This Sunday, the entire country comes to a standstill in memory of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
One week later, Galloway Township and Egg Harbor City will celebrate the life of a world-renowned peace activist and hometown hero, who until recently, was largely unknown in her own hometown.
For 28 years, Peace Pilgrim walked everywhere she went, totaling over 25,000 miles, covering the entire country, as well as Canada and Mexico, and spreading a simple message: The path to world peace begins with inner peace.
While she was known as Peace Pilgrim, that wasn’t her true identity. In fact, most people didn’t know her true identity, and even fewer people knew she came from Egg Harbor City, right next door to Galloway Township.
The truth is, Pilgrim, once known as Mildred Lisette Norman, was a homegrown hero. She had one brother and one sister, but as her younger sister, Helene Young, said, it felt like a family of nine.
“It was my mom, my dad, my older sister and my brother,” Pilgrim’s younger sister, who is now 96, said. “But my father’s three unmarried sisters and one brother lived with us.”
Young was one of the few people who kept track of Peace Pilgrim everywhere she went, via letters sent and received at the Cologne Post Office.
It was those letters sent from that post office that led then-Galloway resident Barbara Reynolds to learn that Peace Pilgrim’s sister lived in the area, and ultimately led to the Peace Pilgrim celebration, to be held for the fourth year in a row next weekend, Sept. 16-18.
“(Peace Pilgrim’s) known around the world, and nobody knew she was from Egg Harbor City,” Reynolds said. “I thought she was an amazing role model and that people need to know.”
Reynolds first learned of Pilgrim in 1999, when she attended Quaker Meetings in Absecon. For one meeting, the Quakers brought school children to Pilgrim’s gravesite and had them take turns reading from her biography.
“I was blown away,” said Reynolds, who began reading books, listening to tapes and talking with people who know of Pilgrim’s exploits. When she discovered Pilgrim’s sister still lived in the area, the two became friends.
“She went before city council in Egg Harbor City and told them it was time people knew about her,” Young said. “They offered her a piece of land next to City Hall.”
This is where Peace Pilgrim Park now stands. The park has two statues of Peace Pilgrim, one of which stands on tiles made by the children of the Egg Harbor City school district.
The final step for Reynolds was to honor Peace Pilgrim by celebrating what would’ve been her 100th birthday in 2008. However, one celebration wasn’t enough, and this year marks the celebration of what would’ve been Pilgrim’s 103rd birthday.
Peace Pilgrim was born in 1908, and died in 1981. She spent 1953-1981 as a peace activist. Her journey began when the big family she was once a member of broke up once her father died in a car accident at a young age, Young said.
“We didn’t have any insurance,” Young said. “We lost our home and we had to move.”
Still known as Mildred Lisette Norman at the time, Pilgrim was married and moved to Philadelphia to be with her husband, who was a mechanic. She became involved in the peace movement, and split with her husband when he went off to war.
“He went into the Army, and she wanted him to be a conscientious objector,” Young said. “He met a woman while he was in Germany, and (Pilgrim) said that without a family, she was free to pursue her objective of world peace through inner peace.”
This is when she changed her identity, officially becoming Peace Pilgrim.
“She didn’t want her identity to be known,” Young said. “She wanted her message to be the focus. She remained anonymous her whole life. She didn’t want anyone to focus on her.”
And because she changed her identity, few people knew where she was from, even those in her hometown.
She was a member of a hiking club in Philadelphia, and undertook a pilgrimage from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA, and in less than a year, she presented a peace petition in Washington, D.C.
“She collected signatures along the way,” Young said.
In all, she embarked on seven pilgrimages in the name of peace, returning home once in a while to see her family.
A tragic end
In 1981, after nearly 30 years of walking to spread her message of peace, Peace Pilgrim was killed in an automobile accident, one of the rare times she set foot in a car.
“It shows the most dangerous place to be is in a car,” Young said. “Through her memorial services, we try to keep her message alive.”
Shortly thereafter, her identity was revealed, and Egg Harbor City could celebrate its hometown champion of peace.
Young said it’s important for children to receive the message, and students from the will be helping to set up the event as part of their Day of Service.
