After 100 years, Alberta’s Skaro Shrine still draws thousands of pilgrims and visitors

31 July 2018

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

It’s easy to drive by the stone grotto at the Skaro Shrine for those who don’t know its history.

Tucked in a corner between two rural highways, northeast of Edmonton, truck and cars whiz by. The drivers tend to overlook the small church and semi-circular stone grotto beside it.

Yet thousands of pilgrims flock to Skaro each year to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary on Aug. 14-15 as they have done for 100 years. Tour buses stop at the site. Recreational vehicles park on the grounds of Our Lady of Good Counsel, the parish church of the Skaro district. Vespers are sung in Polish; Mass is concelebrated in English. Crowds walk through the grounds to the grotto in a candlelit procession.

At this year’s centennial pilgrimage, a new Rosary Garden will be blessed by Archbishop Richard Smith, and 60 kids will represent each prayer in the rosary.

Sonia Mackay, an organizer of the pilgrimage and herself a descendant of the pioneers who built the grotto, says visitors are always moved by the pilgrimage ceremonies.

“It’s an experience. They’re moved by it. There’s something,” she says. “There’s a steady stream of visitors. All day. All week. From everywhere in the world.”

What passing drivers are missing is a story of hardscrabble immigrants who came to the Skaro district and, in 1919, used shovels and horse-drawn plows to hand-build the grotto. A century later, it stands as a testament to the faith and determination of the pioneers – mostly from Poland, but some Ukrainians too – who built the grotto, a 28-by-33-metre stone wall that encircles a small altar.

“It brings people together,” says Helen Wilchak, 89, who grew up in the area. Her father, Martin Gabinet, helped build the grotto. “Even different faiths come here. It’s not only the Roman Catholics. They come and admire the place because it is such a beautiful place.”

The numbers of first-generation descendants of pioneers are dwindling with each passing year. However, those who do recall the grotto build say credit goes, in large part, to Father Anthony Sylla, the Oblate priest who was assigned to the Skaro Mission in 1917. A year later, on Aug. 15, 1918, Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish was established.

The grotto, hand-built by pilgrims, has become a testament to their faith.

In the fall of 1918, Father Sylla proposed building a grotto on the Skaro site, similar to the Our Lady of Lourdes grotto in France. He enlisted the help of Father Philip Ruh, who was serving in Eldorena, north of the Skaro site, and was familiar with the French structure.

“Why did they build it? It’s because the pioneers who came here, they had a strong faith,” says Stan Malica, 91, who grew up directly opposite the grotto site and whose father John helped build it.

“They said their rosaries. They started praying. And one Sunday, Father Sylla said, ‘Maybe we should build a chapel to the Blessed Virgin Mary.’ They approached Father Ruh and he said, ‘I’m not building a small chapel. I’m building a grotto.’

“If you want to look at a miracle, look at this thing here,” Malica says. “It wasn’t built with engineers. No blueprints or anything. They just built it. Father Sylla had an idea how to build it and Father Ruh was the main contractor. He knew how to use stones.”

The work wasn’t easy, Malica explains. “You try and clear the land with your axe! That’s all they used, axe and shovel. For the first settlers here, it was all bush.”

“The people really didn’t have an idea,” says Mackay. “They bought into it. But they didn’t know the magnitude of it.”

Pilgrims are seen building the grotto in 1918-1919

Construction began on June 5, 1919, during Pentecost Week. Parishioners would each bring 10 to 15 loads of stones. Working in shifts of 20 to 40 people at a time, men and women used plows and scrapers drawn by horses, as well as wheelbarrows and shovels, to haul and place stones. The only mechanical equipment was a generator to operate the cement mixer.

“They brought stones from their own fields. That’s how they started to build this thing,” says Malica, whose family still farms the land opposite the grotto.

“It was like a work bee,” recalls Wilchak, who is related to Malica by marriage. “Everybody helped.”

They were so committed to the project that the grotto took precedence over everything else.

“Certain families would come on certain days,” she remembers. “They weren’t always the same ones. My dad lived 10 miles from here. So they would come in the morning, and they would be there the whole day and in the evening they would go back home and do their chores.”

Father Anthony Sylla

“They sacrificed their own duties at home, lots of them. That’s how passionate they were about this,” Mackay adds. “After about two weeks they ran out of rocks. And then they were very disheartened and they were going to give up. Father Sylla convinced them, ‘We started. We have to finish.’ And then they just pulled together again. And look what we’ve got. Amazing. That’s the miracle.”

Six hundred wagonloads of stone and 300 bags of cement were used to build the grotto. Two months after construction began, the grotto was completed in August 1919. The first pilgrimage was held Aug. 14-15, the vigil and feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it has continued every year since then.

“I’ve never missed a pilgrimage here,” Wilchak says. “It brings back the memories from the years we used to come here. It’s in our blood. They came from Poland and they had a strong faith there. They brought it to Canada. And they kept it.”

The determination of those pioneers is immortalized in Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, including ornate stained glass windows as tributes. Their families were baptized, confirmed and married in the church. Many of them are also buried in the cemetery next door.

A personal memento of Wilchak’s father, Martin Gabinet, still remains at the site: a wheelbarrow he used to haul stones to build the grotto. Helen Wilchak says it had been sitting “in the bush” until her son got ahold of it.

“My son took it over to Stan (Malica)’s place, and he repaired it and brought it here and put it by the sign.”

Stained glass windows with the family names of pilgrims are seen in Our Lady of Good Counsel church.

However, it’s the grotto itself that remains the lasting physical legacy.

“It’s amazing that it stood up and never fell apart, 100 years,” says Malica. “Just take a look. What’s holding them together? They just built it. I don’t think they thought it would last this long, but I don’t know. They tried to build the best they knew how. They used a little cement on the outside to hold the stones together, but in between, it’s all dirt.”

If pilgrims had to do it all over again, he figures, it would be a different story.

“It wouldn’t be built. You would have to have engineers and all that stuff. Not anymore.”

During the pilgrimage, the faithful are led with a cross and banners to the grotto where Vespers are sung in Polish, followed by Mass in English. Candles are lit as darkness falls. The Wilchak and Malica families never miss it.

“It’s because of our faith. It’s just like going to church on Sunday. It’s a traditional thing,” Malica said.

The pilgrimage is open to anyone regardless of their religious beliefs.

“I would tell them, ‘Come and see this place. See the strong faith there is here. You’ll feel the faith in here,’ ” Wilchak said. “It’s not only for the Catholics. Anybody can come here. They come here. They see what goes on and they’re really impressed by the service here, then the procession and the lit candles. It’s something to see.”

Asked if the pilgrimage brings people to the Catholic faith, Mackay is unequivocal.

“Absolutely. There is something moving about this whole experience. Very, very moving.”

The descendants of the original Skaro pilgrims plan to attend as long as they can, including next year.

“Oh definitely. Unless I die or something,” says Malica. “I’ll be here all my life, because I have my cemetery plot over there.”

Will the grotto be around for another century of pilgrimages? “I think it will be,” Malica says.

“If it didn’t fall part in the first hundred years, it will stay for another hundred years.”

Wilchak agrees. “The grotto will be here forever.”