J.P. Sonnen – Global Pilgrim

Annual walking pilgrimage draws hikers to one of the oldest stone churches in Canada

Voices Sept. 11, 2017

Pilgrims gather in front of the old stone chapel of Our Lady of the Cape in Quebec, one of the oldest churches in Canada.  (Marie Reine du Canada;

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Cape is one of Canada’s five national shrines along with Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, the Ermitage Saint-Antoine de Lac-Bouchette, St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal, and the Martyrs’ Shrine in Ontario.

A fabulous tourist destination, the basilica and shrine (known officially as the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame-du-Cap), is located halfway between Quebec City and Montreal, keeping the practice of pilgrimage alive as a meeting place on the scenic St. Lawrence River. 

Since 2004, each year about 100 pilgrims gather from across the country for an annual bilingual walking pilgrimage to the shrine, covering 100 kilometres in three days.

The event is sponsored by an Ottawa-based lay organization known as Marie Reine du Canada. The walk begins at Saint-Joseph-de-Lanoraie in Lanoraie, Que., and ends at the Notre-Dame-du-Cap Shrine, located at Cap-de-la-Madeleine. 

All ages participate, clergy and laity alike, some returning again and again. For many it is a first-time experience of a walking pilgrimage in the medieval tradition. The group camps for three nights, beginning with the vigil on the Friday before the walk begins. Flags and banners are carried as well as a statue of Our Lady of the Cape.       

Mass is celebrated in churches along the route: in Lanoraie (if it is a first Friday), Berthierville, Yamachiche, and finally in the historic original Shrine of Our Lady of the Cape. The event is held with the blessing of the bishops of Joliette and Trois-Rivieres.

There are at least two chaplains available for confessions in both French and English, held en route while walking or before Mass. The pilgrims have their gear transported in a lorry truck and each night set up camp before dark.   

The idea for the walking pilgrimage was born in 2003 when seven parishioners of St. Clement Parish in Ottawa explored the idea for the first time. They drove and walked the route between Saint-Joseph-de-Lanoraie and the Cape, and in doing so something great was born – an annual pilgrimage.

The pilgrimage was based on a similar walking pilgrimage that takes place each year in France, on the feast of Pentecost. Nearly 20,000 participants walk 100 kilometres  in three days from Notre-Dame in Paris to Notre-Dame in Chartres. This event is hosted annually by a lay organization known as Notre-Dame de Chrétienté.

The first similar walking pilgrimage to take place in Canada boasted some 60 participants, with a French chaplain from Ottawa leading them, Father Hubert Bizard.  The chaplain celebrated Mass for the group and walked with them as they sang the rosary and hymns – some in French, a great way to experience the faith and see Quebec.

The first day of the pilgrimage the pilgrims cover 42 kilometres along the scenic St. Lawrence River, with a brief stop for Mass at Sainte-Genevieve-de-Berthier and then on to the town of Maskinongé, north of Lake St. Peter.

The second day, Mass is celebrated at 7 a.m. at the parish church at Maskinongé.  Afterwards, the pilgrims make their way some 37 kilometres through the town of Louiseville with a stop at Yamachiche for lunch. The day ends by setting up camp near the church of Notre Dame de la Visitation in Pointe-du-Lac.

The third day the pilgrims make their way back to the river to walk the last 25 kilometres, through Trois-Rivieres, where the group pauses for an early lunch in a park opposite the old Ursuline Convent. 

At the park, others join for the picnic and the last stretch of the walk. This includes children, seniors, those with disabilities, as well as young families with children and strollers. This way all have the opportunity to enjoy the celebratory arrival at Cap-de-la-Madeleine.

Participants arrive at the shrine in the early afternoon, welcomed by the sound of church bells for Mass in the historic chapel of the Shrine around 1 p.m. The small chapel, constructed of field stones in 1720, is a local favourite, built over an original church constructed in the 1600s. Called the "Old Shrine," this is said to be the oldest church in Canada in which Mass is still celebrated daily.

In 1855 a benefactor donated the miraculous statue of Our Lady that crowns the sanctuary – the only crowned Madonna statue in Canada. The statue's golden crown was a gift of the Franciscans in 1904, and the rosary she holds is made from wood from olive trees taken from the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. A newer basilica nearby was consecrated in 1964. 

This lovely destination, dedicated to Our Lady of the Cape, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, is a place of national heritage. Hopefully more Canadians will have the opportunity to visit here and pray.  Pope St. John Paul II made a personal journey as a pilgrim in 1984.    

Visitors remark how peaceful the shrine is with its quiet gardens, trees, landscaping, bridge and artificial lake. The property includes a rosary path, Stations of the Cross, and even a replica of the tomb of Jesus, modelled after the original in Jerusalem (known as the aedicule).

Countless cures and accounts of spiritual blessings have been attested in the name of Our Lady of the Cape in Canada. A great way to celebrate Labour Day weekend, the organizers are hoping in future years more will join from across Canada.   

In the medieval tradition, pilgrimages are always very Marian.  Of course Marian devotion does not to do away with the cross, but enables us to carry it resignedly after Christ. We are led on pilgrimage.  The pilgrim, in the footprint of Our Lady, receives aid from on high to carry the cross to the end, which makes the burden lighter no matter how heavy it may be.  

 J.P. Sonnen is tour operator and history docent with Vancouver-based Orbis Catholicus Travel.