At this time of year the site is quiet.
Snow shrouds the buildings at St. Laurent high up on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River.
Come summer, memories of other times bring it alive.
Traditionally it served as a summer meeting place for the Plains Cree. Locals there tell that piles of bones once marked a steep, narrow draw at the north end of this spot showing that it served as a buffalo jump.
I have seen small spirit bundles tied to tree branches just above it. This spiritual practice records the continued seasonal presence of the Cree from surrounding reserves.
Prior to the North-West Rebellion of 1885 the Métis followed their Cree cousins to this region.
Their durable leather and wood Red River carts wore deep ruts in the Carleton Trail which crossed the South Saskatchewan River some 16 kilometres south of neighbouring Batoche.
Gabriel Dumont seeing their buffalo-dependent lifestyle changing, chose to homestead, farm and run a ferry there.
In 1873 Dumont “became president of the commune of St Laurent, the first local government,” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia, “between Manitoba and the Rockies.”
Missionaries of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the same order that has served in the Yukon since the 1890s, followed the Métis community to Saskatchewan.
In 1879 a lay brother from France, Jean Pierre Marie Piquet, found the rugged terrain and spring at St. Laurent reminiscent of the famous pilgrimage site of Lourdes. Brother Piquet began to build a grotto to house a shrine to Mary, mother of Jesus.
The violence that swept over Fish Lake, Batoche and surrounding communities in 1885 spared St. Laurent.
Like the Cree before them the Métis after their defeat found solace at St. Laurent. By 1905 a formal pilgrimage there had begun. Immigration from Europe swelled the ranks of the faithful.
An article by Oblate Hugh P. McCabe described the scene at the July 16, 1935 pilgrimage: “After the midday pause for lunch, the shrine bell rang out and the procession was organized.
“Banners were unfurled and the natives, sure guides in the forest, led the way. They were followed in turn by the Slavs, the Germans, the Hungarians, the English, the Irish and the French.”
Differing spiritual and cultural paths lead people over the years to this place by the now frozen over South Saskatchewan River.
Today participants in the annual pilgrimage continue to share from their own vantage in the strong connection that St. Laurent offers linking hopes and dreams of generations.
Pilgrimage sites dot our planet.
Last Sunday I saw the Shi’a community of Montreal walk up Peel Street towards the city’s main shopping street, Ste. Catherines.
In preparation for Ashura, though they couldn’t make a pilgrimage to Karbala, one of the holiest places for Shi’a, they symbolically did so by gathering their community for a public display of their collective beliefs.
During the coming week, interfaith events highlight the need for us to all embark on pilgrimages of understanding.
Overcoming prejudice and ignorance must be one of the key global tasks of our time.
Like Martin Luther King Jr. we must have a dream of a world where however reluctantly we recognize that we are one.
If you have never heard or read Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech maybe this is the week to do so (www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm )!