There are many shrines to our Blessed Mother Mary scattered throughout the world. Some of the most famous ones are associated with Our Lady’s appearances at Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe. But few Canadians know that we, too, have our own national shrine to Our Blessed Mother: The Shrine of Our Lady of the Cape at Cap-de-la-Madeleine, Québec.
History of Cap-de-la-Madeleine
The shrine traces its history back to the early sixteenth century when French explorer, Jacques Cartier, set sail from France in the hopes of discovering a western passage to China. On his first voyage (in April 1534), Cartier explored parts of present-day Newfoundland, as well as the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the area that now comprises the Canadian Maritime provinces. He didn’t attempt to sail up the St. Lawrence River at that time; that would have to wait until the following year when, on May 19, 1535, he set sail for the New World once again.
On his second voyage, Cartier landed at the Iroquois capital, Stradacona (present day Québec City). Leaving his main ships there, he continued up-river in a smaller boat, heading towards Hochelaga (present day Montréal – about 250 kilometres’ distance). On the way, on October 7th, 1535, he planted a large, beautiful Cross of Christ on one of the islands in the St. Maurice River that separates the present-day cities of Trois-Rivières and Cap-de-la-Madeleine. Little did he know that this date was prophetic; it would later be proclaimed the Feast of the Holy Rosary.1
Arrival of the Missionaries
In 1616, Franciscan priests began ministering to the Native peoples and French traders at the site of Trois-Rivières – the “three rivers.” Some thirty-five years later – on November 21, 1651, the Feast of the Presentation – Jesuit missionaries arrived and took up residence. In 1659, the Jesuits built the area’s first wooden chapel at Cap-de-la-Madeleine, and in the Jesuit Relations, we read of the tremendous devotion and piety of the people who worshipped there: “God’s Spirit works its wonders wherever he chooses. It is not merely among civilized nations, and in souls consecrated to God, that devotion is found; … Cabins of Bark conceal as much virtue as can be desired in cloisters.”2
I was particularly touched by the story of a Huron woman who, each time she nursed her infant son, would say this prayer: “Ah, Lord, how happy I would have deemed myself if, during your infancy, the blessed Virgin had let me give you a few drops of milk from my breast! But since I had not the good fortune to be living at that time, and to render this little service to you in your own person, I wish at least to render it to you in the person of my son; for you have said that whatsoever one shall do unto the least of your children you will consider it as done unto yourself.”3
In 1678, Blessed François de Laval (the first Bishop of Québec) formally created the parish of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, and in 1694, a Confraternity of the Holy Rosary was established, thereby “planting the seeds for what was to be the special theme of the later shrine.”4 Later, in 1717, the tiny wooden chapel (just 9 x 5 meters) was replaced by a stone chapel that is still standing today.
Sadly, Fr. Paul Vachon, who had been the pastor at Cap-de-la-Madeleine for 44 years, died in 1729, and with his passing the parish “lapsed into a period of darkness and decline, without a resident priest for the next 115 years.”5 When a resident pastor was finally re-appointed to the Cape in 1844, he found that many of the parishioners had fallen away from the practice of their faith and were hostile to the Church.6 However, the faith had not completely died out, and in 1854, what would come to be known as the miraculous statue of Our Lady of the Cape was donated to the church by Zépherin Dorval.
