Canada’s national shrine of the Canadian Jesuit Martyrs will celebrate its 90th anniversary of the opening of the present church on the hill in 2016. It is Canada’s only national shrine outside of Quebec. The only other national shrine is St. Joseph’s Oratory which is approximately of the same age as Martyrs’ Shrine and is located in Montreal, Quebec.
Devotion to the Martyrs had flourished for many years before they were beatified in 1925. In 1907, Archbishop Denis O’Connor of Toronto blessed a chapel near the site of martyrdom of Fathers Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant within the parish limits of Waubaushene, about 12 kms. from the present Shrine. For 18 years, thousands of devout pilgrims visited this humble shrine and stayed at the 40-room shrine hostel nearby.
In June of 1925, Father John M. Filion, then provincial superior of English speaking Jesuits across Canada, felt the need for a larger Shrine that would be closer both to pure spring water and to Ste-Marie-among-the-Hurons, the missionaries’ “home of peace.” So he purchased the Standin brothers’ farm on the hill across the dirt road from the ruins of Ste-Marie.
Acting as his own architect and foreman, he hired 50 local seamen in the fall of 1925 and had the roof placed by winter. Some of the lumber came from the Waubaushene shrine and the remainder was donated by lumber companies north of Lake Huron. “I wanted a church both rustic and amateur and I am sure all the high-class architects will agree that it is quite rustic and quite amateur,” Father Filion used to chuckle in later years. As part of the rustic theme, he shaped the ceiling as an inverted canoe. Since birch bark was in short supply for the entire interior, he chose a durable substitute, British Columbia three-ply cottonwood called Lamatco.
With the stone facing put on the church by Reuben Webb, the edifice on the hill has always looked quite handsome. The craftsman used Longford stone from the east side of Lake Simcoe. The old St. Peter’s Church on Bathurst Street in Toronto was being replaced, so the Shrine got the three altars, the communion rail, the rose windows and the pews.
The same year the cathedral in London, Ontario was being renovated and the architect rejected the 14 Stations of the Cross which are now in our church and are one of its chief ornaments. We also got the stained glass windows from the cathedral. They were painted in Germany. They came to us gratis.
Of course, there were expenses in erecting the magnificent church, so several Ontario bishops had diocesan collections to help pay the bills. The Shrine was blessed on June 25, 1926 by Cardinal O’Connell of Boston. He arrived in Midland on the cruise ship, South American, after attending the Eucharistic Congress in Chicago. Mostly in wagons, 500 proper Bostonians made their way to the brand-new Shrine.
On the next day, Sunday, 10,000 pilgrims gathered in front of the church for a Pontifical High Mass celebrated by Archbishop Neil McNeil of Toronto. Five other heads of dioceses were present, and Bishop Michael Fallon of London preached the sermon on the outside steps. Almost four years to the day later, as Pope Pius XI was canonizing the eight Canadian Martyrs in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, another vast congregation gathered in front of the altar at the 12th Station of the Cross on the hill overlooking Georgian Bay. Once more Archbishop McNeil celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving, and this time Monsignor Joseph O’Sullivan, rector of St. Augustine’s Seminary, Toronto, preached.
In those days most pilgrims from southern Ontario came by excursion train that stopped adjacent to Ste-Marie-among-the-Hurons. The Shrine director from 1927 to 1953, Father Thomas Lally, S.J., would follow the processional cross and lead every pilgrimage up the big hill. In 1936 and 1937, he organized historical pageants about the Martyrs and ordinary people flocked to them. But there were other summer days over the years when he welcomed kings, governors-general, apostolic delegates, prime ministers, premiers, and flocks of bishops.
At the end of the Depression, it took three years of appeals in The Martyrs’ Shrine Message for the Director to collect the $4,000.00 purchase price of Sainte-Marie from a local businessman. It was a top priority. With the site of the home of peace back in Jesuit hands in 1940, Fr. Lally wanted archaeologists to get busy, so he encouraged, first, Professor Kenneth Kidd of the Royal Ontario Museum and, then, Professor Wilfrid Jury to supervise teams of diggers — for whom he provided room and board at the Shrine Inn.
