It’s time to tell this story, which is a small part of a strange and wonderful item of local history…
In 1993, I moved to Cologne, New Jersey. Cologne is an unofficial neighborhood, with a post office but no boundaries, located in sprawling Galloway Township. I moved to a small farm, on a street with more woods than houses, and rather little traffic. The nearest town is Egg Harbor City, three miles away.
One evening a woman bicycled into my driveway and introduced herself as Helene Young, representing the March of Dimes. We had a pleasant chat about the neighborhood, and the changes she had seen in the decades since she started collecting for the March of Dimes.
Helene wore a t-shirt bearing the name and logo of what I recognized as a “radical” film company. This was unusual in conservative Cologne, and I was curious. I asked about it. Helene replied, “They came to make a documentary about my sister. My sister was known as Peace Pilgrim. Did you ever hear of her?”
Indeed I had! I had heard of a woman who travelled on foot and refused to identify herself except as Peace Pilgrim. She would show up, talk to people and groups about the importance of inner peace, stay in people’s homes, and then walk away. She carried no money and no possessions. You couldn’t contact her. If you were lucky, you might meet her. She was a mystery, a wandering “holy woman” or extreme eccentric. One of a kind…
That was all that happened at the time. Helene left on her charitable rounds. I wrote down her name and noticed her small house near the post office. I found and read the book Peace Pilgrim – Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, and recommended it to a few friends.
That might have been the full extent of it, but one evening I walked up my street to Germania Cemetery and wandered around reading the gravestones, which carry many familiar local names. And there I found Peace Pilgrim’s grave, marked with both of her names! I was moved by it, because the mystique surrounding her hidden identity was so powerful. I stood there for a while, looking around, wanting to be sure I could find the grave again.
I decided to bring the children from my Quaker congregation to see Peace Pilgrim’s grave. One sunny day we met at the Cemetery, a dozen or so kids and adults. We read from the Peace Pilgrim book, talked about her unusual ministry and ate a picnic lunch. Someone produced paper and crayons and made a rubbing of the grave marker. It was a happy outing!
After that, events took on their own momentum. Barbara R, one of the picnickers, was especially impressed by Peace Pilgrim’s life and message, and she struck up a friendship with Helene Young. Steps were taken to preserve the clippings and other documentation of Peace Pilgrim’s travels.
Barbara decided it was wrong for Peace Pilgrim to be unknown in Egg Harbor City, the town where she was grew up. Now there is a park dedicated in her name, and annual events celebrate her life and message.
Helene Young, now almost 100 years old, continues to ride her bike along my street and up to the Cemetery where her sister and other family members rest. Her circle of friends includes many who are fascinated by Peace Pilgrim and her message. I count myself lucky to be Helene’s friend and neighbor.
What about the book? By all means, read it! It is not a “polished” offering. You can also find several web sites to fill out detail, and form your own opinion of Peace Pilgrim’s unique life and message.