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Hagerstown group has 'life-changing experience' in Australia

September 23, 2008|By JANET HEIM

HAGERSTOWN -- A delegation of youth and adults from Hagerstown wasn't far from Pope Benedict XVI as he rode past in the Popemobile during World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney, Australia.

They, along with more than 220,000 other Roman Catholic youths and chaperones, attended World Youth Day, which is an invitation from the Pope to the youth of the world to celebrate their faith around a particular theme. The event's Web site says the triennial pilgrimage is the largest youth gathering in the world and that with 170 countries attending, it was the largest event ever hosted in Australia.

The Hagerstown group of eight youths and four adults from St. Ann Roman Catholic Church also represented the largest delegation of any church in the Archdiocese of Baltimore to travel to Sydney.

Karen Gullace, Life Teen director at St. Ann, led the Hagerstown delegation. She also attended World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto and World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany.

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After more than two years of fundraising and with lots of support from the church, the group traveled halfway around the world for the July 15 to 20 event, leaving behind the heat of Maryland summer for winter in Australia. To allow for travel time and sightseeing, the group left July 12 and returned July 23.

None of the group members -- Sean Austin, Katie Bechtel, David Burkey, Cody Harmon, Andrew Hilmoe, Theresa Mills, Kaitlyn Perry, Emily Warren, Karen Gullace, Chris Kenawell, Bob Bechtel and Jeana Harmon -- had ever been to Australia.

"We didn't sleep a lot," Gullace said.

The Hagerstown contingent kept in touch with family here through a daily blog journal, taking turns updating it with a daily highlight.

Some of the highlights included daily morning catechetical sessions in one of 250 churches in the Sydney area, opening Mass with Cardinal George Powell of Australia followed by fireworks, an array of concerts and cultural activities, a walking pilgrimage to Randwick Racecourse that took about two hours, followed by an outside sleepout on the field the evening before closing Mass with the pope Sunday morning.

The closing Mass was attended by about 400,000 people, according to the event's Web site.

Gullace said the event was well-organized, with an effective public transportation system and venues for large groups. She said since Sydney hosted the Olympics in 2000, it was well prepared for hosting a large event.

"I've seen this be a life-changing experience for some of our youth. It's a gift for me to be a witness and be part of this journey," Gullace said.

She recently had dinner with a young man who attended World Youth Day in Toronto and Germany with her. He recently made his first vows of profession to the Dominicans. While Gullace said she couldn't credit WYD with his choosing such a path, she felt it contributed to his growth in faith.

St. Ann's youth attending WYD 2008 would agree.

"WYD was more than I ever expected. What I will remember the most is the feeling of the unification of the world church. Half a million Catholic teens from all corners of the world all joined together with the Holy Father -- well that's something everyone should witness," said Cody Harmon in his remarks to the congregation after the trip. He is a senior at Washington County Technical High School.

North Hagerstown High senior Katie Bechtel said "World Youth Day '08 in Sydney, Australia, was amazing. I am so glad God gave me the gift to be there."

For Theresa Mills, a sophomore at Frostburg State University, the biggest revelation for her was discovering how the Holy Spirit worked through her mother, offering strength and support on a daily basis.

Andrew Hilmoe, a senior at St. Maria Goretti High School, said he's usually shy, but WYD forced him out of his comfort zone, which he said was a positive experience.

"Thanks to my journey to Sydney this summer, I have taken another great step in my faith journey. ... I think that with all that went on that week, I'll be able to more openly talk to people about anything, especially my life as a Catholic teen," said Andrew in his presentation at St. Ann.

While David Burkey, a junior at North Hagerstown High School, found the experience "amazing," he also had a word of caution for first-time travelers to Australia: Never eat the Vegemite, a yeast extract spread that is popular there.

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