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Remembering the Great Canadian Pilgrimage – Nostalgia, Fights, and All

(Banner Image: JfvollMartyrs Shrine Midland, ON – St. Jean de BrefeufCC BY-SA 4.0)

Perhaps it is nostalgia that has me think back every March to when I attended an authentic Catholic college. The transience of those lighthearted years brings a bittersweet remembrance; as our student anthem suggested – Gaudeamus igitur, Juvenes dum sumus – Let us rejoice, therefore, while we are young. Though I remember many blessed trials and triumphs, there is one set of memories that surely stands above all others: The yearly pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Canadian Martyrs.

*          *          *

It is a crisp, dark morning, and the usual regime at the Catholic college, affectionately known as the Academy, is to head to the church for prayer and Mass. Today is different.[i] Prayer, yes, but Mass will have to wait. It is March 16th, which means we will pile into the old Academy van and start the over three-hour drive to the southern Georgian Bay region. These are the days before any student had Facebook and YouTube accounts, or even a cell phone for that matter. They are the good old days, and I mean that in all sincerity. Rosaries, conversations, music, and silence make the trip go quickly.

We arrive at our first destination, the Martyrs’ Shrine, where we meet up with other students and a few Catholic families who have tagged along in other vehicles. A quick stretch, and then it is off to walk the outdoor Stations of the Cross. The man leading the Stations, and much of the pilgrimage, is a beloved professor at the school – the professor with the perfect hair, to be more precise. We pray along quietly, kneeling in the deep snow, as he reads Liguori’s penetrating words, “Nail my heart to Thy feet, that it may ever remain there, to love Thee, and never quit Thee again.” For now, it is enough of a sacrifice to kneel in the chilling snow, with pants or skirts soaking in the wet moisture. I wonder if we are truly this devout, or if no one wants to bail out on this penance first. No matter, for pilgrimages aren’t supposed to be day trips to the spa.

Stations being finished, it is time for a simple winter picnic. At least there will be no ants to raid the fare. Some students try to enter the main (Jesuit) church building, but unfortunately it is locked. Instead, we explore the stunning grounds at the Shrine. It is peaceful. There is a little lookout tower peering out towards the scenic Georgian Bay. We imagine the early Jesuits traversing the waterways, working tirelessly to bring the Catholic faith to the new world. It is a romantic notion. But, as we will find out later, there is nothing “romantic” about the inhumane torture they endured.

Trudging the outdoor Stations of the Cross at the Canadian Martyr’s Shrine.

Walking back to the van, we drive again, to yet another little-known spot. At this point there is more walking required. Not just walking, but rather trudging through deep snow which gives way at every step. We are feeling tired. Energy is waning from lack of food. A touch of grumbling is soon heard. Two male students seem to be arguing about something. I think it might have something to do with a girl. Then, a most ridiculous and stunning thing happens. One of the guys runs up from behind and bowls over his adversary! Down they both go. The one who was hit quickly spins around, grabs his assailant, and starts feeding him a flurry of jabs and right crosses. Snow, sweat, and rage are on full display. How Canadian, I ponder, as I look on with amusement, to go on a pilgrimage and have a hockey fight break out… Suddenly, I snap from my stupor. Wait! What am I thinking? This is a pilgrimage! Quickly I team up with another guy and break up the brawl. We toss both pugilists aside and tell them to get a grip. They calm down, and onward we slog. Well… that was a first.

Moving on, we convoy through the small city of Midland, Ontario, past fields and forests, and park abruptly on the side of a random road in the country. It seems the professor with the perfect hair, a man deeply devoted to the Canadian martyrs, knows well the history of the faith in this area. We get out and begin walking. The walk feels long, but eventually we arrive at a large stone cross monument. Here is the site of the first Mass ever said in Ontario. It is a stirring moment for many students. For me, being from Saskatchewan, it is rather unremarkable. Maybe I am just envious that the Catholics in this province bother to honor their religious history? Alas, we pray and ponder the faith of our entire nation. Not a few thoughts drift to how far we’ve fallen in recent decades.

The site we finally arrive at is where St. Jean de Brebeuf and St. Gabriel Lalemant were first captured by the Iroquois, more than 350 years-ago, on the very day of March 16. It is three o’clock, the hour of mercy, and our professor-guide begins reading the historic account of the capture of our two Jesuit saints. At this point the pilgrimage becomes completely serious. We all feel it. It reaches deep into our souls. A chaplet of Divine Mercy is said, and then we trek back to our vehicles. There are no fights on the return hike. The mood is subdued.

