At the top of Mission Hill in St. Albert and behind the dominating brick exterior of St. Albert Catholic Church sits a quiet stone grotto, originally — and meticulously — hand-built by seminarians.
But it won’t stay quiet for long.
Pilgrims from across the Edmonton Archdiocese will gather at Mary’s Grotto for the annual St. Albert pilgrimage Aug. 18-19, coming in droves to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary as they have since 1938.
Mimi Belhumeur, 91, attended the very first pilgrimage and continues to come every year if she can.
“It’s the prayers and the atmosphere around the pilgrimage, which is an atmosphere of piety and heartfelt prayers,” said Belhumeur, whose family first moved to the St. Albert area, just north of Edmonton, in 1936.
“Mary is our mother, so she’s important in our life. She’s been important in our life for many years.”
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the historic pilgrimage, which occurs on the weekend closest to Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption of Mary.
The pilgrimage includes outdoor masses, vespers by candlelight, and anointing of the sick, which is highly anticipated every year. Sunday Mass will be celebrated by Archbishop Richard Smith, followed by a barbecue lunch.
Though it is mostly visited during the pilgrimage, the grotto remains a strong base for the community year round, says Belhumeur.
“We have a lot of people that come to pray at the grotto during the daytime. They come for a walk and stop and say their rosary. There’s always something going on around the grotto.”
Additions for the 80th anniversary pilgrimage include introduction of the candlelight vespers and a presentation called “Encountering Mary,” which will feature music, art, and praying the rosary.
Belhumeur recalls a simpler experience back in 1938. People brought their lunch so they could stay and attend the healing of the sick celebration in the afternoon, and they attended Mass during the weekend. Families also set up tables to sell whatever they could to pilgrims. For the Belhumeur family, it was ice cream, sold in small Dixie cups and served with wooden spoons.
“I was 11 years old then, so I can’t remember too, too much. I do remember that there were a lot of people, there were always very big crowds that were here,” she said. “It was a very popular pilgrimage, really.”
St. Albert Parish is one of the oldest in what is now the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton. It is located on the site of the St. Albert Mission, which was founded in 1861 by Father Albert Lacombe, a missionary priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
Mary’s Grotto was added in 1920 by Oblate seminarians who modelled it after the grotto at Our Lady of Lourdes in southern France, said Ray Pinco, a local parish historian.
Working over their summer vacation, the seminarians scoured the fields of the Oblates’ farm for suitable stones for the grotto. Parishioners also contributed stones, and money was raised for sacks of cement.
“Most of it was a big pile of stones, loosely piled on top of another, but then they used some cement to secure some of them in place and to build an area for the altar,” said Pinco.
The seminarians’ parents also raised money to purchase statues of Mary and St. Bernadette, who experienced the apparitions at Lourdes and discovered the healing waters there.
By the time it was completed, the original grotto was a 7-by-10-metre stone wall, with a total cost of $80.
In 1932, there was an initial attempt to hold a pilgrimage, which ultimately failed for reasons unknown, said Pinco. Six years later, in 1938, Father Joules Bidault, then pastor of St. Albert Parish, organized the first pilgrimage. It was the same year Pinco was born.
Pinco remembers his first time at the pilgrimage in the early 1940s, and says it was a major event even then.
“In my youth, the pilgrimage was a big deal, not only to parishioners of St. Albert, but (also) to parishes around St. Albert,” he said. Pilgrims would walk from nearby towns like Villeneuve and Morinville to attend the celebration, which also attracted First Nations and Métis pilgrims from nearby Lac Ste. Anne.
Mary’s Grotto was then rebuilt in 1957, after the original structure’s cement foundation had severely deteriorated. A mix of the original stones and new cement, the current grotto is a 10-by-21-metre curved stone wall, with a total cost of $14,000 and weighing more than 970 tonnes.
Serena Shaw, music and young adult co-ordinator for the parish, started attending the pilgrimage when she began working there five years ago.
“The experience is certainly very prayerful, but I think the main thing I would say about it is that it’s really about community,” said Shaw.
“It really gives people an opportunity come together and to work together as a group to put the event on. So I think it gives people the opportunity to use their gifts and talents, to be involved with the parish.”
Belhumeur is quick to note that while the pilgrimage is open to people of all faiths, those who recognize the importance of Mary in their own lives will have a unique opportunity at the pilgrimage.
“This is one occasion of coming and feeding yourself on what she has to give us, and then (to) go out and live whatever we have to live, with her support,” she said.
While Belhumeur moved away from St. Albert for a brief spell, she has attended the pilgrimage every year since coming back in 1983. As she prepares to attend the 80th pilgrimage, she says she’s happy, but also quite surprised.
“It’s surprising that I’m still around, anyway!”