Now there are some moments in my wandering around the country, which are marked by a general sense of commonality, simplicity, and the usual. But then there are moments like this: driving down a country road, in the most rural of places, and almost driving off that road, because you think you've seen an apparition of the BVM (yes, Blessed Virgin Mary)! Well, I'd been exploring the islands of Lake Champlain, and had just come from examining a now-defunct missile silo, when somehow the knowledge of a moderately famed shrine-site came to me. I don't know if someone from the tourist bureau mentioned it to me, or I got the information from somewhere else, but somehow I discovered that not too far away, on one of the islands near Grand Isle itself, was a Catholic Shrine to Saint Anne.
So naturally, I was quite curious. And I eventually found myself driving along another plaintive country road, across another causeway, and onto the isolated Isle La Motte, which also apparently was home to a paleontological park. Yet, as you can see above, my reasons for being startled while driving were not completely unfounded. It was not an apparition in the strictest notion of apparitional science, but a statue positioned cautiously, and intended to pull at the heart strings of traveling pilgrims, in search of cures and remedies of quotidian maladies. And surely, people and pilgrims have come in droves, like cattle or bees to the comb of sweet, luscious beatified honey. I was again surprised by my surroundings, partly because I'd never been to a real, bone fide shrine before; one that had been turned into a pilgrimage site. Though, I do remember being in Montreal many years ago, and one of the major cathedrals was passing out square-inch size cuts of cloth that had been blessed with the reliquary bones of some long-dead saint. And there too were hundreds of long lost (or left?) crutches from believers, who'd been cured of their own maladies and disabilities.
There was not so much of that, but there were some crutches, which had been placed above an altar inside the main shrine area. Above, you can see the pavilion, which covers parishioners and pilgrims, protecting them from the elements as they sit in contemplation or ritual prayer. Now as you can see from this sign here, the site of the erstwhile Fort Ste. Anne was located here. "Built in 1666," the sign reads, "by Capt. Pierre La Motte for defense against the Mohawks. The Jesuits celebrated the first Mass and erected the first Chapel." Of course, Capt. La Motte is where the name of this little island came from. Now some 340 some years later, I stand on these shores, marveling at the curiosities and refinement of religious observance, and how they have become something almost (or perhaps "not almost!") commercialized. It was moderately startling to find the shrine so enhanced and built up, as if waiting for the masses of tourist or cure-seekers.
Admittedly, this would all be much harder to imagine in the winter months, as the shrine is outdoors, and the sitting area/congregational pews are open to the elements. When I arrived, there were a few others sitting and praying in these seats. One woman seemed to be praying the rosary. Her head covered respectfully for prayer. It was quiet and a subtle breeze kept lapping up and across the adjacent fields from off of the lake. There were crosses everywhere, in little nooks, in grottos, in meadows, on the beach. Everywhere you turned you could, and perhaps were almost obliged to say a prayer or ask for some divine intercession. One biblio-note: there were no visible books nestled away in their supposed book slots here. As you can see most of them are empty. I wasn't sure where all the books went, but I think that the bulk of the prayer and liturgical books were kept toward the front of this outdoor chapel area, protecting the books from the elements.
The chapel, if we may even call it that, was situated in a little building (which you can also see more fully in the last photo on today's posting), and was accessible by a slight staircase. An altar table, pulpit, and other amenities were situated in the small space. One of the interesting things to think about when in a place like this is the intense French influence and sphere of culture this region had experienced for generations. In fact, a shrine like this is testament to the origins of French exploration still having a cultural reach into the present, especially if you consider that many of those who come to this shrine are from French Canada, which is, as I mentioned in an earlier post, not too far from Isle La Motte; and Montreal itself is perhaps no more than an hour's drive away from the shrine.
Above and below are images (and a close up) of a grotto, along with a mosaic of a rosary.
Books and History of Saint Anne
Now for those of you interested in the general history of this shrine, you can visit the link to the Saint Anne Shrine website: http://www.saintannesshrine.org/history.html
The real beginnings of the shrine date back to the late 1850s, when the cornerstone of the "new" Church of St. Anne in Milton "was blessed and dedicated," (see website above). And back in 1976, an estimated 7,000 visitors visited the shrine in a 3-day period!
As I wandered around the fairly expansive grounds of the shrine, I discovered a building up on the hill above the shrine itself, which had been designated the office of the shrine and "history room," (see above image). This, of course, sparked my interest, so I made my way into the so-called lair of shrineological history. It was, to my disappointment, a very small hallway and entry-area, with coat hangers and chairs, and one sad bookcase displaying but a handful of biblio-curios.
There was this little statue, which shows St. Anne with her daughter the Blessed Virgin Mary. Yet, what is so interesting is that they are holding a book! Though anachronistic, especially if the idea is that St. Anne and the Virgin Mary were reading the New Testament, which of course did not exist yet, it is important once again to recognize the semiotic value of the book (and specifically, this ceramic mini-book in the hands of saints) to convey such bits of religio-cultural information to the masses: at least, that these are holy people, conveying a holy message. Below is the image of a carving and sculpture in a more rustic mode, and perhaps trying to convey some message about the conversion of native populations centuries ago.
Surely we could not continue without any more book sightings! Indeed, I was again pleasantly relieved to discover this fine little book and gift shop, though it seemed to be a bit more heavy on the book side of things. And yet, that's a good thing, especially for my writing needs! And it seems to make sense, considering the scholastic traditions of textuality wedded to good old fashioned Catholic learning and schools. I snapped a few photos of the books on the shelves in the book shop, including the second image below, which shows a book on Pope Benedict XVI, affectionately known by the Catholic masses as "B-16"! Hmmm, sounds like a bomber flying over the globe to reinstate orthodoxy to me; you've gotta love these papal monikers.
A chapel by another name...well, I'm not quite sure what qualifies as a chapel in the lexicon of chapelology, but this was one of the most magnificent (albeit small) and yes, cute chapels I've ever come across. Its simplicity was both darling and powerful, and entering into such an intimate space that forces you to focus your contemplation was a very new and different experience for me. You see, it's one thing to be in a church or cathedral or other worship space, which is grand and expansive: you are afforded the opportunity to be anonymous among others, or to lose yourself in the expanse and either emptiness or fullness of God, the divine, the heavenly Other, but in such a small space as this, you cannot do that. The intimacy of space is incredibly forceful, pressing, and encapsulating.
Surely, for me, this was an adventure not just in the the curiosities of the road or even finding the next book-in-a-different-place journey. This unexpected stop made me reconsider the idea of space (and place), which I continue to consider in all of my daily practices, because it is space and place that we occupy in our lives. And space directs, drives, and influences how we not only see the world, its places, its nature, its trees, its boats, its books, ...its contents, but how we live in this world and interact with it. So, whether you are a genuine pilgrim, devotee of the BVM or simply a traveling biblio-seeker like me, take another look at your own spaces today, look at them, feel them, smell them, vocalize them and listen to them. You might see and find something different.