WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Pilgrims walk up the grotto during the candle-light procession following the Aug. 14 Mass for the feast of the Assumption at the Skaro Pilgrimage.
Even as cars and big rigs drove noisily along the adjacent highway, there was a quiet sacredness at the Skaro Shrine, home to a special Marian pilgrimage every year since 1919.
Elizabeth Nett, a parishioner at St. Dominic Savio Church in Edmonton making her first pilgrimage to Skaro, said others had told her they had felt the presence of the Holy Spirit at Skaro and had received blessings at the pilgrimage.
Shortly after arriving at the site of the pilgrimage for the feast of Mary's Assumption Aug. 14, she was ready to agree. "There's such a peace here, and beauty and presence."
Nett said while she cannot afford to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or some other faraway religious site, she decided to go to Skaro after hearing about it from other people in her parish.
"I need to get closer to Jesus. I know that when I am with other true believers, it will help my own belief, which I struggle with. It's part of the journey for me, this struggle," said Nett.
Skaro is a small Polish agricultural settlement, situated about 80 km northeast of Edmonton, along Highways 45 and 831. A grotto, a replica of the famous grotto of Lourdes in France, was constructed as a place of devotion to Mary. Since 1919, Catholics in the region and from farther away have been coming to the Aug. 14-15 pilgrimage.
This year, hundreds enjoyed the pleasant weather and barbecued burgers, camped out in their motorhomes, and shared earnest fellowship during the 95th annual Skaro Pilgrimage. Some veterans said this year's turnout was one of the best.
WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Men wait to carry banners in the procession at the start of Mass.
"I know that many of you have travelled from quite a distance to be here," said Father Francis Mariappa, welcoming pilgrims to Skaro Shrine, a mission which he pastors. "Your presence here makes everyone happy, and enhances the beauty of the celebration."
Many confessionals encircled the shrine, providing Nett and hundreds of others with the chance to celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation. Apart from confessing her sins, Nett was also anticipating other aspects of the pilgrimage.
"I am looking forward to the Vespers, Mass and the Eucharist - especially the Eucharist," she said.
The feast of joy also provided an opportunity to buy religious artifacts, rekindle friendships, or perhaps place candles or flowers on the graves of family members buried in the cemetery beside the shrine.
More than 30 priests assisted at the Aug. 14 Mass celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Gregory Bittman. A few people gathered in the nearby Our Lady of Good Counsel Church to pray.
Many people, like Kasper Szott, have been attending the pilgrimage every year since their childhood. For decades it has been food for his soul.
"My mom and dad used to come here when I was just a kid. They used to come from the farm, out by Daysland. There used to be a hall here where they would stay, back in the 1930s," said Szott, now a parishioner at Edmonton's St. Thomas More Church.
Immediately after the evening Mass, candles were lit and devotional hymns were sung as children carried a statue of Mary around the grotto. The candlelight procession is always a highpoint for Szott.
"This is holy ground. When they light up the candles and walk around, along the grotto, I love that," he said.
Bishop Gregory Bittman
For Anzelm Nowak, the pilgrimage is like a retreat. He took time off work in order to spend the night at the shrine with his family. His heart was overwhelmed with gratitude for all the effort that goes into making the pilgrimage a success.
In his homily, Bittman spoke of the Ark of the Covenant, the chest in which the Ten Commandments were kept. The Virgin Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant, in that she carried Jesus in her body just as the original ark carried the Law of the Old Covenant.
"Mary, through her glorious Assumption, is also encouraging us and reminding us of our place in heaven, and where our hope should be placed in this life, on eternity, and not on fleeting passions that falsely promise paradise on earth," said Bittman.
He said Mary is our comfort amidst life's difficulties, protecting us from the snares of the evil one. She wants nothing more than for every one of us to be celebrating the glory and resurrection of Jesus.
"We pray that our walk of faith and love in this life will be modeled after Mary, and that we too may join her in the company of Jesus in the glory of heaven," he said.