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Pilgrimage to Our Lady of the Cape.

As the month of May is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it might be helpful to reflect on the Rosary and on pilgrimages. early in the 13th century, when the Albigensian heresy was threatening to overtake the whole of Christianity, St. Dominic implored the aid of the Blessed Virgin whose dignity was under attack. She instructed Dominic to preach the Rosary to the people as a unique safeguard against heresy and vice (particularly pertinent now in Canada). He carried out her injunction with enthusiasm, and the heresy sputtered out.


The Rosary is featured prominently during the annual pilgrimage to Chartres Cathedral, France, dedicated to Our Lady. Pilgrimages to holy places are a religious tradition, undertaken by people from all walks of life, to obtain grace, to strengthen faith, and to do penance. During the Chartres Pilgrimage, dating back over a thousand years, pilgrims follow arduous trails through fields and forests--many of the same paths trod by Joan of Arc. They start from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and walk, limp or hobble to Notre Dame Basilica in Chartres, a distance of 110 km. (72 miles), over a three-day period. All the kings of France, except the last two, made the penitential trek from Paris to Chartres, (probably not all on foot).

Early in the 20th century, Charles Peguy, the French poet, whose daughter was very ill, promised to make the pilgrimage if his daughter was healed. She was, and subsequently made the pilgrimage with him.

The Chartres Pilgrimage, which fell into disuse about 50 to 60 years ago, was revived by Father Francois Pezzato 22 years ago. Since then, over the Pentecost weekend, 10,000 to 15,000 mostly young people from around the world gather at Notre Dame Cathedral, to continue the tradition. They set out through the streets of Paris, praying, sometimes singing the Rosary--holding up traffic for up to four hours--and meditating on particular themes suggested by the organizing group, centred on penance and conversion.

Chartres Cathedral was built in the 12th century, over a 25-year period. Recently, because of its memorable architecture, UNESCO declared it a heritage site. Remarkably, it houses the veil that the Virgin Mary is alleged to have worn during her sojourn here. How the veil reached Chartres is another story.

In 2003, a large contingent from St. Clement Church in Ottawa, with others from across the country and the United States, set out on foot from Notre Dame. Behind the St. Clement banner, and carrying their back-packs with emergency supplies, they prayed and sang their way through the French countryside. Sore feet, blisters, heat-induced ailments and muscle strain are among the problems that beset the pilgrims. But on the third day, when they finally spied the spires of Notre Dame in the distance, their spirits soared, and the pace picked up. Begun in 1996, this was the fifth such pilgrimage for St. Clement Parish.

Canada's shrine

Canada has its own national shrine to Our Lady, at Cap-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec, which dates back to 1888. In 1661, when a church was first erected there, it flourished for a while under the Jesuits. The Recollets took over in 1681, with Father Paul Vachon as first pastor; and in 1694, Father Vachon obtained permission to establish a Confraternity of the Holy Rosary.

After the death of Father Vachon, the parish remained without a resident pastor for over a hundred years, until 1844, when Father Leandre Tourigny arrived, and among other activities, re-established the Confraternity of the Rosary in 1845. Four successive pastors were named from 1850 to 1860.

During that period, religious practice in Cap-de-la-Madeleine, as in the rest of the country, was at an ebb. At midnight Mass for example, in 1856, there were only three men in the church. Where was everybody? Literally, out fishing! They used to make holes in the ice to gather "petits poissons des cheneaux," which came up the river at that time.

In 1867, on the eve of the feast of the Ascension, Father Desilets, pastor since 1864, went to the sacristy to hear confessions. He waited but nobody came. On his way back, stopping by the church to pray, Father noticed that the door was ajar, and he could hear noises. Putting on the light, before the altar of the Virgin Mother, he saw a small pig chewing on a rosary. Incensed, he raged: people drop the Rosary, and pigs pick it up. He promised the Blessed Virgin to work towards promoting the practice of praying the Rosary, and so instructed his parishioners. Soon participation at Sunday Mass increased, and the church became too small.

A bigger church was needed, but the people were poor. The soil was sandy, and there was no stone. For economic reasons, it was decided that the old church would be demolished, and the stones used to build a new one. The additional stone required would be gathered on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, at Saint-Angele. The churchwardens directed that the stone be prepared, so that it could be transported the following winter. In those days, because of the thick ice that usually covered the St. Lawrence, boats were useless. Instead, horse-drawn sleighs were used.

The ice bridge

But the winter of 1878-79 was very mild, and the ice never formed. The parishioners, turning to the Blessed Mother, recited the Rosary to obtain a bridge of ice. Months went by, the trees were beginning to form sap to make maple syrup. Still no ice formed on the river. People continued to pray. Father Desilets promised the Blessed Mother to dedicate the small church to her, if they were able to transport enough stone to build up to the windowsills. He also promised St. Joseph to have a Mass offered on his feast day, if a strong ice bridge appeared.

On the night of March 16, an ice bridge formed from one side of the river to the other. By March 19 (the feast of St. Joseph), it was solid enough for approximately 100 sleds (some borrowed from neighbouring villages) to transport 300 meters of stone from one shore of the St. Lawrence to the other. Father Desilets, ill at that time, could see from his sick bed the empty sleds crossing by lantern light all night long, and the full ones returning laden with stone. By March 25, when the ice began to melt, there was enough stone to build up to the windowsills, as Father Desilets had requested. The people named the ice bridge the Bridge of Rosaries. Later, a more permanent bridge was built to commemorate the miracle.

The following summer, construction got under way for the new Ste. Marie-Madeleine Church; and Father Desilets, as promised to Our Lady, dedicated the original, small church to her on June 2, 1888. Our Lady's statue, previously on a side altar, was placed above the high altar, where it remains. The old parish church was officially named Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Shrine. This remains the title of the Virgin Mary at Cap-de-la-Madeleine.

Father Frederic, a Franciscan, took part in the celebration, and gave the homily. In it he claimed: "In years to come, pilgrims will come from all families of this parish, from all parishes of this diocese, as well as from all dioceses of Canada."

That same day, about 7 p.m., while three men, Father Desilets, Father Frederic (now, Blessed Frederic), and a handicapped person named Pierre Lacroix, were praying at the Communion rail, something extraordinary happened: the statue of the Virgin whose eyes are usually cast downward, at that moment, opened wide and looked out. Her eyes appeared to be black; her expression was partly severe, mixed with sadness. This lasted about 5-10 minutes. (Remember, Our Lady of Fatima to Sister Lucy: "Poor Canada.")

A few days before Labour Day 2003, four young men, Chris Champion, the instigator, Paul Meechan, Dominic Ferrari (all three, veterans of the Chartres Pilgrimage) and Michal Janek from St. Clement Parish, Ottawa, undertook a pilgrimage to Our Lady of the Cape. Starting from St. Joseph Church in Lanoraie, a village 100 km. away, they took turns carrying the St. Clement banner, singing and praying the Rosary, and meditating on designated themes, as they trudged along. On arrival, under the benign gaze of Our Lady of the Cape, Father Hubert Bizard, of St. Clement in Ottawa, offered Mass for them.

It is hoped that this will become an annual event, to beg Our Lady's intercession for Canada.

Jean Ferrari is a retired physician and writes from Ottawa, ON.
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Author:Ferrari, Jean
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:May 1, 2004
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From Dr. M. J. Ferrari re Our Lady of the Cape (May 2004, pp. 13-14).

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