Hands cupped together, dozens of Catholic girls line up before a priest in white garb standing at the altar, waiting to receive a blessing.
"I sanctify with holy water to make you think of love for God and think of nonviolence," says Atish Maniar as he spoons water into the hands of the Grade 11 students and blesses them.
This isn’t regular worship, but a field trip for St. Mary’s Academy students, opening with explanations of Hindu practices and beliefs by Maniar. The retired doctor, now Hindu pandit, ends the hour-long session at the Ellice Avenue Hindu temple by blessing each student, a gesture that surprised and delighted them.
"It was really welcoming, because they allowed us to participate in their rituals," says Sarah Huebert, one of 46 Grade 11 students who participated in the recent day-long excursion to three houses of worship.
Understanding other religions and cultures is the driving force behind these visits to holy places around Winnipeg, explains Brian Rochat, local program co-ordinator of the Canadian Centre for Diversity.
"The main purpose is to gain a further appreciation for the differences out there and a further appreciation for how diverse the city is," explains Rochat, who attended high school in post-apartheid South Africa. Every year, he organizes dozens of these free field trips for schools, both private and public, taking students to a variety of Winnipeg’s houses of worship.
On this trip, the exposure to diversity includes a hour-long visit to the Hindu temple, where students sit cross-legged on the rose-coloured carpet, then moves a few blocks east to a prayer demonstration and question and answer period at the Winnipeg Central Mosque, and finally to a discussion circle at the Baha’i Centre on McMillan Avenue.
"Both the mosque and the temple were really eye-opening how they were different from Christianity," Chloe Werle explains over the lunch break at the multi-ethnic foot court at The Forks. "The whole religious views are totally different. At the Hindu temple, they worship the cobra and the monkey. It’s nice to see different things all the time."
For Olena Kozel, the visit to the mosque gave her a better understanding of the hijab, the head covering Muslim women wear to prayer. While at the mosque, Kozel and the other girls wore scarves on their heads, or pulled up the hoods on their jackets.
"The woman was saying it was kind of a personal choice about how committed you are to it," she says, referring to the explanation given by Qamer Hameed, co-ordinator of education at Islamic Social Services Association. "Here (in Canada) you’re given a personal choice, but in other places you’re not."
Questions about the hijab, dating and marriage, and what Muslim women wear to the beach are often asked by people of other faith traditions, says Hameed, who wears a hijab tied like a bandana, revealing her large earrings.
"High school students will ask about issues in the news," says Hameed, 28, who recently graduated with a degree in religion from the University of Winnipeg. "I think it’s the insight at that age that surprises me."
These field trips allow teenagers to exercise their natural curiosity to explore new ideas, says Dale Swirsky, who teaches religious studies at St. Mary’s. The visits to various houses of worship give these students, most of whom are Catholic, an opportunity to see how other faith traditions worship.
"Part of the goal is to connect to God the way a Hindu would worship or a Muslim would worship," says Swirsky. "The second is the whole idea of understanding and respect. This is seen as something very important for our Catholic youth to have their appreciation for God and other religions.
At the final stop, three members of the Baha’i community present basic tenets of their faith to the students, some who are perplexed at how this tradition connects to their own Catholicism.
They ask questions about baptism, prayer, feasting and belief in heaven and hell during their 45 minutes in the former Masonic Temple, where the city’s Baha’i community meets for prayer and community meals.
"Hell is actually being far from God and the concept of heaven is the closeness to God," explains Baha’i Koorosh Saxton in response to a question about heaven and hell.
It’s a whirlwind trip through ritual, theology and cultural practices, but at the end of the day, there’s just a bit more understanding of beliefs and worship beyond their own tradition.
"The thing I thought was really important was they talked about the light in everybody and they recognized God," says Dayna Erlendson about the experience. "It doesn’t matter if you wear a head scarf, take off your shoes or pray, we see the God in every person, which unites us."