Along the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Canada, almost half way between Montreal and Quebec in the city of Trois Rivieres lies the Shrine of Our Lady of the Cape, also known as “Cap de La Madeleine Shrine”. The Shrine houses a miraculous Statue of Our Lady of Grace and also tells the story of a miraculous bridge formed on the St. Lawrence River in the spring to bring stone over to build a bridge.
On October 7, 1535 (now the feast day of the Holy Rosary) the French explorer Jacques Cartier landed on one of the islands that separates the present cities of Trois Rivieres and Cap de la Madeleine and planted the Cross of Christ. Eighty years later, in 1615, the explorer Champlain brought four Franciscans with him to help establish the Catholic Faith in “New France”, now known as Canada. They worked diligently to spread the faith and enlisted the help of the Jesuit order to continue the work. The history of the “Cap de La Madeleine Shrine” dates back to 1634 when Cap de Madeleine was used as a Jesuit mission and consecrated to the Immaculate Conception. This mission was blessed to have Three Canadian martyrs as early residents: Fathers Jean de Brebeuf, Antoine Daniel, and Gabriel Lalemant. In those early years the nation was fraught with many tribulations and North America would claim many martyrs as Catholics sought peacefully to bring the Faith to the indigenous people. The 1640s was to claim the lives of six canonized Jesuit martyrs killed in Huronia (southwest off Trois Rivieres near Lake Huron) attesting to the resistance of the natives to Christianity. However, the power of God’s love was made evident when most of the Huron nation had become Christian by 1649, the year of the last Iroquois offensive against the Hurons.
In 1636 Fr. Jacques de la Ferte, a priest of St. Marie Madeleine (St. Mary Magdalene) of Chateadun, France received a plot of land and called it the Cape of Trois-Rivieres. He then gave it to the Jesuits in 1651 and asked them to establish a center of missions for the native people who travelled there annually to trade furs. The Jesuits decided to call the place Cap-de-la-Madeleine in honor of the donor of the land, Fr. Ferte - abbot of St. Marie Madeleine of France. This important mission was to be blessed with the grace of martyrdom, bringing abundant blessings to future generations. Fr. Jacques Buteux worked for 18 years in this mission and was shot and tomahawked in 1652 by the Iroquois during a mission journey.
The first church at the Cap, a structure only 30” x 16”, was built seven years after Father Jacques was martyred in1659. Fr. Paul Vachon was its first pastor and instituted the Brotherhood of the Rosary in 1694. The praying of the Rosary produced many graces and increased the membership of the parish, requiring a bigger church to be built in 1720. This church, made with fieldstones, is called “The Old Shrine” and is the oldest church in Canada in which daily Mass is celebrated. Unfortunately, following the death of Fr. Vachon in1729 there was no resident priest for 115 years and the faith dwindled leaving the parish in desperate need of spiritual renewal.
Fr. Luc Desilets, who cherished a devotion to the holy rosary, was appointed the resident pastor in 1864. He had a troubling experience in 1867. He investigated an odd noise in the church and was appalled when he discovered a small pig chewing on a rosary. He recognized this as a heavenly sign and decided to revive the Brotherhood of the Rosary. He consecrated himself to the Blessed Mother and promoted the Holy Rosary, praying it after each Mass and encouraging his parishioners to participate in this devotion at home. Once again, the rosary produced wonderful results and brought back many to the practice of their Catholic faith. The Masses were so well attended that there was not enough room to house the parishioners making it necessary to build a third church. Fr. Desilets was distressed that many attendees had to stand in the open-air during Holy Mass. They became distracted during the Holy Liturgy because they could not hear nor see Holy Mass talking and smoking outside. A bigger church was a pressing need and Father prayed fervently that it would not be too long before a new glorious edifice could be consecrated and they could all pray together under one holy roof.
The plans were formalized and in 1879 the materials were to be brought over from the other side of the St. Lawrence River in the winter, when the river had frozen. However, this particular year brought a very rare mild winter and amazingly the river did not freeze. The parishioners prayed the rosary all winter, begging for Our Lady’s intercession. Many were losing hope but at the urging of Fr. Luc, they continued their entreaties. Spring came and the warmer temperatures began to set in but still Fr. Desilets persisted in his pleas to the heavenly Mother, telling her how necessary it was his flock of 900 communicants to all fit in the church. He promised Her that, if he could obtain the materials before springtime, he would dedicate the small fieldstone church to her instead of razing it. Our Lay responded to their incessant petitions!
