Our Lady watches over the horse-drawn sleds bringing building materials across the Rosary Bridge in this painting of the miracle of the ice bridge. Photo courtesy of Our Lady of the Cape Shrine

The year Our Lady froze the St. Lawrence

  • March 15, 2019

Anyone who has experienced the cold of a Quebec winter, where the wind whipping up the St. Lawrence Valley will chill the bones of even the hardiest of souls and it is a given that the mighty St. Lawrence will freeze over, can be forgiven for thinking a mild winter in this part of Canada is a myth.

But for the people of Trois-Rivieres, the winter of 1879 was one of those years. Mild weather caused parishioners of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine much consternation as it meant the stone and building materials needed to construct a new church, the parish’s third since it was founded in 1678, could not be hauled as planned across the frozen river. A new church was needed as the parish numbers were on the rise, much of the credit going to pastor Fr. Luc Desilets and his devotion to the rosary. 

As the mild winter progressed, the ice still had not formed. It seemed a miracle was needed for the parish to have materials on hand for the start of construction that spring. Then mere days before spring was officially upon them, the parishioners’ prayers were answered. Just as they were giving up hope after a long winter of prayer to Our Lady, an ice bridge formed. 

The parish’s devotion to Mary had waned over the course of almost 200 years since the Confraternity of the Rosary had been established in the parish. But Desilets had consecrated himself to Mother Mary and re-introduced the devotion to Sainte-Marie-Madeleine in 1867 after finding a small pig inside the church chewing on a rosary. It was a shocking scene, but it paid dividends as his consecration and renewed devotion to the rosary soon drew more and more people to the pews. The parish was granted permission to build a new church and material was purchased and was to be transported across the St. Lawrence when it froze that winter of 1879.

Parishioners sought the intercession of Mary and prayed the rosary all winter long for the ice to come. Desilets took to promising the Blessed Mother that he would dedicate the existing small fieldstone church to her and would not demolish it if by spring the frozen bridge would form.

The miracle came in the middle of March, at a time when the frozen waters would normally be melting away. Thin pieces of ice began to float down the river from Lake St.-Pierre, about 30 km upriver towards Montreal. These ice floes stopped parallel to Cap-de-la-Madeleine, from shore to shore, north to south. Under parish vicar Fr. Louis-Eugene Duguay, a few parishioners spent the next two days and nights fortifying the narrow ice path by pouring water over the ice to thicken it up. Using the heavy snow that was falling around their precarious positions over the river, they converted the ice into what has been commonly called the Rosary Bridge.

By March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph, the Rosary Bridge was stable enough to haul the building materials across it on horse-drawn sleds. It remained that way for a week, until the Feast of the Annunciation, while on each side of the bridge the St. Lawrence remained wide open. With this material, construction would begin that spring on what would be blessed Oct. 3, 1880 as Saint-Marie-Madeleine Church. And still standing today is the little fieldstone church, now called the Old Shrine, which true to Desilets’ promise was dedicated to Our Lady, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, in 1888. It also laid the grounds for a second miracle.

On June 22, 1888, the day of the dedication and inauguration of Our Lady of the Cape Shrine, a statue of Our Lady was placed on the altar. That evening, a physically challenged man, Pierre Lacroix, came to the church and asked for assistance from Desilets and Fr. Frederic Jansoone. As they prayed, all three men saw that the statue had opened its eyes. Amazed, the priests moved around the church to see if what they saw was really happening. Jansoone would for years talk about this event, where the eyes on the statue remained open for five to 10 minutes, well-formed and in perfect harmony with the rest of her face.

A century later, Pope John Paul II would declare Jansoone “Blessed,” on Sept. 25, 1988.

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