“We didn’t do a good job making peace, so it’s up to them,” Young said of the children.
With the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon rapidly approaching on Sunday, members of the Friends of Peace Pilgrim nonprofit group are left to wonder what message she would have in the wake of the attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have been waged since.
“She always saw the good in people,” Reynolds said. “She would say we have to look for the good in people. She was an eternal optimist and a pacifist.”
“We often wonder what she would have to say about that,” Young said. “She would have had an answer for that. She was very knowledgeable.”
A statue of Peace Pilgrim now stands at the United Nations University of Peace in Costa Rica, alongside statues of Ghandi and Tolstoy.
Young said her sister had a heavy influence on lives across the world, and because of Pilgrim, Young has met people from everywhere. She is now a peace activist in her own right.
“She really changed my life,” Young said. “I’ve met people from all over. Her book was printed in other languages, and I’ve met people from all over. I had a woman from Spain stay with me for three weeks. I’ve met so many people through my sister.”
Peace Pilgrim: Her Life in Her Own Words was written after she died, using her own writings in a bulletin she issued to her supporters during her seven pilgrimages. Pilgrim also wrote a book called Steps Toward Inner Peace.
Text from this book, and the entirety of her biography are available at peacepilgrim.com.
The one-hour documentary, “Peace Pilgrim: An American Sage Who Walked Her Talk,” which features a scene in which the Dalai Lama speaks about Peace Pilgrim, is attached to this story.
Carrying on Peace Pilgrim's mission
This year’s celebration begins on Friday night, Sept. 16, and the guest of honor will be Planetwalker John Francis, an environmentalist who walked from California to Wisconsin.
“He began in California when he was in his teens,” Young said. “When he lived in California, he saw an oil spill and its devastating effects. He swore he would never drive a motorized vehicle again, and he didn’t speak for 17 years. He said he would learn more by listening.”
While in Wisconsin, he earned his Ph.D. in environmental sciences. He will speak following a screening of I AM, a movie made by Tom Shadyac, at Cedar Creek High School. The movie will be screened at the school’s Dr. Adam C. Pfeiffer Performing Arts Center, beginning at 7 p.m. It asks the question, “What is wrong with the world, and what can we do to change it?”
“I saw Tom Shadyac on the Oprah Winfrey Show in May and instantly thought this would be just the type of inspirational film Peace Pilgrim would’ve supported,” celebration Chairwoman Nanette Galloway said. “When we contacted Mr. Shadyac to find out if we could show the film during our celebration, his people said they were so pleased to be part of Peace Pilgrim’s legacy.”
The film briefly features Pilgrim, and Francis is also interviewed in the movie.
A peace pole will also be dedicated for the high school.
On Saturday, Sept. 17, a two-mile Intergenerational Walk for Peace will be held, beginning at 9 a.m. The walk will begin at Peace Pilgrim Park and continue to Pilgrim’s home, and back. The course is “scenic and mostly flat, and other historical sites will be visited along the way.”
Registration begins at 7:30 a.m., and is $5. T-shirts will be given to the first 100 participants. High school, middle school and community-based teams may walk for free if they wear their own team shirts or jerseys. There will be refreshments and give-aways.
An educational program and community park will be held in the park following the walk, in which hot dogs and veggier burgers will be served. Those attending should bring a covered dish to share. Entertainment provided by D.J. Dan Slam and a unifying drum circle led by Dave Shaman begin at 2 p.m.
The celebration concludes on Sunday, Sept. 18 with an interfaith spiritual service hosted by the Atlantic County Area Friends Meeting and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Jersey Shore at the Unitarian Church on Pomona Road in Galloway. Service begins at 10 a.m.
Throughout the three-day celebration, the celebration committee, in conjunction with the National Walk A Mile in My Shoes (WAMMS) will be asking for donations of gently worn shoes for the needy in Atlantic County.
According to Galloway, there are about a half dozen volunteers who work together to put the event together. It is the first time the event will be held in September. It usually takes place in July, on Pilgrim's birthday, but the event was switched this year because of the "often oppressive heat, and because we wanted to get more students involved," Galloway said.
For more information on the event, visit peacepilgrim100.com.