Once more to St. Olav’s Way: Reflections on the SON virtual pilgrimage

Photo: CH / visitnorway.com Nidaros, endpoint of the pilgrimage.

Photo: CH / visitnorway.com
Nidaros, endpoint of the pilgrimage.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

The Sons of Norway offered its members an interesting challenge at the beginning of 2014: become pilgrims and walk the 387 miles of the Old King’s Road (St. Olav’s Way). This route begins in the ancient section of Oslo and continues north along Lake Mjøsa, up the Gudbrandsdal valley, over the Dovrefjell mountains, and down the Oppdal and Gauldalen valleys and ends at the site of St. Olav’s tomb in Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim.

Keep in mind, however, that it was a virtual pilgrimage. What did this mean? In this particular instance, it meant that the pilgrimage had two parts. First, the pilgrim was to cover the distance, the 387 miles, in any convenient location. I myself walked every day in my own neighborhood in the Washington, D.C. Metro area and recorded my miles. Then I would go to my computer and follow the same number of miles on the Way outlined on the website of the Sons of Norway. It was the next best thing to being in Norway.

By participating in this pilgrimage, I not only got some healthy exercise (I did actually walk 387 miles) but I also learned a great deal about Norway as I visited historic landmarks and tourist destinations along the route.

What perhaps interested me the most was the history of St. Olav’s Way. It was established in the 10th century in commemoration of Olav, the King who became a Saint. Pilgrims walked it for over 500 years. It was the fourth most important pilgrim route in Europe, after those of Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims came from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Greenland, Russia, the Baltic countries, Germany, and Britain. The journey usually took 25 days and the pilgrims timed it so that they would arrive at their destination on July 29, St. Olav’s Day. There was a network of hospices along the way where the pilgrims could eat and sleep.

The pilgrims would bring gifts and offerings with them for the Church. This would be an important source of revenue for the Church in the Middle Ages. The Church also sold badges to the pilgrims that they would attach to their clothing. These badges were made of medal and had an image of the saint.

The Way was popular for the 500 years that Norway was a Catholic country. Then the Reformation arrived in 1537, and the country became Lutheran. The official veneration of St. Olav came to an end, and pilgrimages were prohibited.

Recently, the Way was “rediscovered” and refurbished and, therefore, pilgrims and hikers are once again walking along the route. The Norwegians, however, tend now to cover only the section in their local vicinity, usually on weekends, not the entire route. (Who today would have time for such a pilgrimage?)

Those of us who completed the virtual pilgrimage may go to Norway in the future and actually walk a short distance along part of the Way. The most popular starting point for an abbreviated walk is Dovre. Some of my ancestors came from Dovre, so that sounds like a good place for me to start!

Was the Sons of Norway program a success? “Absolutely!” says Erik Evans, the SON Communications Manager. “The feedback we received from our members who participated has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Ninety-six members from the U.S. and Canada completed the pilgrimage. Washington State topped the list with 23 pilgrims, Illinois had 15, and Minnesota and Montana tied with eight each. We look forward to the next cultural challenge. Maybe we will break the 100 mark the next time!

The Sons of Norway is preparing a prize for each finisher. What will the prize be? It is still a mystery, but I will definitely let you know when I receive mine. Maybe it will be a round-trip airplane ticket to Norway. Perhaps that is too much to hope for!

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, DC. She values her Norwegian heritage.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 19, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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