Pilgrims make their way to the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont. The shrine is visited by about 100,000 people of 27 different cultures annually. (Photo by Marek Teczar)

‘Diversity of cultures’ comes together in Midland

By  Luc Rinaldi, Catholic Register Special
  • June 15, 2011

In 2003, Zofia Szaflarski was invited by a friend to join a weeklong walking pilgrimage to the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont. Hesitant but curious, Szaflarski agreed and since then she has been “addicted.”

Several walks later, Szaflarski now helps organize and promote the annual pilgrimage.

“It’s very religious and very spiritual,” she said of the walking pilgrimage, particularly popular among Polish Catholics. “But what a lot of people forget is that it’s also a lot of fun.”

With about 1,000 other people, Szaflarski spent a week trekking  125 kilometres from St. Patrick’s parish in Wildfield, Ont., to the Shrine. The group celebrated Mass each morning and then walked, prayed, and sang until they lit a bonfire after they stopped for the night. This year’s pilgrimage will culminate at the Shrine on August 13.

“It was a different religious experience than Sunday Mass — it’s not so expected,” said Szaflarski. “It was just a different way to be spiritual and praise God.”

Since opening in 1925, the Martyrs’ Shrine has been a home for the universal Church. From the Shrine’s very beginnings — when 13,000 gathered to celebrate its opening Mass – pilgrims of all cultural backgrounds have come to pray, reflect and search for God.

This year, more than 100,000 pilgrims from 27 different cultures are expected at the Shrine, which marks the location where St. Jean de Brébeuf and seven other Jesuit saints lived, worked, and were martyred. Brébeuf and the martyrs worked as missionaries among the Hurons in the 17th century, converting thousands of indigenous people.

“The shrine is a continuing of the mission that the Jesuits started 400 years ago,” said John Zurakowki, assistant director of the Shrine.

“From the very beginning, the Jesuits had this deep desire to reach out to those on the fringes of society.”

It’s an extension of the martyrs’ vision, he added, “to have a place where a diversity of cultures could meet.”

Every weekend over the next four months, a different ethnic group will make a pilgrimage to the Shrine. The groups, ranging in size from 50 to 9,000 pilgrims, will spend the day in prayer on the Shrine’s 75-acre grounds, which include an outdoor Stations of the Cross path, as well as a collection of statues, gardens, and memorials.

“Everybody comes to this place because they know it’s a holy place,” said Zurakowski, who works with parishes and group leaders to organize pilgrimages. “They’re looking for a retreat from the craziness and business of the real world. They’re searching, and some of them don’t know why.”

A family that attended the Tamil pilgrimage in past years knew exactly what they were searching for, although it wasn’t the same for each member of the family. The parents were searching for a miracle that would cure their 10-year-old daughter of an inoperable brain tumour. The girl, however, said she wasn’t hoping for a miracle — just that her family would find peace and acceptance if she passed away.

“Every day there is a memorable story,” said Zurakowski.

Each pilgrim that visits the Shrine walks in the footsteps of pilgrims before them, including Pope John Paul II, who came in 1985, and St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who made pilgrimages to Spain, and France.

“A lot of them are searching for God, and on the pilgrimage they realize that God has found them,” said Zurakowski.

“God has never forgotten them to start off with.”

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