the success of the ‘Way to St James’ and thank you for the gift.