Holy Angels Grotto in Schreiber, Ont., is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Photo courtesy of Holy Angels Church

Coming closer to God at Holy Angels Grotto

By  Sarah Wentzell, Youth Speak News
  • September 11, 2019

When Fr. Terry Sawchuk talks about the potential of the Holy Angels Grotto to bring togetherness to the world, it’s more than a divine wish. It is literally built right into its foundations.

Holy Angels Grotto in Schreiber, Ont., — a small town of just over 1,000 people on the northern tip of Lake Superior — opened last summer in the backyard of Holy Angels Church  and has quickly become a destination for pilgrims.

 “Our grotto is a sign of hope,” said Sawchuk. “In a world marked by ever-greater isolation, it speaks of togetherness. In the face of so many techniques of tearing down, it speaks of the power of building up. For a people searching for a moral compass, it points to God. Who would imagine that a backyard transformed for the glory of God could be so much. And yet it is, and so much more.” 

The grotto’s architecture has ties to many different countries and religiously significant areas, enabling people to feel near to the worldwide Church.

It incorporates dirt and stones from areas such as Ukraine, Italy, Poland, Garabandal in Spain, Notre Dame and Lourdes in France, Mt. Sinai in Egypt, the Coliseum and Catacombs in Rome, Fatima in Portugal, as well as from several areas across Canada, including an Indigenous community. 

The large, crimson-tinged cedar cross made from reclaimed telephone poles contains a piece of St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, while Bethlehem is represented by soil under the altar. 

Sawchuk emphasized how building the grotto has united people to one another and to God. 

“The gifts and talents of so many people came together to form something that was far greater than what anyone could achieve individually,” said Sawchuk. “More than a few people have been brought closer to God and the Church through the experience of working on the grotto.”      

The inspiration to build the grotto began at the end of a Mass outside Holy Angels Church in 2017. Every year the annual outdoor Mass had to be held on an improvised altar, but when the idea of constructing a permanent shrine was mentioned, a spark was immediately ignited.

Built entirely by volunteers, the first stone of the grotto was placed on June 1, 2018. Seven weeks  later, the grotto received its formal unveiling and blessing during a Mass celebrated by Thunder Bay Bishop Frederick Colli on July 22.

The grotto is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, although the search for a statue of Our Lady to include in the grotto posed some difficulties. Attempts to find one were fruitless until a statue of Our Lady of Fatima was offered by Anita Mirabelli from Thunder Bay.

“I like to think that Mary found us, and not the other way around,” said Sawchuk. “I am convinced that Mary’s guiding hand was never far from the project from beginning to end.” 

Sawchuk said people often go to the grotto alone simply to meditate and pray. 

“Many have been touched by the serenity and simple beauty of the space,” Sawchuk said. “Our grotto guest book includes many words of appreciation and thanks for graces and inspiration received.”

During a pilgrimage on July 13, eight members of the Discalced Carmelite Secular Community of Thunder Bay travelled to Schreiber to celebrate early the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The pilgrims recited the rosary and attended Mass. 

 One of the Carmelite pilgrims, Margaret Walshe, mentioned that her most memorable moment from the pilgrimage was adding her own stone to the grotto in honour of the Blessed Virgin. 

“It was giving something of myself,” Walshe said. “A permanent symbol of my service to Mary as a lay Carmelite.” 

Walshe said the grotto is continuing to expand, since people are still contributing stones. 

“The seed of love and freedom that Jesus Christ planted within our hearts is there,” said Tammy Wilson, from Thunder Bay, after her pilgrimage to the grotto. “It is up to us as individuals, and as a loving and kind community, together, to nurture this seedling to its full bloom.” 

(Wentzell, 16, is a Grade 11 student in Seton Home Study School in Thunder Bay, Ont.)

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