Leonard DiVittorio of New York has been organizing the Ahearn Memorial Pilgrimage to the Basilica of Ste. Anne de Beaupré. CNS photo?Philippe Vaillancourt

American pilgrimage to Canadian shrine comes to end after 95 years

By  PHILIPPE VAILLANCOURT, Catholic News Service
  • August 12, 2017

STE. ANNE-DE-BEAUPRÉ, QUE. - Leonardo DiVittorio approached the statue of St. Anne and laid a wreath of flowers to mark the 95th and final pilgrimage by his group to the Basilica of Ste.-Anne-de-Beaupré.

The end of the Ahearn Memorial Pilgrimage, the oldest American pilgrimage to Canadian soil, is a “sign of the times” say organizers.

The pilgrimage’s importance to the shrine’s history is honoured in the basilica by a stained-glass window devoted to the founder of the group, Andrew Ahearn.

Following a workplace accident almost a century ago, the American from Springfield, Mass., was told by doctors he would be crippled for life. As a last resort, he went to Ste.-Anne-de-Beaupré to pray and was inexplicably healed on July 25, 1922 at the foot of the statue of St. Anne, on her feast day.

This remains a defining miracle for the shrine, which was founded in 1658.

Ahearn’s daughter, Rita Ahearn Rielle, recounted in a book the beginnings of the annual pilgrimage that peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, when 300 American participants, including people in wheelchairs or even in rolling beds, were brought by train to the town 35 kms east of Quebec City. Ahearn had promised to bring the sick and the crippled to the basilica every year if he was cured. He kept that promise all his life. After his death, Rita and Louis Rielle took over. When they could not do it anymore, DiVittorio took charge.

DiVittorio said although the time has come, the call to retire the pilgrimage is “heart-wrenching.” He said the change was necessary because the Redemptorists, which have managed the shrine since 1878, will no longer operate the nearby Basilica Inn and cafeteria in order to focus their energy on the shrine. The Ahearn special-needs pilgrims have relied on the services provided by the inn.

“We’re not innkeepers,” said Redemptorist Father Charles Duval, superior of the Ste.-Annede-Beaupré province. For him, the end of the Ahearn pilgrimage is a sign of the times facing the Church and this Quebec shrine.

Short on staff, the future of the inn remains unclear. The Redemptorists may abandon it altogether.

Bringing pilgrims with special needs from the United States to Canada each summer for a whole novena requires complex logistics for care and meals, DiVittorio said.

“I can’t do this for my pilgrims,” DiVittorio said.

DiVittorio is thankful for the extraordinary legacy of a pilgrimage that has changed the lives of thousands of people for almost a century. Now 59, he will continue to come on his own each year.

“St. Anne has guided me every step of the way to continue as long as I can continue. She’s had a hand in my life, every step of the way,” he stressed.

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