Worshippers attend a candlelight procession in 2016 at the annual Skaro Pilgrimage in Alberta. The shrine was built in 1919 by Polish pioneers who hauled 600 wagonloads of stones to the site. CNS photo/Lincoln Ho, Grandin Media

Western Canada pilgrimages make measured comeback

  • August 12, 2021

The ongoing spectre of COVID-19 prevents pilgrimages from completely roaring back to life in Canada, but celebrated summer religious summits in western Canada were to make measured comebacks on Aug. 14 and 15. 

While a tough decision was made to stage strictly localized celebrations at the Skaro Shrine in Lamont County, Alta., (northwest of Edmonton) and Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine east of Saskatoon in Rama, Sask., in 2020, the landscape improved enough in 2021 to enable these cherished religious sites to welcome out-of-area pilgrims to celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Shepherding the pilgrimage at the Skaro site — a grotto built in tribute to Our Lady of Lourdes — is Fr. Carlos Nunez, pastor of Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Fort Saskatchewan. Nunez began his posting July 15 after transferring from St. Joseph Parish in Killam. He’s enthused to partake in the proceedings.

“I had the honour of attending the pilgrimage once before as a spectator,” said Nunez. “We are excited to host everyone again and that (Edmonton) Archbishop (Richard) Smith will be on hand to celebrate Mass. There is a great desire to come together in prayer.”

Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto at Skaro, hand-built by the Polish pilgrims who settled the area, drew crowds of around 3,500-4,000 people in pre-pandemic years. Bus tours transported large groups to the site and families turned up in their recreational vehicles.

This dynamic will be achieved again, but with some modifications. The biggest adaptation for this event is that there will be no communal meals. Each pilgrim is responsible for securing their own food and drink. There will also be no religious merchandise sold.

The main program was to be hosted on Saturday night as attendees will partake in reconciliation, a vespers evening prayer service to offer thanksgiving and worship and an evening Mass hosted by Smith.

Over in Rama, St. Anthony’s Church, turning 100 years old in 2022, is helming the pilgrimage at Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine. Early settlers in the Rama community, largely from Austria, were instrumental in the establishment of the shrine, which was completed in 1941. The first pilgrimage was hosted that year, eight decades ago.

Mary Kowalyshen, one of the event organizers, said the weekend “will be lower key” as only an English service will occur on Aug. 15, compared to the tradition of Ukrainian and Polish Masses also being hosted on the Sunday. No food service is available at this pilgrimage either.

Saturday’s schedule is still busy as the afternoon and evening festivities feature a Chaplet of Divine Mercy, Stations of the Cross, confessions, Mass and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

While a smaller crowd is expected compared to the 1,000-plus audience the weekend normally attracts, Kowalyshen says the advance excitement is considerable.   

“The weekend has always attracted families, people appreciate the tradition of the weekend and there has been a lot of unrest in the last couple of years and people just want to come on a pilgrimage and have the Blessed Virgin Mary intercede for their needs.”

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