The Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupre in 2013. Photo/courtesy of Dhinakaran Gajavarathan via Flickr [http://bit.ly/2cPHDNV]

Shrine tour opens eyes to Church role in early Canadian history

By  Herman Goodden, Catholic Register Special
  • September 17, 2016

I realize it isn’t everybody’s ticket to dreamland. Indeed, I can think of many for whom it would constitute unmitigated boredom and misery. But if you’ve got some sort of semblance of faith or an interest in early Canadian history or an aesthetic love for religious architecture and art (or a galloping case of all three), then a pilgrimage to the Catholic shrines of Quebec can make for a wonderfully stimulating holiday.

In the last days of July my wife and I joined 49 other pilgrims on a chartered bus from the incongruously named Badder line out of St. Thomas, Ont. It took us on a five-day trip to St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal (stomping ground of the newly canonized Brother André), Our Lady of the Cape in Cap-de-la-Madelaine near Trois-Rivieres (the most thoroughly Catholic town I’ve ever visited on this continent), the Basilica of Ste. Anne de Beaupre (a magnificent cathedral dedicated to Our Lady’s mother and the oldest pilgrimage site in North America), Notre Dame Basilica-Cathedral in old Quebec City (our first visit to that exquisite burg since our honeymoon in 1977) and the touchingly modest Shrine to the even more recently canonized Kateri Tekakwitha in Kahnawake.

Then, with our taste for such excursions nicely whetted and our holiday savings not quite exhausted, we signed on in late August for a one-day outing to the Canadian Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont., and, just across the highway, the reconstructed 17th-century mission of Ste. Marie among the Hurons. That trip really should have been two days to do justice to both sites but as we’d been to the Shrine twice before and Ste. Marie once, we didn’t feel as frustrated by our timetable as we might.

Bus travel is a new wrinkle in our lives that we’re enjoying more than we expected. I’ve never had a driver’s licence so this is a way to spare my wife the drudgery of long-haul driving. It’s also been a treat for me because of the sustained conversations we’re able to have when she isn’t required to direct at least half of her attention elsewhere. And when the conversation subsides, I don’t feel like I’m leaving her to do all of the work if I take up a book and put my mind somewhere else for an hour or so.

I became a Catholic in 1984 and racked up a few short bus tours and retreats over the years. My wife only converted last year so this was her introduction to the glories of Catholic tourism — the entire busload reciting the rosary or the Divine Mercy every hundred or so miles (sometimes sweetly engaging; other times like a shot of Nyquil to the vein), the bracingly bare-bones accommodation in church-run hostels (no TV, no Wi-Fi . . . yes!), the raid on each shrine’s gift shop to stock up on holy hardware (my only complaint being the limited range of books at all such emporiums) and the conversations you strike up with some of your fellow pilgrims (and carefully avoid with others).

It was a holiday like no other, simultaneously testing and enriching our faith and driving home two truths to deeper levels than I’ve appreciated before.

The first is the essential and formative role the Church played in the very earliest development of Canada. As a lifelong Ontarian and student of the secular school system, I previously regarded the Black Robes as a sort of religiously eccentric wing of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a type of roving civil servants adept at the arts of colonization. As a youth, I didn’t see them as courageous pioneers and martyrs who risked everything to plant the seed of faith in the new world.

The other reaffirmed truth is that ours is a faith that asks for everything we can bring to it. One of the most dramatic ways in which this is expressed is by the splendour of these churches and shrines — the sheer scale of most of them, the ingenuity and daring that went into their design and construction. St. Joseph’s Oratory is carved into the side of a mountain, for goodness’ sake. Then there is the painstaking artistry and attention to detail that goes into their outfitting, adornment and decoration.

Each one of them in its very different way constitutes a three dimensional prayer of love and praise.

(Goodden is a writer in London, Ont. His latest book is Continuing City.)

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