Under the cover of night, thousands of pilgrims made their way around the stone grotto at the Skaro Shrine in a candlelit procession to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary as they have done for 100 years.
But this year, the pilgrimage had special significance. Skaro has been designated as the Edmonton Archdiocese’s first official Marian shrine. Archbishop Richard Smith made the announcement as the two-day pilgrimage began Aug. 14, the vigil for the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
“We as a Catholic people, in our desire to follow Jesus, cannot remain faithful to Him without turning to his mother,” Archbishop Smith told pilgrims gathered at the Skaro Shrine, about an hour’s drive northeast of Edmonton.
Millie Szabunio, 91, was overjoyed when she heard about the shrine’s designation.
“I’m watching the people go by, and they’re so happy, all the happy sounds of children and adults. It’s an honour to (see the) progress, as far as that goes.”
Szabunio’s son Paul said his mother has made the pilgrimage since she was a child, and later brought him to Skaro during his own childhood. To him, the Marian shrine designation is wonderful news.
“To come here tonight on the 100th anniversary, and to hear this news — we didn’t know about it — it’s very fitting, it’s a capstone,” Paul Szabunio said.
With the grounds dotted with recreational vehicles, tour buses, and thousands of Catholic faithful, the centennial pilgrimage to Skaro shrine was celebrated with vespers sung in Polish – the mother tongue of the settlers who built the stone grotto in 1919 – followed by Mass in English.
The designation as a Marian shrine is part of a larger effort to increase devotion to the Virgin Mary.
The decision stems from last year’s celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, when bishops across the country consecrated their dioceses on July 1 to the protection of the Blessed Virgin.
In an interview Archbishop Smith said: “How do we honour that? How do we mark it locally? The idea surfaced, maybe, we could be establishing here an Archdiocesan shrine, formally, to designate a shrine to Our Lady as a place of pilgrimage.”
In the Edmonton Archdiocese, Skaro was an obvious choice, Archbishop Smith said.
“It’s recognizing what has already been in place and recognizing it in an official way. Perhaps I could say it’s the Archbishop catching up with the people after all of these years,” he joked.
“We have busloads from Calgary, from Red Deer, that’s what happens. People are brought by friends or they’ll see it in the church bulletin or something, and they just return time and time again,” said Townsend, whose great-grandfather donated more than a hectare of land for the shrine.
“Where else do you have a moment to spend this, spiritually? It’s spectacular.”
The centennial pilgrimage was also a highlight for Father Kristopher Schmidt, who now serves as the pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel. The shrine sits on the parish grounds.
“Going on pilgrimage is the Christian life, so going on pilgrimages is good spiritual practice,” said Schmidt, a former associate pastor at St. Joseph’s Basilica in Edmonton.