ST. MALO — It’s no miracle that Madeline Hamonic makes the pilgrimage to the grotto in her hometown every year, but this year she sees it with new eyes.
During a recent bout with advanced cancer, she knew members of her parish and community were praying for her, but she didn’t make the connection to the shrine and grotto honouring St. Mary until a few weeks ago.
"I’m feeling pretty good and the people are still praying for me," the 73-year-old Hamonic says during a recent visit to Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto and Shrine, located just east of Highway 59 near the gates to St. Malo Provincial Park.
"I didn’t know until today that people came here and prayed for me."
People have flocked to this quiet spot near the Rat River since 1896, long before the construction of the highway and the provincial park. Rev. Abel Noret, the second priest of St. Malo Roman Catholic Parish, chose the spot because it reminded him of the grotto in Lourdes, France, where apparitions of Virgin Mary appeared repeatedly to teenager Marie-Bernarde Soubirous, later St. Bernadette.
It has been a gathering site for area parishes for the past 123 years, but the pilgrimage scheduled for Sunday marks the first time it has been an official event for the entire archdiocese of St. Boniface. Parishes are asked to cancel one of their Sunday masses to allow people to attend. Until now, the annual event was considered a regional pilgrimage.
"It builds up the common expression of faith and church," Archbishop Albert LeGatt says about the diocesan designation of the shrine and the annual pilgrimage.
"It’s a call to the faithful in all parishes."
The move to include the whole diocese means more responsibility for the St. Malo parish, which consists of French and English congregations worshipping in the same twin-steepled building constructed in 1892, located about half a kilometre across the highway from the shrine, Rev. Dominic La Fleur says.
"It means that we have to be more accountable and responsible," he says.
"We have to keep up the grounds and keep it safe and clean."
La Fleur says volunteers and summer workers have already spent weeks on maintenance and improvements, including repainting statues at the entrance of the site, sanding and staining the decking around the small 200-square-foot shrine and repairing the pews located 70 steps down to the shady outdoor chapel.
The parish maintains the site using donations collected during the pilgrimage masses, La Fleur says. A washroom building with about 10 flush toilets and running water will replace the portable toilets next summer, at an estimated cost of $30,000, funded by grants.
Open May to October, the shrine attracts up to 50 visitors daily, who can sit quietly and pray to St. Bernadette, represented through a mannequin in a windowed sarcophagus; peruse the copies of letters St. Bernadette wrote outlining her visions; or walk down to the pews facing the grotto. Other than a caper three decades ago where someone stole the mannequin, there has been little vandalism at the shrine or the grotto, La Fleur says.
"That’s a miracle in itself," he says.
"People respect it because it’s so peaceful."
La Fleur expects thousands of people to attend Sunday’s all-day event, which includes an English mass at 9 a.m., a French mass at 11 a.m., a pancake breakfast and an afternoon prayer service. The masses proceed no matter the weather, but the pilgrimage hasn’t had rain for many years.
"It is usually very serene and peaceful," La Fleur says of the atmosphere at the pilgrimage.
"Even when people are visiting, they keep it very quiet. It’s quieter here than in the church."
It may be quiet, but the atmosphere is warm and inviting, says Hamonic, who recalls attending with her grandparents when she was a child.
"It feels like a big family coming together and praying, and having the bishop here is a big thing."
Over the years, the shrine and the annual pilgrimage have shaped the St. Malo parish, located next door to the diocese’s summer camp and Catholic School of Evangelization, La Fleur says.
"It gives an extra focus and responsibility for St. Malo as a place of spiritual renewal and healing," he says.
Mikaela MacKenzie Photojournalist
Mikaela MacKenzie loves meeting people, experiencing new things, and learning something every day. That's what drove her to pursue a career as a visual journalist — photographers get a hands-on, boots-on-the-ground look at the world.
Parish priest Abel Noret found a spot beside the Rat River in 1896 which reminded him of the Grotto of Lourdes in France.
The first pilgrimage took place on Sept. 8, 1896, when parishioners walked from their church to the site on a freshly cut trail through the dense forest.
A grotto is a natural or artificial cave used to house statues. A shrine is a sacred or holy place honouring a saint, martyr or deity.
Over the years, people have visited the shrine and the grotto directly beneath it to pray for healing. Many miracles have been attributed to the site, and plaques honouring the miracles hang inside the small wood-framed shrine.