At Ste. Anne de Beaupré, Mi’kmaq Pilgrims Honor an Elder

Today is Aboriginal Day in Canada so it is quite fitting that we tell the story of a group of happy pilgrims from Membertou First Nation who will be boarding a bus on Friday, June 23, having attended Mass at St. Ann’s Church at 8:30 a.m., to begin their annual trip to the Shrine at Ste. Anne de Beaupré, Quebec, carrying on a tradition that’s been a Mi’kmaq ritual for over 300 years.

Fifty-six pilgrims will travel by bus, while others will take their own cars, joining Mi’kmaq from Waycobah, Chapel Island, Eskasoni, Shubenacadie, Truro, Pictou Landing and Bayfield in this pilgrimage to the shrine that honors Ste. Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary and therefore an “elder” who commands, as do all Mi’kmaq grandmothers, the respect of their communities.

Back row — left to right: Viola Christmas, Edith Christmas, Mary Anne Gallaher. Front row – left to right: Pauline Bernard and Katy McEwan.


Raising funds

Viola Christmas, Pauline Bernard, Katy McEwan and Mary Anne Gallaher, all women in their ’80s, elders in the Membertou community, were pleased to reminisce about their many trips to Beaupré over the years, either by train, by car or, more recently, of course, by bus.

Edith Christmas, religious-ed coordinator for the children of Membertou, as well as pastoral worker with the entire community, organizes the pilgrimage with the help and support of Viola Christmas, longtime organizer herself, succeeding Membertou natives, such as Charlie and Matilda Herney and Wallace and Pauline Bernard, who also served as organizers over the years and who, said Pauline, “Drove many summers in our own car because the trip to the shrine was such an important part of our Mi’kmaq spirituality.”

While they receive financial assistance from the Membertou Chief and Council, store owners and community members, the women also raise money from two annual fairs and various other fundraising activities to ensure that the cost of the pilgrimage to individual members of the community is never a financial burden. Said Edith:

We are very fortunate to have tremendous support from our community, especially when so many make anonymous donations. Without their assistance every year, the visits to the shrine would be a more difficult proposition.

Donations of snacks for the breaks that come every two hours as the bus wends its way to Quebec and the cost of the meal that awaits them when they arrive in Fredericton around 6 p.m. for their over-night stop, all supplement the monies they raise to cover the trip, their stay in Beaupré, their meals and any other expenses. In addition to their visit to the shrine, they try to make a “side trip” each year — going once to the shrine of St. Kateri Tekakwitha in Kahnawake, and last year to St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal.

Pilgrims from Membertou, Ste. Anne de Beaupré, 1996.

Pilgrims from Membertou, Ste. Anne de Beaupré, 1996. (Click on photo to enlarge)

Time was when the pilgrims were accompanied by a priest, mostly former pastors of St. Anthony Daniel Parish, whose names (and the list is a long one) the women recall and who were a very important component of the pilgrimage. (St. Anthony Daniel Parish, founded in 1949, was named for Antoine Daniel, a Jesuit who arrived in Englishtown in 1632.) The late Fr. Errol MacDonald obviously made a lasting impression on the women and Pauline laughs remembering “his great sense of humor,” which no doubt made the long bus ride seem shorter.

The present shortage of clergy, however, has changed that particular aspect of the pilgrimage. It’s still a spiritual journey, however, and the rosary is recited as they travel, although they also socialize and play a few games of Bingo! They are accompanied by two local nurses, Frances (Doucette) MacIntyre and Madelaine O’Reilly (daughter of the late Donna and Stephen Gould), whose presence on the long drive to Beaupré is very much appreciated.


Healing powers

Ste. Anne de Beaupré is the oldest shrine in North America, founded in 1658, when Étienne de Lessard donated 20 acres of his property for a chapel that would “provide a place of worship for the settlers and house a miraculous statue of Ste. Anne.” Even while the chapel was being built, there were stories of healings, resulting in large numbers of pilgrims making the trip to the small chapel which was enlarged many times, the first Basilica being built in 1876, destroyed by fire in 1922 and rebuilt in 1926. Due to the Depression of the 1930s, the interior of the building wasn’t completed until 1946. The Redemptorists of Ste. Anne de Beaupré have been “guardians” of the shrine since 1878.

The centerpiece of the basilica is a large statue of Ste. Anne around which hang canes and crutches, as well as other items left behind by those healed during their stay at the shrine. The Holy Stairs, a replica of the Scala Santa, the stairs Christ climbed to appear before Pontius Pilate, are a way for pilgrims to humble themselves as they make their way up on their knees (not an easy feat for older or less-fit pilgrims.) There is usually a night-time procession along the hillside above the shrine as pilgrims walk the Way of The Cross. The Cyclorama, a depiction of Jerusalem at the time of Christ’s crucifixion, is another attraction at the shrine.

Pilgrims from Membertou, Ste, 1984. (Click on photo to enlarge)


Native Sunday

Jennifer Westwood, a writer with an interest in religious devotions who visited Newfoundland in the 1970s, discovered there a very strong devotion to Ste. Anne, who had been credited with saving shipwrecked men in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1662. Stories of miraculous healings, similar to those credited to Ste. Anne in Quebec, began circulating in Newfoundland, and devotion to her grew among the Irish but particularly among the Mi’kmaq, wrote Westwood, “because of the great status they afforded to grandmothers.” In fact, the Mi’kmaq have given Ste. Anne the name “Nukumijinen – Our grandmother.”

In Nova Scotia, Mi’kmaq Grand Chief Henri Membertou was baptized Catholic (Henri was his baptismal name) along with his family at Annapolis Royal on 24 June 1611. The first indigenous person to be baptized in New France, Membertou encouraged his people to follow his example, and though he died later that same year (on 18 September 1611) the Mi’kmaq continued to practice the Catholic faith and to venerate Ste. Anne.

That includes celebrating her feast day, July 26 — the Chapel Island celebration, with which Viola Christmas is still actively involved, would be the one most familiar to local people — but the largest celebration of Ste. Anne takes place at the Basilica in Beaupré, when indigenous people from across the country and beyond gather for Native Sunday celebrations as they will on Sunday, June 25.

Members of First Nations communities, wearing their regalia and carrying their banners, will parade to the Basilica where they will pretty much fill the beautiful, 1,400-seat cathedral. “Special prayers for the sick of their individual communities will be offered by all those present, say Pauline and Viola, as the others nod in agreement. Their faith in Ste. Anne as a “healer” is accepted without question.

Pilgrims from Membertou on a “side trip” to Our Lady of the Cape Shrine, Cap-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec, 1994. (Click on photo to enlarge)



The Membertou pilgrims will participate, as the Mi’kmaq have since the 1700s, in all the daily routines of the pilgrimage, including evening mass at 7 p.m. On Monday, the last night of their stay at Beaupré, prayers for the sick will be offered to Ste. Anne and the pilgrims will come together for a special social gathering.

Edith, Viola, Pauline, Katy and Mary Anne agree that there have been changes over the years at Beaupré. At one time, there were many outlets selling souvenirs and items that would be blessed by one of the clergy — even the Annals of Ste. Anne, a small booklet subscribed to by many who visited the shrine regularly, was thought to have healing properties, as was the blessed oil purchased by most pilgrims and kept in a safe spot in their homes. Today, many of these outlets have closed.

While they fear that even the Basilica Inn, where they often stay, may not be available to them next year, given rumors that it has been sold, one thing’s for certain: this extraordinary group of women will, as usual on their return to Membertou, immediately begin preparations for next year’s pilgrimage.


Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.



The Cape Breton Spectator is entirely reader supported, consider subscribing today!