Midland, ON - Each August, hundreds of pilgrims weave their way down country roads and across farmers' fields to Ontario's Martyrs' Shrine.
Averaging 25 kilometres a day, they keep to the back roads to stay close to nature. Akin to the pilgrims of medieval times, they sleep in churches or tents and rely on the generosity of local residents, churches and community groups for meals.
"The hospitality of others builds community," explains John Zurakowski, leader of the six-day walking pilgrimage. But, for those who don't have that much time, a day trip can still be a worthwhile spiritual journey.
Martyrs' Shrine is one of four national shrines, and Ontario's oldest and most important. Located in Midland, a town of 16,000 on the shores of Georgian Bay, one and a half hours north of Toronto, it was originally built to honour eight Jesuit martyrs who were missionaries among the Huron-Ouendats between 1625 and 1650. Now it crosses ideological, cultural and religious boundaries to pay homage to martyrs from around the world.
While many of the 100,000 annual pilgrims come as part of organized groups, for others it's a personal journey to a sacred place. For us, it's a chance to visit the Hispanic shrine that's part of the complex. My Guatemalan companion wants to pay his respects to the 35,000 Mayan Indians killed in Guatemala between 1981 and 83. As a political refugee, he's grateful to have avoided the death squads that claimed many others.
The Hispanic shrine also pays homage to martyrs like Archbishop Romero of El Salvador and to such events as the 1997 Acteal massacre in Chiapas, Mexico, and the 1981 massacre at El Mozote in El Salvador.
Other shrines representing more than a dozen countries, including Belarus, Ireland and the Philippines, attract pilgrims who come to honour citizens lost to war, famine and genocide. As my friend and I walk the grounds, we contemplate the tragic histories of so many nations.
Towering above us is the Shrine Church, built in a Belgian Gothic style. Inside it is a sanctuary containing prayers in several languages and a statue of Kateri Tekakwitha, the patroness of ecology and the first native American to be beatified. Inside the tabernacle lie the relics of the Jesuit martyrs. Throughout the church's rustic wood interior, the ceiling curves like an inverted canoe, evoking the spirit of the Huron and early voyageurs.
Outside, we climb an observation platform that offers a panoramic view across the southern shore of Georgian Bay, where native canoes once navigated their way to settlements scattered among the 30,000 rocky islands. Huron longhouses lined the shores of Midland itself.
"This site has always been linked historically to native traditions and is a very holy place," says Jane Andrews, group facilitator of the First Nations Pilgrimage that has been taking place at the shrine for 22 years. Following a candlelight ceremony, these pilgrims visit native parishes and sacred sites in the area. One of these is St. Ignace, where French Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf was captured by the Iroquois during a battle and burned at the stake on the shores of the Sturgeon River.
We locate Brébeuf's grave in a secluded grassy area. Whether a pilgrim comes to the shrine alone or as part of a group, all are welcome to enjoy the peace and solitude of the grounds. For pilgrims, it may be an act of devotion or part of a quest for blessings. For us, it was simply a time for reflection.
But for all, it is evidence that hope and faith transform us. "Pilgrimages are something we all do together. We walk as one body, not as individuals, and the experience changes us," says Zurakowski.