First Nations representatives lead pilgrims to the grotto during the pilgrimage in 2015. The annual event usually attracts thousands, but due to the pandemic and recent fire damage it has been cancelled two years in a row. B.C. Catholic file photo

Mission pilgrimage cancelled again as grotto damaged

By  Agnieszka Ruck, Canadian Catholic News
  • July 19, 2021

VANCOUVER — The largest annual event in the Archdiocese of Vancouver, which draws thousands of Catholics to a historic site in Mission, has been cancelled for the second year in a row.

Ryan Murphy, an organizer of the pilgrimage to the Our Lady of Lourdes grotto, said someone attempted to set fire to the historic Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes July 4, and a string of vandalism including graffiti, smashed doorknobs and even bullet holes have recently been inflicted on the property.

The organizing team had already determined earlier in the year to cancel the pilgrimage due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the recent attacks mean even a small, videoed event for people to watch at home may not happen.

“Things have changed dramatically as far as the pandemic goes, but it seems we’re in a pandemic of a different sort right now. It’s really sad,” he said.

The damage has been reported to RCMP.

The grotto’s origins in Mission date back to 1892 and a promise made by Bishop Louis-Joseph d’Herbomez to Mary to build a shrine in her honour in a solitary place he where liked to meditate. He died less than two years later, but his successor ensured the grotto was built.

The grotto and other buildings in the area including St. Mary’s Residential School deteriorated with time and were dismantled in 1965. The land was sold to the B.C. government in 1974, but the grotto remained in the memory of locals and was eventually rebuilt and maintained by a secular heritage society.

The current structure dates to 1997 and has been regularly visited for decades by many Catholic groups. It has been the site of marriages, baptisms and the annual pilgrimage that attracts several thousand people.

“This is very much a diverse activity that people come to year after year,” said Murphy.

The Catholics who trod the ground at Heritage Park are annually made aware of the First Nations history of the place. Murphy said there is always an announcement recognizing that the event is held on Sto:lo territory, and the column of pilgrims is led up the hill by a group of First Nations representatives, dressed in traditional clothing and beating drums.

The grotto’s location in a public park tends to make it a target for graffiti, however, this is first time someone has tried to burn it down, which is particularly troubling for Murphy.

“There are First Nations people who are Catholics, and (the vandals) have broken their heart.”

Fires have destroyed several Catholic and other churches across Canada in the last month, reducing some of them to rubble. The incidents come after the findings of unmarked graves at former residential schools, and they are believed to be linked.

The foundations of St. Mary’s Residential School remain visible in the park, but there’s little connection between the school and the grotto besides that at some point the land they stood on was owned by Oblate missionaries.

“It was never the school’s church,” Murphy said.

Today the city of Mission owns the land and the grotto is maintained by a group of volunteers.

Whatever the motivation, Murphy is grateful the fire at the grotto was noticed by a passerby before it did significant damage. The building stands about eight feet away from a wooded area, and in this dry summer a fire could have had truly devastating effects on the community.

Murphy had hoped to give the grotto a new coat of paint this year, but with the costs of repairing the damage and installing security cameras, the paint job will have to wait. He said anyone wishing to volunteer or donate to repair efforts or future events at the grotto can contact St. Joseph’s Parish in Mission.

It’s still undetermined whether a Mass with a small gathering will take place in August, to be recorded and shared online. Updates will be shared on Pilgrimage to the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes Facebook page.

Murphy encourages Catholics wishing to visit the grotto for some quiet prayer and meditation to contact St. Joseph’s Parish and make an appointment.

He hopes the pilgrimage will come back in a big way in 2022.

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