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J.P. Sonnen – Global Pilgrim

Indigenous gravesite draws B.C. pilgrims

Voices May 14, 2018

annual July pilgrimageCatholic faithful gather at the grave of Rose Prince in Lejac, B.C. during the annual July pilgrimage in her honour.     (Rose Prince, Servant of God Facebook page)

On April 15, 1902, Pope Leo XIII wrote a letter to the American bishops, commending and thanking them for the establishment and success of schools and academies for the proper education of youth.

In concluding, the Pope made special mention of North American Indians, noting that the charity of the bishops had not been unmindful of their sad lot, writing, “You have sent them teachers, helped them liberally, and you are most zealously providing for their eternal salvation.”

The Catholic Church, always keen to reach out to indigenous peoples, has taught that all men are children of the same common Father, and that all have the same last end, God himself.

Catholic missionaries converged in the Americas by the thousands and set out to convert and teach native populations. 

Inspired by the blessings of nature and the gifts of grace belonging to the whole human race in common, they sought to build a civilization of love.

This desire led to the participation of Catholic educators in the residential school system in Canada. These boarding schools were funded by the government and administered by churches on contract with the government.

In 1922 the Lejac Residential School was built by the Canadian government on a hillside overlooking Fraser Lake, a two-hour drive west of Prince George, B.C. It was staffed by Catholic clergy and nuns.

It is here that a young lady who is today on the road to sainthood arrived at the age of six. Her name was Rose Prince of the Carrier (Dakelh) Nation. The school became her home until her untimely death in 1949.

The story of Rose Prince begins with her birth on Aug. 21, 1915, in a house in the shadow of a convent at Fort St. James, B.C.

Rose came from a large Catholic family, the third of nine children. From her birth she was lovingly immersed in a happy Catholic environment. 

Her parents were Jean-Marie and Agathe Prince. Her father was a hereditary descendant of the great chief Kwah, while her mother, an orphan, had been raised by nuns, the Sisters of the Child Jesus.

When the Lejac school opened, Rose was sent there along with the other children of her former school, sharing the new facility that included dorms for live-in students.

It was while studying in 1931, at age 16, that Rose’s mother and two youngest sisters passed away from an influenza epidemic. Young Rose was devastated. 

After graduation she decided to stay on at the school, where she helped out where needed with various chores that included mentoring the younger children, helping the nuns, sewing, cleaning and embroidering. 

Rose was known for her serenity. Like many saints, she was meek and led a hidden life. Her acts were known only to heaven. She drew no attention to herself. She excelled at leading a quiet and ordinary life. 

Rose also suffered from a physical deformity that was a source of both physical discomfort and embarrassment – a curvature of the spine that resulted in a hump on one side of her back.

Rose was greatly respected in life as a gentle and devout woman. She never married. Before death she was confined to bed with tuberculosis. 

On Aug. 19, 1949, Rose passed away in a nearby Catholic hospital, two days before her 34th birthday. On the day of her birthday, Aug. 21, she was buried in the small cemetery adjoining the school property.

In 1951 when the school cemetery was combined with a nearby larger one, her coffin was exhumed along with the others during a cemetery transfer. 

One of the men assisting with the exhumations, who worked as a helper at the school, opened each casket. All the bodies were in various states of decomposition, except one.

The remains of Rose Prince were discovered to be perfectly incorrupt, pristine in condition.

Eyewitnesses including several priests, nuns and laymen of various ages attested that Rose looked as if she had just fallen asleep, dressed in a clean and crisp white blouse. Only the flowers she had been holding were wilted. 

Rose was reinterred in a larger nearby graveyard, where she remains to this day, with pilgrims gathering and praying for her heavenly intercession. The school closed in 1976 and was soon after demolished.

In 1990, an annual pilgrimage was begun to her gravesite on the grounds of the former Lejac school. Each summer this continues as a three-day pilgrimage, held on the second weekend of July. 

Pilgrims gather on the grounds where the former school once stood for Mass, graveside prayers, and fellowship. 

Some pilgrims return every year, relating a feeling of consolation, a perception of God’s healing presence and power in their lives. About 1,400 participate annually, some even journeying by chartered bus from Vancouver.

With Christianity in Canada came all the riches inherent in it. The story of Rose Prince is one of a young woman who spent her life as a cradle Catholic, growing in a state of extraordinary virtue while inspiring others to do the same.

Today much work remains to be done, as every land has now become again mission territory while the message remains the same: we are all redeemed and made sons of the same God, Christ, the first-born among many brethren. 

Young Catholics of B.C. are encouraged to adopt Rose Prince as a patron and to visit her holy remains in Lejac.

For more information visit the Rose Prince, Servant of God Facebook page or Rose Prince Pilgrimage.

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