There’s something about Mary that inspires such love and devotion.
For some it’s her maternal instinct as the mother of Jesus. Or the challenges the Blessed Virgin faced throughout her life. Or her own fidelity to God and her support and intercession on our behalf. The reasons are as unique as each individual.
And for 80 years, thousands have flocked to St. Albert to pray at the seven-by-10-metre stone grotto built in her honour by seminarians from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
This year, a steady stream of people made their way to the grotto for the annual pilgrimage on the Aug. 18-19 weekend, and packed the outdoor Mass and picnic.
For many women in particular, Mary is a role model.
“She is not just a woman up there on a pedestal. She went through a lot of things in her life. And I think she is a good model for us,” said Mimi Belhumeur, 91, who has been attending the St. Albert Pilgrimage since it began. She was 11 at the time.
“When things are rough, we just have to think: she had it rougher than us at certain times. If she can go through something like that, then maybe – with her help – I can go through it too.”
Kristen Schiller, a mother of four young children, added: “Mary is somebody I aspire to emulate as much as I can when I lose patience with my kids, which is more often than I’d like to admit. Whenever I find motherhood challenging, I try to offer that up to Mary. I try to say a quick Hail Mary and ask for her strength.”
Now that devotion has been formally recognized.
The Archbishop of Edmonton has officially declared Mary’s Grotto a Marian shrine. It’s the second such declaration in as many weeks. The grotto at Skaro, northeast of Edmonton, received the same recognition as pilgrims marked the 100th anniversary of that pilgrimage.
The declarations stem from last year’s celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, when bishops across the country consecrated their dioceses on July 1 to the protection of the Blessed Virgin.
“Like every mother, Mary remains close to her children,” Archbishop Richard Smith said in his homily – delivered at an outdoor Mass on the last day of the St. Albert pilgrimage. “She is always near us and earnestly wants us to turn to her for the help – the unsurpassable assistance – that she can and wants to give us by the power of her intercession.”
Archbishop Smith added: “We as a Catholic people, in our desire to follow Jesus, cannot remain faithful to Him without turning to his mother.”
Kristen Schiller does that. She said she can relate to Mary on a spiritual level, and on a personal one.
“Seeing everything she had to go through as a mother, and now being a mother myself, her struggles give me strength to know she could go through that and still be so holy,” said Schiller, whose four kids range in age from seven years to three months.
“She never gave up. She never turned away from God. She always stuck with the faith, so I try to try to use her to strengthen my own mothering.”
The declaration of the grotto as a Marian shrine is a recognition of Mary’s importance, Schiller said.
“I think it’s telling us that we need strong mothers and we need Mary in our lives. We can turn everything to Mary. We can give her everything and she’s strong enough to help us through it. It really shows the importance of Mary in our faith.”
Schiller and her husband Greg were married in St. Albert Parish, and every year the family tries to attend the pilgrimage to the grotto behind the church building.
“It was a very important part of my childhood growing up,” Greg said, “and I want to give them that same strong foundation for their lives. It’s really cool. I grew up in St. Albert, so I remember visiting this grotto, coming and saying the rosary here often and just walking over.”
Father Ignacy Warias said he hopes the shrine designations will raise awareness of the Skaro and St. Albert pilgrimages, encourage more people to attend, and “spread more devotion to Mary and also to the ways we can seek Jesus’ healing and Jesus’ ways in our lives.”
From the church windows, Father Warias, the pastor of St. Albert Parish, can see visitors praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary every day.
“They come to seek the intercession of Mary in whatever needs they have in their lives. This is not artificially made as a shrine. It is recognition of what has been happening for 80 years.
“Many people have contributed with their prayers and their sacrifices to make this place holy,” Father Warias said, not the least of whom are the Oblates. Their history in St. Albert dates back to the mid-19th century, and the Marian declaration – and the St. Albert Pilgrimage itself – is seen as recognition of that.
“It’s a great gathering of a community of faith,” said Father Ken Forster, the provincial superior of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
“People come together and share their faith and we get enriched by that. We also know that the Blessed Mother is our mother and we can turn to her and ask intercession, assistance and guidance.”