Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 17, 2004
Where is the Virgin Mary? Why in Canada of course
Mary of Canada: The Virgin Mary in Canadian Culture, Spirituality, History and Geography, by Joan Skogan. Banff Centre Press: Banff. 305 pages.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
Seventeen years ago, I had an unusual encounter with the Virgin Mary that helped me appreciate her in a unique way.
This "apparition" occurred while I was interviewing several dozen Oblate priests at Foyer Grandin, a seniors' residence for missionaries located at St. Albert. I was there researching my doctoral dissertation which focused on the Church in northern Canada where many of these men had served.
House manager Father Maurice Beauregard encouraged me to spend as much time there as I wished. What I learned from those pastors (the majority in their 80s and 90s) were stories that affected me profoundly. Many of them had spent their entire ministries in isolated native communities across a vast, thinly populated sweep of Arctic and sub-Arctic Canada.
They had all developed certain idiosyncrasies as a result of unusual life experiences. But one unique characteristic seemed to typify them all. They impressed me with their generally positive disposition. This was particularly striking when I reflected that many men of their age and circumstance become cynical and depressed.
Each of these Oblates of Mary Immaculate had developed a lifelong devotional attachment to the Blessed Virgin. I did not view this as weird or cultish. It seemed, instead, to be healthy and transparently authentic. When I realized how Mary had helped these priests survive decades of isolation and loneliness in impossible places - I experienced a profound sense of wonder and respect for them and for Mary too.
"The Mary who is country-born in Canada," writes Joan Skogan, author of Mary in Canada: The Virgin Mary in Canadian Culture, Spirituality, History and Geography, "makes courage and consolation possible."
Her holy places can be found in such diverse locations as Shrine to Our Lady, St. Michael's Cathedral, Toronto); Notre-Dame-du-Cap (Cap de la Madeleine, Que.); and at "all the Ladies of Help, Sorrow, Mercy, Compassion, Capes, Highways and Refuges of the Canadian east, west and northern coasts" as well as in many points between.
Skogan has read many books - ancient and modern - on Mary's Canadian connections. She spent months visiting shrines and sacred sites dedicated to her across the nation. She found Mary in many strange and unexpected places.
"Mary lives in Canada," the author concludes. "I know now."
"The Holy Virgin of the Old World religious traditions softens the Dec. 24 front page of a national newspaper as the Montreal United Church stained-glass Madonna. (She) then appears both as the 2003 glowing Virgin Mary sightings on frosted windows in isolated northern Saskatchewan communities and as Dashboard Mary on a Canadian blues CD."
She is heralded in Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox and other Christian liturgies as well as in references from the Koran.
Long before European Christians arrived, the First Nations possessed a spiritual heritage that made linkages natural to Jesus' mother Mary and his legendary grandmother Anne.
Mary stands above and beyond our regional and religious differences.
Skogan summarizes: Mary transcends us all. Wherever Mary of Canada finds herself in this land, her merciful lack of surprise at any human deed, thought, or failure, and her encompassing tenderness for all creation transcends religious labels, money, status, background, geography and all else that divides us.
For those who love Canada and want to understand more deeply the nature of its people, this beautifully bound and illustrated book from the Banff Centre Press will be a welcome acquisition.
(Wayne Holst is a parish educator at St. David's United Church, Calgary. He has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)