We drive a little farther. I have no idea where we are. But again, we stop on the side of a country road. Some of us male students are asked, by the priest who is accompanying us for the day, to carry up certain supplies for Mass. We ascend a hill while carrying the accoutrements, and stride toward a snow-covered clearing. To the right of us is forest. On our left there is an outdoor stone altar with a small roof covering it. Straight ahead is a wood cross piercing out of the snow, and two wood posts flanking either side of it. We are told that this is the very site of the martyrdom of our great saints.

The site of the martyrdom of St. Jean de Brebeuf and St. Gabriel Lalemant.

We kneel in the snow, at this point gladly suffering the wintry inconvenience, while the professor reads:

“They (the Iroquois) took them both and stripped them entirely naked and fastened each to a post. They tied both their hands together. They tore the nails from their fingers. They beat them with a show of blows and sticks on their shoulders, loins, legs and faces, no part of their body being exempt from this torment.”[ii]

This very spot. On this very day. At this very hour. By now the snow is melting through our clothing and soaking the skin. It is not noticeable; not with what we are hearing. The professor continues:

Brebeuf, the main preacher, has his tongue and lips cut off, roasted in a fire, and eaten. Skin from the skull is slit off, roasted, and eaten as well. Finally, seeing that Brebeuf is on the point of dying, one of the assailants cuts out a piece of the martyr’s heart and eats it. Others drink his warm blood. In this manner, St. Jean de Brebeuf’s soul lifts to heaven, surely hearing Our Lord’s promise, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt. 25:21).

We are shaken. What unworthy faith we have! Still more:

Relief from the torture does not come so quickly for his companion, Lalemant. He, being the main priest to baptize the Hurons, is “baptized” in boiling water. His jaws are split, and burning brands forced down his throat. A hatchet smashes into his skull, leaving his brain exposed.[iii] In this manner, Lalemant, though a frail man, lasts twelve hours longer than Brebeuf. It is not until 9AM the following morning that Christ takes him to his promised reward.

At such a moment, what feeble words can we conceivably pray to express our overwhelmed souls? How could these men have endured such torment? From where did they gain their strength?

Our answer soon comes. We look over and see the priest is vested and ready for Mass. Suddenly we are taken, not away, but through the sufferings of the martyrs into the very Sacrifice offered by our Savior. This is My Body. We adore. We receive. Some shed a few concealed tears. All pray with hearts pierced in gratitude. Our martyrs have only trod the path first traversed by Christ Himself.

The outdoor altar.

The Mass is over, we head to the vehicles and start the long drive home. There is food, song, and laughter on the way. The pilgrimage is over. The memories will last a lifetime.

*          *          *

Though my college days have long passed, every March I remember these holy pilgrimages, taken three years consecutively. I think of our little sacrifice in the snow; the grand sacrifice of the martyrs; the eternal Sacrifice of the Great High Priest.

I think of the many young men present around that outdoor altar, later destined to say Masses of their own. One is now with the ICKSP; several others are diocesan. I think of one particular young man serving the outdoor Mass, dear Kenny, and how his priesthood continues, but in eternity.

I think of the future nun and religious brother there, and trust they still remember us in their prayers.

I think of the numerous young men and women present, destined to marry and raise children in the faith. And if I were to peer back carefully, though I had no idea at the time, I would see my future wife there kneeling in prayer. Perhaps at that moment we both were inspired to bestow “Gabriel” as a middle name for a future son. “We know little of the things for which we pray,” expresses the eminent writer of pilgrimages, Chaucer.

I do not deny, I have a nostalgic longing to return. But it is nostalgia in its true sense. Anthony Esolen describes it authentically: “The pilgrim knows and loves the home he leaves and the home he seeks. His is the ultimate nostalgia, the ultimate heartache for the return.[iv]

If I long for those moments, it is because those moments bring a longing for heaven.

[i] Though my recollection of the pilgrimage is based off of one main year, it is possible that some of these events happened in another of the three years. As Bilbo says, “I’m old, Gandalf…”

[ii] E. J. Divine, S.J. The Jesuit Martyrs of Canada, 3rd Edition, (Toronto: The Canadian Messenger Publisher, 1925), 49-51.

[iii] Ibid, 78.

[iv] Anthony Esolen. Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 2018) 199.

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