Ten years later, in 1864, a new pastor – Fr. Luc Desilets – was appointed to the parish. He was a very holy priest, and over time he became discouraged by the apathy of his parishioners. Three years after his arrival, a shocking occurrence led him to turn to Our Lady to ask her help. The story is told of how, “One day, he happened to enter his church, only to find a dirty pig snorting and scrambling onto the steps of the altar that housed the statue of Our Lady. In its jaws the pig carried a Rosary, which it had trampled and soiled. Retrieving the Rosary, Father Desilets drove the pig out of the church. Humiliated and desperate, he turned to Our Lady and made a vow to promote the Rosary in his parish and in the diocese. As a result, the parish was revived and began to be known far and wide as a centre of devotion to Our Lady.”7
Miracle of the Ice Bridge – 1879
By 1879, the parish was flourishing and it was evident that a much larger church was needed to accommodate their needs. But Cap-de-la-Madeleine is located on the north bank of the St. Lawrence River, and building stone could only be found on the opposite side, two kilometers across. They decided to wait for winter when the St. Lawrence would freeze over, after which they would transport the stones over the ice bridge with a team of horses. All winter long, the parishioners waited and prayed, but the winter of 1879 was very mild, and by March of 1879, the river still hadn’t frozen over. Spring was in the air and the parishioners were starting to lose hope, but Fr. Desilets and his assistant, Fr. Duguay, were convinced that Our Lady would come through. Fr. Desilets even vowed to dedicate the original church (which the parish had outgrown) to Our Lady of the Rosary if the river froze. What happened next was truly miraculous. Fr. Duguay has left us the following account:
“On March 14, a high wind broke up the ice blocking the mouth of the St. Maurice River and fringing the northern shore of the St. Lawrence. The broken ice drifted downstream into the bay of Cap-de-la-Madeleine, covering the river to a distance of several hundred feet below the church. During Mass, I announced, on the parish priest’s behalf, that there would be a High Mass on the 19th to petition St. Joseph for a bridge of ice. I added that, after vespers, I would accompany those who wished to prospect a passage to the far shore of the St. Lawrence River.
“When we reached the area where the river was covered, we saw that the drifting ice was scattered thinly amongst floating snow… We advanced onto the river, choosing places where the fragments of old ice seemed to be closer together. The distance between the broken-up floes varied considerably. On and on we went. Firmin Cadotte led the way, axe in hand, a rope around his waist, held by Flavien Bourassa… just in case!
“From stopping place to stopping place, we made our way to the final floe of old ice. It must have been about 1,000 feet from the inshore ice along the southern shore… When I looked up, I saw that my two guides had moved on about 200 feet: they had realized that if they went upriver, diagonally, they might be able to reach the inshore ice which stretched out from the St. Angèle strand. Still moving forward, Firmin Cadotte struck through the thin ice with the head of his axe. The other men watched us go on, but did not dare follow, so that, in the end, my two guides and myself were the only ones to reach the south shore…
“Firmin Cadotte was crawling forward, feeling with his hand for a small strip or patch of ice which would take the weight of his knee… Thirty men worked along this 1,600-foot stretch until 11 o’clock that night, with only three lanterns to give light in their task, which was to prepare a track wide enough for two carts to pass each other. We came back at 11 p.m. Stopping next to the old sacristy I asked the men: ‘Well, what’s the next step?’ Firmin Cadotte answered: ‘We have to pour water over the bridge in order to make it thicker.’ At 3 a.m. the same night, we were back at work on the ice. The night was crisp, considering it was the end of March, and the bridge was already solid enough to walk on.