The biggest find of the digs came in August, 1954 when Father Denis Hegarty, S.J. of the Shrine staff uncovered in the Native chapel a lead plaque, “Père Jean de Brébeuf bruslé par les Iroquois le 17 de mars, l’an 1649.” That was five years after the Tercentenary celebrations of the deaths of those Martyrs. A trainload of pilgrims came from Quebec City with Archbishop Maurice Roy taking personal charge of the skull of Brébeuf which came up the hill in a solemn procession. Premier Robert Schuman of France was there too. Cardinal James McGuigan of Toronto led the welcoming party. More memorable for some of us that summer of 1949 was the Pageant, Salute to Canada, written and directed by Father Daniel Lord, S.J. of St. Louis, Missouri. The numbers were impressive: four nights, 25 musicians of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, 500 actors, including the Volcoff Dancers, 40,000 enthralled viewers. Some evenings it rained in the area, except on the hillside of the Pageant!
On the 26th anniversary of his directorship, Father Lally died at the Shrine in October, 1953. Father John McCaffrey, S.J. was Director for the next 15 years. In 1964 the Jesuits negotiated an agreement between the Upper Canadian Province of Jesuits and the Government of Ontario whereby the historic site of Sainte-Marie and adjoining land on the south side of highway 32 were leased to the Provincial Government for 100 years for a consideration of one dollar. In turn the Government undertook to rebuild and operate Ste-Marie- among-the-Hurons.
As Director from 1970 to 1974, Father Angus Macdougall, S.J. researched and wrote a multitude of pamphlets on the Martyrs. He also had the 124 room Inn demolished before a fire could break out. The next Director, for five years, was Father Winston Rye, S.J. who erected a cairn to the faith of the Native Indian people, marking a fitting relationship between Native people and missionaries. The annual Native prayer days at the Shrine began at that time.
He was followed in the Fall of 1978 by Father Edwin Merchant, S.J. who built up devotion to the newly beatified Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha and commissioned a statue in her honour. Father James Farrell, S.J. provided the leadership following Father Merchant. First, he put a hall, the Filion Centre, under the church even though naysayers said the building would collapse in the doing. Then in the highlight of highlights these 80 years, he welcomed (in September, 1984) Pope John Paul II who, through television told the country and the world that “this Martyrs’ Shrine is a place of pilgrimage and prayer, a monument to God’s blessings in the past, an inspiration as we look to the future.”
In 1992, to mark the 150th anniversary of the return of the Jesuits to Canada, the Jesuits of Quebec offered the precious relic of the skull of St. Jean de Brébeuf to the Martyrs’ Shrine. In the presence of Archbishop Aloysius Ambrozic of Toronto Father Rene Latourelle, S.J., of Quebec told the assembly at the papal altar, “Here Brébeuf was and still is fully at home.” Annually, pilgrims come to Canada’s only national shrine outside of Quebec — individuals, organizations, schools, parishes, dioceses. They come in convoys of cars or buses, or alone, even on foot. Their numbers at one time had grown to 200,000 a year. Today some 100,000 pilgrims still visit this national shrine. Smaller ethnic shrines all over the grounds are focal points for huge pilgrimages which include procession, hillside Mass, singing and praying in more than 20 languages.
Following the death of Father Farrell in 1996 the next Director was Father Don Beaudois, SJ (1996 – 2000) and he was followed by Father Robert Wong, SJ (2000 – 2004). Today the Director is Father Alex Kirsten, SJ. Over these many years pilgrims from near and far have worshipped in Fr. Filion’s rustic church at the four English-language Masses a day. The words of our Holy Father still echo from the hill: “Let us recall for a moment these heroic saints who are honoured in this place and who have left us a precious heritage.”
Keeping the history alive
The shrine has its own archivist, volunteer teacher Steve Catlin, to maintain its records. Besides the two validated cures which led to the raising of the Martyrs to sainthood back in 1930, the shrine has literally thousands of letters from pilgrims who report a cure or favour being granted through the intercession of the martyrs.” Mr. Catlin says he has known people who recovered from bad backs and legs after prayer and placing hands on one of the reliquaries. His own mother, who had been unconscious for three days following a bad fall, recovered quickly, he believes, once she came in contact “with cloth that had been touched by the bones of the martyrs.”
The archives holds photographs such as the one of Gerald Henry who, in 1928, was “instantly cured of stuttering when blessed with the relics” and a Montreal Standard feature from 1939 is filled with the names and addresses of those who claimed to be cured of such afflictions as infantile paralysis, heart disease and even goitre. Today, far more discretion is applied to such information.