It won’t be the same old Martyrs’ Shrine when it opens to visitors on May 6. The 91-year-old shrine has undergone some changes, with $125,000 in upgrades planned for this year. Photo by Michael Swan

Martyrs' Shrine poised for transformation

  • April 29, 2017

Mystics, missionaries and martyrs helped found the Church in Canada. Their lives of faith, their dreams, their failures and successes set the template for who we are meant to be. Which is why a summer pilgrimage to the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont., can be more than a pleasant Sunday outing.

When the 91-year-old shrine opens May 6, pilgrims are in for much more than a repeat of past years. St. Joseph’s Church has been restored, with its old high altar back in its central position. Relics of the martyrs will be displayed for adoration at a new side altar. There’s a new chapel, dedicated to St. Ignatius of Loyola, in the basement and beside it a new meeting room outfitted for audio-visual presentations about the lives of the Canadian Martyrs.

In part, the changes are being financed by the sale of 21 Huronia paintings by Canadian master William Kurelek. Originally commissioned by the Jesuits to aid the educational program at the shrine, the illustrations of the life and mission of St. Jean de Brébeuf and his companions each measure about 23 x 30 cm. The collection is expected to fetch between $80,000 and $120,000 at a Waddington’s auction June 19.

The decision to sell the paintings didn’t come easy, but in the end the Jesuits had to ask themselves what would serve their mission best.

“The paintings, in and of themselves, are not directly linked to our mandate,” said Martyrs’ Shrine director Fr. Michael Knox. “We are not an art gallery.”

The Jesuits will retain high-quality digital reproductions of the paintings and the right to use them in programming at the shrine.

The $125,000 in capital upgrades planned for this year are just the start.

On July 21, native and Jesuit, French and English Canadian paddlers will embark from Martyrs’ Shrine on an 850-km canoe trip to the Kahnawake First Nation near Montreal. This 32-day journey is part of the Canadian Jesuit response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 “calls to action.”

By fall, a new, permanent, year-round residence for the Jesuits will be constructed at the shrine, completing a transformation from a part-time, summer-season ministry to a full-time Jesuit presence with a summer season dedicated to the pilgrim experience and a winter season filled with high school retreats, parish ministry in the Midland-Penetanguishene area and special events for the Christmas and Lent liturgical seasons.

The transformation of Martyrs’ Shrine will also extend to new opportunities for walking pilgrimages. In partnership with Georgian Bay Trails, this summer a new 89-km walking trail will be marked out between Barrie and the shrine and connect with the Trans Canada Trail in time for the 2018 season.

Knox has a clear and succinct formula that defines the Jesuit mission at the shrine.

“This is about walking with St. Jean de Brébeuf and the companions into a relationship with Christ. The holiness of this place is in who was here and what happened,” he said.

Knox would like pilgrims to the Martyrs’ Shrine to be able to dive as deeply into the history of the place as they can. He spent years at Oxford University completing his doctorate in the life, culture, politics and spirituality of the early Jesuit missions in Canada. Over nine months he read the 5,978 pages of the Jesuit Relations in their original 16th century French three times.

He came away with a conviction that there’s more to the martyrs than their martyrdom.

“It’s crucial to remember that the holiness of the martyrs is rooted in a life of faith,” he said. “That moment of choice these individuals faced — to embrace Jesus in a moment of death — came from a life of faith.”

A new program of high school retreat experiences, which invites students to snowshoe into the shrine, learn about the lives of the martyrs and celebrate a fireside Mass next to the graves of Brébeuf and St. Gabriel Lalemant promises to make the story into something more than a history lesson for the next generation.

“The shrine is a landscape in which people from other cultures come to celebrate who they are in a context of the history of Canada,” said Knox.

The largest annual pilgrimage in recent years has been the Tamil Catholic Community pilgrimage, scheduled for July 15. Last year it brought 15,000. The Filipino pilgrimage (Aug. 5) comes in around 10,000. The Polish Pilgrimage (Aug. 13), with its heroic week-long walk through southern Ontario to Midland, continues to be a major event.

There are 120,000 visitors per year to the shrine and since 1926 it has welcomed over eight million. Some of that more recent history will be on display near the new altar for the martyrs’ relics, where the abandoned crutches, wheelchairs and walking canes of pilgrims who found healing at the shrine will be on display.

The pilgrimage experience isn’t a holiday away from the daily grind of reality, but rather a deeper and more meaningful experience of reality, said Knox.

“It’s so real,” he said. “You get real people coming with their suffering, coming for an experience of God.”

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