Our Lady of the Cape Shrine: A Spiritual Treasure in Trois-Rivières, Quebec

By posted on July 2, 2018 11:00AM
The Main Entrance to the Basilica Notre-Dame-du-Cap - Our Lady of the Cape

The History of Our Lady of the Cape

Casually dressed in an open-neck shirt and slacks, Father Bernard Menard looked more like someone’s kindly grandfather than a priest. His handshake was soft and warm, his voice gentle and kind. Father Menard was our guide during our visit to Our Lady of the Cape Shrine in the city of Trois-Rivières, halfway between Quebec City and Montreal.

We sat enthralled as he recounted the history of Our Lady of the Cape. It was a tale of faith, miracles, and perseverance, which culminated in a small chapel becoming a draw for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around the world.

The chapel, as well as a modern basilica, is located in the district of Cap-de-la-Madeleine, where, a small, simple wooden church was erected by French settlers in 1659. This was the first church of Cap-de-la-Madeleine.

Exterior of the Original Church Dating Back to 1703 Our Lady of the Cape Shrine
Exterior of the Original Church Dating Back to 1703

The second church, constructed of fieldstone, opened its doors in 1720. Known today as the Old Shrine, it is the oldest church in Canada where daily Mass is celebrated.

The Sanctuary of the Basilica Trois Rivières
The Sanctuary of the Basilica Trois Rivières

Father Menard told of how the church had declined in membership, then grew to the point where a larger church was needed. It was in the winter of 1879 the first of two miracles occurred.

The First Miracle

It had been an unseasonably warm winter, and the ice bridge upon which supplies were brought from across the St. Lawrence River didn’t form. The hope had been to begin work on the church in the summer of that year, but the stones required for the construction could not be transported to the parish.

The population prayed day and night, and on March 15, large patches of ice began forming a narrow bridge in one critical spot, while the St. Lawrence remained clear on either side. Parishioners worked feverishly to shore up the ice with water and packed snow. For six days, beginning March 19 sleds were able to bring stones across “The Rosary Bridge” to the parish.

The Bridge of the Rosaries Constructed in 1924 to Commemorate the Prodigy of the Formation of an Ice Bridge on the St. Lawrence River in March 1879.
The Bridge of the Rosaries Constructed in 1924 to Commemorate the Formation of an Ice Bridge on the St. Lawrence River in March 1879.

Father Menard said although the task of transporting the stones on horse-drawn sleds was perilous, the parishioners insisted they were not afraid, because they felt protected. Just after the last load had been safely brought across, the ice bridge collapsed.

A Second Miracle

The second miracle occurred on June 22, 1888, the date the extension to the original stone church was dedicated, to Mary. Her five-foot statue was moved from its alcove to rest above the altar, where it still resides.

Statue of the Virgin Mary in the Original Church Our Lady of the Cape Shrine
Statue of the Virgin Mary in the Original Church

Following the celebration dinner, a man in a wheelchair requested permission to pray to Mary in the shrine. He was accompanied by the priest and Father Frederic, a Franciscan priest, visiting from the Holy Land. Each man testified he saw the lowered eyes of the statue open wide, and gaze out at the world for several minutes with a look of true compassion.

Father Frederic, who had planned to stay for three weeks remained another 14 years. He became the church’s first pilgrimage director, and was declared blessed by Pope John Paul II on September 25th, 1988, one hundred years after the miracle of the opening of the eyes of the statue of Mary.

The Shrine Today

Today, between 200,000 and 400,000 pilgrims visit Our Lady of the Cape Shrine annually. Many come to celebrate the Festival of the Assumption on August 15. This also happens to be Father Menard’s birthday.

With Father Menard’s haunting story fresh in our minds, we strolled the grounds, taking in the statues and gardens. Across the Bridge of the Rosary, symbolizing the 1879 miracle was a garden displaying statues representing the Stations of the Cross. A peaceful sanctuary, this space is ideal for walking and reflection.

A Statue on the Path Representing the Way of the Cross
A Statue on the Path Representing the Way of the Cross

We also stole quietly into the shrine to witness people silently praying to the Statue of Mary. It now stands above the altar with open hands and lowered eyes.

Notre-Dame-Du-Cap Basilica

From there, we entered Notre-Dame-Du-Cap Basilica, where magnificent stained glass windows and one of the largest Casavant organs in the world awaited our admiration. The breathtaking stained glass windows are credited to Father Jan Tillemans, a Dutch priest with as much talent as devotion.

The Casavant Organ at the West End of the Basilica Our Lady of the Cape Quebec
The Casavant Organ at the West End of the Basilica

The colors in the glass are produced from ground stones. The windows are mounted using techniques that have been around for centuries.

Stained Glass Windows in the Basilica Notre-Dame-du-Cap in Trois-Rivières, Quebec
Stained Glass Windows in the Basilica Notre-Dame-du-Cap
Supplicants in Front of the Basilica - Our Lady of the Cape in Quebec
Supplicants in Front of the Basilica

The basilica, using design features of a First Nation teepee, soars to a height of 125 feet and can accommodate up to 1,660 worshipers.

Exterior of the Basilica Clearly Showing the Teepee Shape of the Roofline - Our Lady of the Cape Shrine in Trois-Rivières, Quebec
Exterior of the Basilica Clearly Showing the Teepee Shape of the Roofline

Whatever your religious affiliation (or lack there of) opening yourself up to the beauty and solemnity of Our Lady of the Cape Shrine is a deeply personal experience. It doesn’t matter if you believe in miracles. The people of Cap-de-la-Madeleine did. And that does matter. It was their unshakable faith that enabled Our Lady of the Cape to flourish and grow into an international magnet for the faithful and the fascinated.

Disclaimer: During our visit to Trois-Rivières, we received assistance from Innovation et Développement économique Trois-Rivières, as well as a media rate from Gouverneur Hotel. However, all opinions, as always, are entirely my own.

For more information on Trois-Rivières, read 24 Hours in Trois-Rivières, Quebec on MilesGeek.

Penny Zibula is a freelance travel writer and blogger based in New Bern, NC. She has had a life-long passion for travel, and for learning as much as she can about cultures crafts, foods and wines through the people she meets in both nearby and far flung places. Along with her photographer husband, Simon Lock, and her guide dog, “Otto”, Penny has spent the last three years focused on making the most of what is supposed to be the couple’s retirement. Penny’s background is in public relations and community outreach, with nine years as a television talk-show host and producer. As her career progressed, she found herself writing a variety of copy: articles, newsletters, annual reports, press releases, etc. When Simon and Penny moved from Atlanta to New Bern in 2006 to start their business in auto repair, she began to cast about for opportunities to continue writing. Through her networking efforts, she  landed a part-time job as staff writer for The County Compass, a local weekly publication, where she learned that writing for a newspaper was a  niche unto itself.   When Simon and Penny decided to close up shop and retire early in 2013, they began taking online courses and live workshops in travel writing, web copy, blogging and, for Simon, photography, through Great Escape Travel (GEP) and American Writers and Artists Inc. (AWAI). Today, Penny writes regularly for her travel blog, http://sixlegswilltravel.com, and is continuously expanding her freelance travel writing for newspapers and both print and online magazines, with Simon taking all the spectacular photos. Both Penny and Simon are members of the International Travel Writers and Photographers Alliance ITWPA).

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