The image of the Virgin Mary is set in the grotto at St. Peter’s Colony. The shrine is celebrating its centennial year. Photo by Alan Hustak

St. Peter’s Colony pilgrimage marks centennial

By  Alan Hustak, Catholic Register Special
  • July 29, 2017

REGINA, SASK. – As preparations during the First World War for an allied offensive against the German Empire were underway in Europe during the summer of 1917, residents of Regina were convinced that German-speaking immigrants in nearby St. Peter’s Colony were preparing to attack the Prairie city.

Their fears were grounded in the fevered pace of construction taking place on the banks of Many Bones Creek near Kronau, a mere 25 km away. Rocks were being split, concrete was being laid and there was widespread suspicion that a platform was being built to house a super heavy howitzer Big Bertha cannon.

Archbishop Olivier Mathieu put the panic to rest. He assured residents that what the German colonists were building on the outskirts of Regina was not a military installation but a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes.

When Mathieu consecrated the grotto on Aug. 15, 1917, 5,000 people made the pilgrimage. It has become a tradition ever since. This year, Archbishop Daniel Bolen will lead the centennial pilgrimage on Aug. 12-13.

“In our day and age, when in many ways we are distanced from our roots and our faith sometimes seems as though it stands on shaky ground, it is more important than ever to uphold the tradition of going on a pilgrimage,” says Bolen, whose maternal grandmother came from St. Peter’s Colony.

“In Little Gidding, the last of T.S. Eliot’s four quartets, he writes, ‘you are not here to verify, instruct yourself or inform curiosity, or carry report. You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid.’ This is what we do when we go on pilgrimage. We go to places where God has spoken to our ancestors and promises to speak to us too — places where prayer has been valid.”

St. Peter’s Colony began in 1886 when German-speaking Russians from Rastadt on the Black Sea came to Canada to avoid conscription into the Russian army. Other Germans followed and by 1900 there were three colonies within close proximity — St. Peter’s, St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s.

The shrine at St. Peter’s was built by Fr. Henry Metzger, who became the area’s first parish priest in 1915. Not only did he speak five languages, but he was an accomplished artist best known for his portraits of Indigenous people. His unsigned paintings of religious themes decorate a number of churches in rural Saskatchewan. Before entering the priesthood Metzger studied art in Paris, Rome and visited Jerusalem.

During the first summer of the Great War, Metzger led a procession to the site where he led parishioners in prayers for an end to hostilities and began the devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes. Because of the war, it took another two years before enough money could be raised to build the shrine.

The bronze statue of the Virgin Mary was cast by Daprato-Rigali in Chicago, which had been around since 1860. The plaster image of St. Bernadette Soubirous, who had the visions of Mary at Lourdes in 1858, was made by Carli in Montreal, at the time the largest producers of religious statuary in Canada.

The number of pilgrims to the shine declined during the 1970s, but in recent years the annual pilgrimage has again attracted the faithful in the thousands.

“When I was a child I remember being taken by my parents to the grotto, but religion went out of my life for awhile,” says photographer Gordon Domm, who has helped convert the old school house next to the church into a temporary exhibition space chronicling the history of the shrine. “I’ve spent the last 12 years working on the story.”

The church and grotto were listed as a Canadian historic site in 2007.

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