“On March 18 [the vigil of the Feast of St. Joseph], at 4 a.m., the north wind had blown up and driven the clouds away. We sent off for some men to pour more water over our bridge and to saturate the snow which had fallen during the night. We were beginning to be proud of our bridge. When we tested it with a blow from an axe, we found that it was already six inches thick. This raised everyone’s hopes of success. We had instructed Joe Bellefeuille and his son to prepare six-foot blocks of stone. While we were deciding where to open up the track (there had been a great deal of snow overnight), we saw the first sleigh coming over our bridge. It was driven by Joe Longval who had been eager to bring over the first load of stones.”8 “For doubters of the miracle, Fr. Duguay stated that the fact that water thrown on the floating snow would run back into the river (which was verified by the lanterns) proved that there was no ice on the rest of the river – only on the bridge.”9
The entire undertaking would be completed by March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation, the day they noticed that the bridge was beginning to melt. Fr. Duguay wrote, “By Sunday, 175 sleighs had crossed the river… We had transported about a thousand feet of dressed stone, plus stone for the foundations. I ordered a stop to the work, and no one undertook to make another voyage. It was quite extraordinary, a true miracle. It defied common sense. We immediately named it the Rosary Bridge.”10
Miracle of the Eyes – 1888
Our Lady continued to make her presence felt at Cap-de-la-Madeleine. On June 22, 1888, the old stone chapel was formally dedicated to Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, just as Fr. Desilets had promised. That evening, he and Blessed Frédéric Janssoone (a dynamic preacher who did a great deal to spread devotion to Our Lady of the Cape in the early days of the shrine) went over to the church to pray with a crippled man named Pierre Lacroix, who later explained what happened: “I went into the shrine about 7 o’clock in the evening, accompanied by Father Desilets and Father Frédéric. I was walking, supported by them. We went to place ourselves at the communion rail. The priests were kneeling and I was seated behind them, for I could not take any other position because of my infirmities. After praying for a while, I looked up at the statue of the Blessed Virgin in front of me. Immediately I saw that her eyes were distinctly open in a life-like manner as if she were looking over us, towards Trois-Rivières. I examined this without saying anything. Then Father Desilets who was at my right, left his place and went over beside Father Frédéric. I heard him say, ‘Do you see it?’ ‘Yes,’ answered Father Frédéric. ‘The statue has opened its eyes, hasn’t it?’ ‘Well yes, but has it really?’ Then I told them that I had been seeing the same thing for several moments.
“To Father Desilets, who had been longing for some confirmation, this ‘Prodigy of the Eyes’ was an answer to prayer. Our Lady had hallowed this particular place and statue with her presence.”11 He died just two months later, his work having been completed.
Fr. Frédéric’s testimony would later appear on the front page of the Montreal newspaper, “La Presse” (on May 22, 1897): “The statue of the Virgin had been sculptured with the eyes cast down. Now they were wide open, staring. The Virgin was looking straight ahead, Her eyes level. It could hardly be an optical illusion: Her face was clearly visible, illuminated by the sun, which, shining through one of the windows filled the whole shrine with light. Her eyes were black, well shaped, and in perfect harmony with the rest of Her face. The Virgin’s expression was that of a living person, at once stern and sad. This marvel lasted somewhere between five and ten minutes.”12
Shrine of Our Lady of the Cape
Since the time of these two miracles, the shrine’s reputation has grown rapidly, and today hundreds of thousands of pilgrims flock there each year. There have been many cures and accounts of spiritual blessings associated with the shrine, with the first documented cure occurring on September 1, 1895, when a 15-year-old girl was cured of her blindness.13 Many more miracles would follow. “A young girl crippled for 10 years attends the blessing of the sick on the great feast of the Assumption and then goes home to find herself walking as if she had never known injury. A teaching sister who lost her voice for several years drinks water from Our Lady’s spring and her voice is restored on the instant to its old vigour. A blacksmith comes to the shrine on crutches with a mangled leg. Later he returns to the shrine all healed, walking briskly, on vacation from his blacksmithing job, in order to leave his crutches at the shrine of her who restored his strength. A hopeless ailment disappears, a son returns, a father is cured of a sad addiction, a mother avoids a serious operation, a child is called back from the edge of the grace, the sorrowing are comforted and healed, and the despairing are filled with hope.”14
In 1904, Bishop Cloutier officially declared Our Lady of the Cape as the “Madonna of the Canadians” and confirmed the validity of the Miracle of the Rosary Bridge and the Prodigy of the Eyes. In that same year, the statue of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary was crowned under the authority of Pope Pius X (with most of the Canadian Bishops in attendance) to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. (It was later crowned again under the authority of Pope Pius XII.) It is the only crowned Madonna in Canada.
