Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 13, 2003
A sense of the sacred haunts
Thousands of Irish emigrees sleep on Grosse Ile, Quebec
St. Luke - Feast Day - October 18
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Grosse Ile, Que.
It's almost a mystical journey, a pilgrimage across the great St. Lawrence River to honour the memory of thousands who, seeking a new life in a New World, found only a terrible death on the doorstep of their Promised Land.
Yet the boat trip from south shore Berthier-sur-Mer is not a depressing event. Smartly uniformed crew members on Lachance III entertain and educate passengers with the history and lore of the archipelago that includes the Irish Memorial.
Their destination, Gross Ile, established as a quarantine station for the port of Quebec, was almost overwhelmed by people fleeing famine in Ireland during cholera and typhus epidemics in 1832 and 1847.
To remember those who died on the island, the Ancient Order of Hibernians erected a large Celtic cross there in 1909. Then, partly due to the efforts of Quebec resident Jeremiah O'Gallagher, later supported by his author/granddaughter Marianna O'Gallagher, Grosse Ile was finally declared a national historic site.
During the worst times on the island, doctors, nurses, clergy and others working here were often stricken by disease, some never recovering. A number of memorials honour those dedicated people who gave their all to alleviate suffering in the dismal place.
Emotions tend to surface when visitors are confronted with the uneven grassy area, marked with a few symbolic white crosses, that is the last resting place of several thousand people. A sombre, thought-provoking site nearby records, on a boat-shaped memorial wall, the names of those who perished here. These are sacred places where visitors speak in hushed tones if they speak at all.
It's appropriate that the original Catholic Church on the island should honour a physician - Saint Luke was a close associate of St. Paul and his writings - a gospel and the Acts of the Apostles describe the growth and problems of the Church in the period following the Resurrection. He is the patron of more than eight occupations, from artist to notaries and brewers. In art, his symbol as one of the four evangelists is the ox.
Sadly, during the most difficult times at the station, for a people intimately associated with their Church and religion, few would get to attend services or even visit the little (1852) church of Saint-Luc-de-la-Grosse-Ile since it functioned then as a hospital.
This scene of such trauma was replaced in 1874 by a larger structure in a new location. Now St. Luke's occupies a serene hillside site looking south across the river. It became the centre of the tiny town of Saint-Luc-de-la-Grosse-Ile. Recently restored after years of neglect, it's now a popular stop for the little tourist trolley.
Inside, the gold-trimmed reredos is centred on an image of the Sacred Heart and backed by a large painting of angels below Thy Kingdom Come in Latin. A statue of St. Luke with his gospel and ox, has a place of honour to the left of the altar.
Waiting for the Lachance III to return, some share a snack in the wooden, former "first class" hotel or simply sit and contemplate the great sad river that carried so many to an unexpected end. Many find it a relief to end a memorable but sobering day with the three-quarter-hour trip back, the huge granite cross shrinking with distance.
The low, green island is left to its park custodians and the spirits of those who, rather than live a better life in a new land, left their bones to rest forever on Grosse Ile. Hopefully, they achieved the ultimate goal all Christians aspire to - union forever with their Creator.