Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont., each year welcomes thousands of pilgrims. Michael Swan

Shrine welcomes, nourishes pilgrims

By  John Wilson, Catholic Register Special
  • August 26, 2023

Anyone who passes through the wooded hills surrounding Midland, Ont., will surely remember the stunning two-spired façade of Martyrs’ Shrine.

The majestic, yet humble, neo-gothic church that overlooks a shallow, wooded valley just south of Midland Bay was completed in the summer of 1926. Run by the Jesuits, the shrine is dedicated to the eight Canadian martyrs who worked among the Indigenous peoples of present-day central Ontario.  

The consecration of the shrine, which took place immediately following its completion, marked the beginning of the gatherings that would bring hundreds of thousands, over the years, to this landmark of the Canadian Church.  

Fr. Robert Foliot outlined the mission of this historic site as one seeking “to give people a nourishing experience of their faith and an encounter with the Lord and to send them forth on mission to live that life and to serve Canadian society.”

Pilgrimages are one of the ways the Jesuits seek to carry out this mission at Martyrs’ Shrine.

According to programs manager Christoph Lorenz, pilgrimages date back to its foundation.

“The very first pilgrimage to Martyrs’ Shrine was back in the 1920s and was actually a German (pilgrimage) out of Kitchener,” said Lorenz.

This initial gathering began decades of similar cultural pilgrimages which continue to the present day. The shrine hosts nearly 30 pilgrimages each season. Many are organized by and comprised of a single culture or nationality. Pilgrims of Slovakian, Albanian, Filipino and Tamil heritage make up some of the largest groups.

Foliot described the influence each pilgrimage has on the many who gather at the shrine.

“It unites them in their faith, but also reminds them of the roots of their faith because they come and honour their particular saints, as well as the martyrs,” he said.

This unifying power of the martyrs is evident at the shrine. The vast grounds are filled with statues of saints important to cultural groups that have visited.

Foliot described a recent monument erected by Vietnamese pilgrims.

“They have the risen Christ surrounded by all the many Vietnamese martyrs. On each side of that, they have bas relief of the eight Jesuit martyrs,” he said, going on to describe how the pilgrims captured the very goal of the shrine with this monument. “The Vietnamese martyrs they can relate to because it’s part of their history, but (they relate to) the Canadian martyrs because this is their new home. It is the faith that comes from their homeland, united with the faith in Canada.”

While the events of each pilgrimage vary, each consists of moments of fellowship and prayer.

“The biggest focus is always Mass,” Lorenz said, usually held in the language of the particular culture gathering that day. Following Mass, the pilgrims spend the day enjoying the grounds of the shrine and often a potluck meal.

The shrine will host a number of pilgrimages before the end of the season.

“It’s not a place of escape,” Foliot says, “it’s a place of nourishment and strength so that one can go back and serve Christ.”

Martyrs’ Shrine is open from May through Thanksgiving weekend each year.  

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.