Year-round, buses of healthy and sick pilgrims flow into a village just outside Québec City. The shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré is the North American counterpart to Lourdes, France.
In 1658, a man crippled with arthritis laid three stones in the foundation for the church of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. Immediately, his affliction vanished. Word of the miracle spread, and within seven years, the founder of Québec City's Ursuline convent, Marie de l'Incarnation, was writing to her son, "Seven leagues from here is Ste. Anne church, where the paralytic walk, the blind see, and the sick, whatever their illness, are healed."
Nobody knows how many miracles have occurred at the continent's oldest Christian shrine, but each year the site welcomes more than a million visitors about 13 percent of them from the United States. Some come seeking a cure, others come simply as an act of faith; many may be skeptical, but they are aware that science and logic cannot explain everything.
The village of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré grew around the church. According to legend, sailors engulfed in a storm promised a shrine to St. Anne, their patron saint, if they made it safely ashore. They kept their promise, building where they landed.
The medieval-style basilica with its twin spires is typical of French buildings. The statues on the imposing gray stone façade are both religious and provincial historical figures that range from the 12 apostles to a young Iroquois woman to a three-dimensional frieze of a lumberjack, baker, farmer and others praying at the feet of St. Anne, who was the mother of Mary.
High above the doorway is the statue of St. Anne venerated by local parishioners. Fire destroyed the church in 1922, and the copper bar bracing the statue fell when the roof collapsed. Only a thin layer of copper covered the statue which was embedded just a few inches in its pedestal, yet despite the lack of support the statue remained upright.
Red oak pews, colorful mosaics and carvings of animals, flowers and fruits fill the spacious, 200-foot-long by 100-foot-wide interior. The 240 stained-glass windows, made in France, soften the sunlight, lending serenity to the church. Micheline Roy, a guide for the daily tour, says, "The diffused light helps to avoid tiring the eyes and also helps you find your own interior light by isolating you from any exterior distractions."
Crutches, canes and prostheses stacked next to two of the huge pillars testify to the miracles that have occurred since the third shrine on the site was opened in 1934. These days, the Redemptorist priests, the shrine's custodians, label a cure as a miracle only upon receipt of certificates from two doctors. The first must describe the person's incurable ailment before healing; the second must describe the state of the person's health after the cure.
Rather than praying in the pews, many people kneel at the wood statue of St. Anne in the aisle beside the altar. A side chapel contains the "famous relic," a four-inch piece of St. Anne's forearm, displayed in a carved gilded arm. Descending the side stairs, the faithful get a closer view of another relic, a piece of St. Anne's finger
The lower level of the small Chapel of the Immaculate Conception is dedicated to Mary. "It's painted vibrant blue because that's the color identified with her," said Roy. "We have more weddings here than upstairs. People feel more comfortable here."
A short walk from the church, the museum depicts scenes in the life of Anne although most of the museum showcases the shrine's historical treasures - a diverse collection of such items as a gilded 18th-century altar, chalices encrusted with diamonds and other precious stones and a priest's vestment donated by Anne of Austria, the mother of France's King Louis XIV.
The region's settlers, mainly from Brittany, France, were such loyal Roman Catholics that shortly after completing the first church, they built another on an adjacent hillside. Water damage forced the razing of the second, smaller chapel in 1877. A year later, the townspeople used the same stone to erect the Memorial Chapel. A sculpture of Moses and the Ten Commandments adorns the white and gold-trimmed pulpit from the original basilica.
Water flowing down the hillside is channeled into a fountain beside the Memorial Chapel. Pipes also carry the water from the fountain to the shrine's store so pilgrims can drink the water even during the winter. The water is reputed to be the source for many cures.
Adjacent to the Memorial Chapel is Scala Santa. The white-tiered chapel, resembling a giant wedding cake, dates from 1891, The Sacred Stairs inside replicates the steps Jesus climbed to reach the court of Pontius Pilate.
The hillside behind the chapels holds the 14 Stations of the Cross. These larger-than-life-size bronze statues recreate stages of Jesus' life.
Candlelight processions are often held at the shrine, as pilgrims make their way around the grounds and the Stations of the Cross. The main such procession is conducted on the Feast of St. Anne, which takes place in mid-July.
Mary Ann Simpkins is a frequent contributor to the Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Spa Life, North American Inns, and also Fifty-Five Plus, Grit, Rolls Royce Diary & Fodor's Travel Guides. She is author of Travel Bug Canada & Co-author of Ottawa Stories. Mary Ann is a member of TMAC & SATW.
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Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
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