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J.P. Sonnen – Global Pilgrim

Canada houses the oldest shrine in North America

Voices July 13, 2017

The shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré is known as a place of prayer and healing, writes J.P. Sonnen. Built in 1946, it reports an average of 40 miracles a year. (sanctuairesainteanne.org)

Located alongside the historic St. Lawrence River, at the doors of Old Quebec, the Côte-de-Beaupré regional county reveals through its rich landscapes and cultural heritage one of North America’s premier pilgrimage sites.

Many pilgrims arrive by traveling the picturesque Route de la Nouvelle-France, filled with sights and sounds that bring together a wealth of Canadian history, nature, personages and a sense of wonder at the rich Catholic history of Canada.

The route is one of the oldest thoroughfares in North America. Pilgrims walk the scenic way from Old Quebec to Côte-de-Beaupré, arriving at the Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, a place of prayer and healings.

The original route was mapped out by St. François de Laval, the first Catholic bishop of Quebec, and was formerly used by locals to transport supplies to and from Quebec City.

The architecture of France and England come together as well as the imaginative Quebecois culture.

The highlight of the route for many, with its 400 years of history, is the shrine, located at the foothills of the Laurentian Mountains.

Each year an annual report is published which relates about forty miracles.  

The pilgrimage history of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré is marked by extraordinary events, which continue to this day. In fact, each year an annual report is published which relates about forty such miracles.

The pilgrimage history of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré is one that is marked by extraordinary events, which continue even to this day, averaging 40 reported new miracles a year.

The present shrine was built to last the ages, in Romanesque Revival style, and was completed in 1946, but its history goes back centuries, beginning with sailors who would find themselves ship-wrecked off the coast, on their way to Quebec City. Saint Anne is the patron saint of sailors.

Legend has it that in 1650, a Breton ship was caught in a storm in the perilous waters. The mariners prayed to St. Anne for help, vowing that if she spared their lives and saved their ship and its contents, they would build for her a shrine.

The storm abated and the sailors duly honoured their agreement. A shrine was built which grew and attracted local settlers.

In 1658 land was donated for the original chapel, which eventually became the site of the modern-day basilica.

Due to the popularity of the shrine, the church was enlarged several times to accommodate the many locals and pilgrims from Quebec and beyond. The present-day basilica was built on the site of the prior buildings in 1926, four years after the 1876 basilica was destroyed by fire.

During construction, a worker by the name of Louis Guimont, suffering from excruciating back pain and walking with a crutch, was miraculously healed.

This was the first of an endless series of healings which helped the location become known for miracles. This first episode was quickly followed by other testimonies by people of faith, little faith, and no faith.

Word spread and soon Anne of Austria, the queen consort of France, began to support the shrine.

People came to view the new sanctuary as a special place where miracles were wrought from heaven.  

Paralytics were said to walk, the blind see, and the sick healed of every kind of ailment. Thus people came to view the new sanctuary as a special place where miracles were wrought from heaven.

Devotion to St. Anne was already very popular in France. When the French came to the New World, they carried this religious and cultural aspect with them.

In 1671 the Hurons came on pilgrimage, establishing a tradition of Indian devotion to St. Anne that later spread to all regions of Canada.

A magnificent statue of St. Anne was brought from France and placed in the shrine in 1662. It is this same statue, one of the most splendid works of visual art in Canada, that is considered by many to be miraculous and is venerated by pilgrims today.

Historically, very little is known about the life of St. Anne. She was the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the grandmother of Jesus. Devotion to her began in the early years of Christianity, the result of early oral tradition. The principal source for the narrative of her life is from the so-called Proto-Gospel of James, also known as the Protoevangelium of James, which was written around 150-200 A.D.

This ancient document, although not a part of the Bible, relates the touching story of Mary's own childhood and the birth of Christ. From the early years of Christianity this text spread throughout the Orient and led to a subsequent diffusion of devotion to Saint Anne.

The devotion spread throughout the Occident, or Western World. During the Middle Ages, pilgrims, merchants, and Crusader knights travelling to Europe brought back stories and miracles attributed to the parents of the Virgin Mary, St. Anne and St. Joachim.

As devotion spread, countless works of art were created and are still found throughout Europe due to the fervour of the people.

St. Anne is believed to be a powerful intercessor in heaven.

Today being no exception, St. Anne is believed to be a powerful intercessor in heaven, obtaining miracles through her intercession in both East and West. People from all around the world come to visit the basilica.

An especially busy day at the shrine is her feast day, celebrated on July 26. Visitors attend Holy Mass, finish praying the novena to St. Anne, and reverence her relics, which consist of three precious reliquaries.

The first reliquary is a portion of the bone of St. Anne’s finger, brought to the shrine in 1670. The second is a portion of bone from the saint’s forearm, a gift from Pope Leo XIII, brought to the shrine in 1892. The most recent is a relic from her forearm, brought to the shrine in 1960, a gift from St. John XXIII.

Pilgrims come not only to pray and find healing, but also to camp and hike. There are affordable accommodations, restaurants, a museum, gift shop, gardens, and trails. To spend quality family time at the shrine and in this lovely region is a true Canadian experience.

Inside the basilica for pilgrims to see are two pillars filled with racks of crutches, canes, braces, and other signs of cures. It has been said this aspect makes the shrine a living museum of grace – each item has been left by a person who has experienced healing.

The basilica is one of Canada’s most impressive religious buildings, with floors and ceilings covered in mosaics, and a long and impressive nave culminating in a two-tiered apse encircled by a nest of radiating chapels. The interior can hold 2,000 sitting and 8,000 standing.

Over the central doorway is a sculpted tympanum and frieze showing the enthroned St. Anne welcoming lines of pilgrims to the shrine.

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