During Pope St. John Paul II’s pilgrimage to Cap-de-la-Madeleine on September 10, 1984, he said, “Today, indeed, we come to Notre-Dame du Cap as people of our time. We come with those generations of the past with whom we share our faith in the Mother of God. A fine inheritance has been bequeathed to you. It has made you what you are. And the cornerstone of that inheritance is Mary, to which your predecessors dedicated themselves. We are here to, as it were, transfer this sharing of faith into the hearts of our generation and their successors. Those generations of early witnesses provide us, who are here, with our inspiration. Courageous as the prophets, they generated faith, fanned it into flame, tended it lest it die out in the ashes of skepticism. When we are tempted to lose our grasp on hope, it is their faith in the future which upholds and stimulates us. Through the generations, it is the pilgrims’ faith that confirms the special vocation of this Shrine.”15
May the inspiration of our forefathers and the witness of pilgrims continue to inspire us and draw us to the feet of Our Lady. And as we shelter in the folds of her protective mantle, may she teach us, console us, and point the way to her dearly beloved Son.
Sharon van der Sloot
1 Pope Pius V attributed the victory of the Holy League over the Ottoman navy at the Battle of Lepanto (on October 1, 1571) to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. To commemorate the occasion, he instituted the annual celebration of the “Feast of Our Lady of Victory.” In 1573, Pope Gregory XIII changed the name of the feast day to the “Feast of the Holy Rosary.”
2 “Of the Huron Church at Quebec,” Jesuit Relations, vol. 49, Lower Canada Iroquois 1663 to 1665, chapter V; available from http://moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations/relations_49.html; Internet; accessed 21 September 2017.
4 Fr. Émile-Marie Brière, Under Mary’s Mantle: Our Lady’s Love for Canada (Combermere, Ontario: Madonna House Publications, 2000), 43. Cap-de-la-Madeleine was founded on March 20, 1651 and amalgamated into the city of Trois-Rivières in 2002.
6 Cf. Ibid.
7 Ibid., 44.
8 Thérèse Tardif, “Our Lady of the Cape,” Michael; available from http://www.michaeljournal.org/articles/roman-catholic-church/item/our-lady-of-the-cape?/ndcape.htm; Internet; accessed 21 September 2017.
9 “Our Lady of Cap de Madeleine,” Franciscan Handmaids of the Immaculate; available from http://handmaidsoftheimmaculate.weebly.com/blog/our-lady-of-cap-de-madeleine; Internet; accessed 21 September 2017.
10 Tardif, “Our Lady of the Cape.”
11 Brière, Under Mary’s Mantle: Our Lady’s Love for Canada, 45-46.
12 “Our Lady of Cap de Madeleine,” Franciscan Handmaids of the Immaculate. Following Fr. Desilets’ death, Blessed Frédéric Janssoone became the first pilgrimage director of the shrine. He was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II on September 25, 1988, the centenary of the “Miracle of the Eyes.”
13 Cf. Brière, Under Mary’s Mantle: Our Lady’s Love for Canada, 46.
14 Ibid., 47.
15 Quoted by Bob and Penny Lord, Blessed Frederic – Cap de Madeleine [website]; available from https://www.bobandpennylord.com/Blessed_Frederic.htm; Internet; accessed 21 September 2017.
*By Mikevan101 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16066390. The statue “shows Mary without the Child Jesus, Her arms outstretched toward the people, standing on a half-globe, Her foot/heal crushing the head of the snake. (cf Gen 3:15.) … The meaning of the burning heart of Mary is one of burning love beating in union with the heart of Her son, and partaking in His suffering. The other characteristic element of the statue of Our Lady of the Cape is Her crown. As we will see later, it was added in 1904 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the definition of the Immaculate Conception. The coronation honors and highlights, in particular, the miraculous character of the statue. In fact, since the ice-bridge miracle of 1878, and the prodigy of the eyes of 1888, this statue of Our Lady has been considered miraculous.” (Thérèse Tardif, “Our Lady of the Cape.”)