Cecile Kimak and Phyllis Pawluk are close.
They share everything, including a devotion to the Virgin Mary that continues to help the Edmonton-area sisters survive life’s most gut-wrenching problems, from health troubles to family break-ups and even an abusive relationship.
To honour that commitment, the pair have attended the annual St. Albert Pilgrimage for more than three decades.
“Why do I come? Very big favours received. Favours that couldn’t come true but they did, and we still have lots to pray for,” said Kimak, her voice cracking after receiving the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick at the pilgrimage vigil Mass Aug. 17.
At 75, Kimak has been diabetic for more than 20 years and uses a walker, but it doesn’t stop her from making the pilgrimage each year.
“It’s just unbelievable and yet the only place is here, and with Mary. What we feel when we come here, I can’t tell you. You can’t find any place with more peace.”
Phyllis Pawluk said she found that peace in her own miracle. Her husband was once an abusive alcoholic, but she didn’t leave “because I’m a Catholic and because I made a vow to stay in my marriage, and my husband always said he was sorry and he never wanted me to leave.”
For years, Pawluk would come to Mission Hill in St. Albert to pray the rosary at Mary’s grotto and at the grave of Oblate Brother Anthony Kowalczyk, and to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation at St. Albert Church.
And things began to change. On her son Ryan’s graduation day at age 18 in 1996, Pawluk’s husband quit drinking and sought treatment for other physical and ailments. Pawluk is unequivocal about what happened: “He was healed … We knelt down here, said the rosary, and he was healed.”
“We prayed lots of times, but that time it worked.”
For 80 years, thousands have flocked to St. Albert to pray at the stone grotto built in Mary’s honour by seminarians from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The pilgrimage is held on the weekend closest to the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the feast day that honours the assumption of Mary’s body and soul into heaven on the day of her death.
Last August, Archbishop Richard Smith officially declared Mary’s Grotto a diocesan Marian shrine. The grotto at Skaro, northeast of Edmonton, received the same recognition around the same time.
Rev. Ignacy Warias, the pastor at St. Albert, says he sees visitors come to the grotto to pray and seek the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary to find the strength to pick up their own cross in their lives, whatever that may be.
“There’s nothing that we are going through that Mary would not go through,” Warias said. “Because she said ‘Yes’ to God’s plan, not knowing what that involves, that actually makes her close to us in our daily lives. Many times we have to trust God, knowing that what is in his plan is best for us.”
Warias noted that in the Virgin Mary’s own life, from the time of Annunciation – when the young unwed woman learned she would be the mother of Jesus – to her son’s public Crucifixion, she had to trust God even if it meant suffering at the time.
“To say ‘Yes’ in the glorious moments of our life is maybe not that difficult. But what is challenging is to say ‘Yes’ especially when we carry the cross, when we have no way to figure out how this is going to end in a positive and fruitful way for us,” Father Warias said.
“We relate to Mary in our lives when we carry that heavy cross. Every one of us has a cross that’s a different shape, a different form, but we all carry it. That’s really difficult when we don’t see, in our human senses, where the road goes. But pick up that cross and trust Him each and every day that He is walking with us … This is not the end of the story. This is leading us to the glory that Jesus promised.”
Included at each St. Albert Pilgrimage is Mass, prayer and a picnic. New this year was a living rosary in which young and old held onto a rope with knots representing the component prayers while praying them aloud.
Mimi Belhumeur has been attending the St. Albert Pilgrimage since it began. At 92 – Belhumeur celebrated her birthday on the same day as the vigil Mass – she imparts the wisdom of her age and family experience.
“There are lots of young people nowadays, they’re searching for something. They want some truth. They want a connection with God. How do I do it? Where do I go? Things like that. The way they live nowadays we don’t think they are thinking about it, but they are.”
Linda Hermez, who was born and raised in Baghdad, said devotion to Mary helped her as she fled the life she had known in war-torn Iraq for a new life in Europe, and now in Edmonton.
“During the wars, you could depend on her. We have many of our family who are in the army so we prayed always to her to keep them safe and she always did that,” said Hermez, who brought her children – 11 year-old Daniella and nine-year-old Joseph – to the St. Albert Pilgrimage.
“I can say Mary is, like any mother, she’s kind and loving. You can always go to her and say your problems. Always, I think she will understand me very well because she is a mother and went through very difficult times.”
Despite many blessings, Phyllis Pawluk and Cecile Kimak continue to deal with suffering. For Pawluk, it’s watching her son – who had left the Church years ago – in the process of divorcing his wife.
“We keep coming to Mary because I want to him to go back to church and to follow his faith,” Pawluk explained. “Often I say to her, ‘I know it was harder for you to watch your son die on the cross. But I think you understand how I hurt.’”
She adds that it’s her own personal faith that helps through all manner of suffering.
“That’s what gives you the strength to keep going. I can’t imagine people who don’t have faith. I feel sorry for them. I feel sorry for them because they run in all the wrong places. And they just cause more heartache for themselves. Sure, we suffer. But we suffer because of our sin and the sins of others.”