Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont., has already announced it won’t re-open for the 2021 season due to the pandemic. Photo by Michael Swan

Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland cancels 2021 season

By 
  • March 6, 2021

For the second year in a row, Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont., won’t be open to the public this summer.

Staff have been laid off, summer hiring cancelled, construction projects delayed as the Shrine looks ahead to May 2022, said Jesuit Fr. Michael Knox.

It all comes down to money, or a lack thereof, due to a severe drop in revenue due to the pandemic and lockdown regulations.

“There isn’t some magic pot of money sitting somewhere on reserve to help us,” Knox told The Catholic Register.

A combination of cost-cutting and extra fundraising through the “Protect Our Mission” campaign should see the 95-year-old shrine through to next year, Knox said.

“We’re able to sustain this treasure, have it nice for when people come back and have the resources available to bring the staff in required to make it work,” he said. “God is really helping us. The love of people is really helping us. But we’re not out of the woods.”

The national shrine houses relics of St. Jean de Brebeuf, St. Gabriel Lalemant and St. Charles Garnier near the site of the 17th-century Ste. Marie among the Hurons mission, on a hill overlooking Midland. Over the years the Shrine has also become a pilgrimage focus for hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have erected statues, crosses and altars on the grounds to celebrate their spiritual and cultural heritage.

“Obviously the cultural pilgrimages can’t happen because the laws won’t allow it anyway,” said Knox.

Any attempt at a partial opening would be a logistical nightmare, Knox said.

“It would be impossible to activate the 30-per-cent rule here,” he said. “We have so many washrooms, so many buildings. There would be no way to control that.”

Nor does Knox see any possibility vaccinations will have advanced through the summer enough for a half-season in August and September.

Midland Mayor Stewart Strathearn isn’t second guessing the decision to stay closed, though he knows it will affect the area’s tourist economy.

“It’s one of the major attractions. It’s 140,000 pilgrims, roughly,” he said. “It’s going to have a negative impact, that’s for sure.”

But Strathearn’s concerns go beyond the economics of the shutdown.

“I’m hopeful that it’s not going to impact their ability to provide spiritual and emotional supports to the broader community,” he said. “They’re basically integral to the fabric of the community with respect to spiritual and emotional supports, particularly with a pandemic going on.”

Knox and the Jesuit community at the Shrine are determined to continue ministering, even if they can’t welcome the crowds.

Like many parishes, the Shrine has been livestreaming Sunday Masses on its website (martyrs-shrine.com). But they’ve also opened a toll-free phone line for prayer and brief spiritual conversation at 1-855-495-7729. Online, people can request a Mass to be said for a person or intention, they can make an offering, they can even pay to have a Jesuit light a candle on their behalf. The gift shop remains open online.

The Jesuits are also leading eight-day Ignatian retreats online.Knox is particularly excited about the possibility of welcoming families of up to six people, one family at a time.

“They could come and they have that personal encounter. They’ll have some kind of liturgical experience. They’ll have exposure to some of the grounds for a period of time. A Jesuit will be with them the whole time — at a distance, safely, a lot of outside activity,” he said.

Once the season begins, the online streaming of Masses will ramp up from just Sundays to daily.

When pilgrims return in 2022, Knox anticipates there will be new spiritual and pastoral needs the Jesuits will be called upon to meet. Job losses, business bankruptcies, family separations, marriage breakdowns, deaths and long-term illness have a human cost the Church must be ready to help with.

“The question is, what are those needs? How are we going to change the way we do things here to meet them?”

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