Fr. Duguay, the curate and assistant of Fr. Desilets stated: “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!”
The first efforts of the ice bridge began on March 16th and were to continue until the 18th. On the first night, thirty men, inching forth 1600 feet diagonally across the river until 11 at night, finally made it to the south shore on the bank at Ste. Angele. Leading the way, Firmin Cadotte crawled and felt his way in the dark and with only the use of three lanterns, he had to feel with his hand for a small patch of ice, which would support his weight. During the last leg of the first day’s journey, only Fr. Duguay, two men and two or three children made it to the other side because it looked too treacherous and the others were afraid. The men came back at 3:00 a.m. to pour water over the bridge and they were able to form it to make it stronger. Even though it snowed on Monday, March 17th they continued to work feverishly late into the night and early in the morning in perilous conditions. 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.
The first sleigh of stone was transported across the bridge on Tuesday, March 18th. After the 7:00 a.m. High Solemn Mass in honor of St. Joseph on March 19, more sleighs laden with the materials carefully traversed the bridge, not extending past the markers. The men continued the portage for seven more days – right up until the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25th. It was on this date when it was noticed that the bridge was beginning to melt and Fr. Duguay ordered the men to cease. What elation must have ensued when it was realized that all the necessary materials were transported and they achieved their goal - 160 “toises” of stone plus the stone for the foundations. The providential dates of the work on the bridge, beginning on the vigil of St. Joseph and ending the Feast of the Immaculate Conception was proof of divine intervention.
The new church was officially opened on October 3, 1880 and repair began on the old small church. Fr. Desilets had promised to dedicate the old church to Our Lady of the Rosary so renovation was begun. The floor was torn up so that new supports could be placed underneath and the new floor was painted yellow. The inside of the church was painted blue, the Rosary picture was touched up and the main altar was gilded. The whole parish eagerly awaited the day of the Consecration designated as June 22, 1888. Many chose to stay home from work to attend the event and wore their Sunday clothes for the ceremony.
It was at this time, in June of 1888, that a Franciscan Priest, Fr. Frederic, (now “Blessed”) returned to Canada after six years in the Holy Land. He was asked to assist the pastor of the Shrine and so he built a small friary where a few friars could live an austere life in community. The first time he visited “New France” was in 1881 when Fr. Desilets, a holy priest himself, hosted him at Cap De Madeleine and acclaimed him as a “holy man”. Fr. Frederic was to become a friend of St. Andre Bisset, both caring for major shrines. While he was stationed in the Holy Land, in response to his tender love for the suffering of Jesus, he reinstated the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa, along the same footsteps of Jesus, through the streets of Jerusalem.
Fr. Frederic was given the holy gift of preaching with unction. He reestablished the Franciscan order in Canada by his extensive traveling and zealous preaching and membership of the Third Order of Franciscans soared to over 12,000. He had great devotion to the Virgin Mary and promoted love for the holy rosary in his travels throughout Canada and New England. Since there was such a shortage of spiritual reading, he took the task upon himself and wrote books on the Life of Christ (a best-seller), a book on Our Lady, another on St. Joseph and a Manual for the Third order. He wrote late into the night, many of those hours on his knees.
The celebration was at hand and Fr. Desilets was elated that he could finally fulfill his vow and he prayed fervently to Our Lady for a sign that She was pleased with the consecration. He also asked Fr. Frederic and Fr. Duguay to pray for the same intention. On the appointed day, the Statue of Our Lady of Grace that was donated by a generous parishioner (Zephirin Dorval) in 1854, was moved from the side altar and placed on the high altar, where it stands today. Fr. Desilets offered the Mass and Fr. Frederic preached the inspiring sermon which moved the hearts of the parishioners, bringing much joy and consolation. He predicted that the Shrine would bring pilgrims from all the parishes of Canada. He said that one day the Shrine would be too small for all those who would come to pray to Our Lady of the Rosary and beg her intercession. Throughout the day the priests continued to pray for the special intention of Fr. Desilets, yet the day was drawing to a close and Our Lady had not given a sign.
In the evening, about an hour before sunset, a handicapped man named Pierre Lacroix knocked on the door of the rectory and asked Fr. Desilets if he could please go to the newly consecrated Shrine so he could pray before the statue and partake in the special graces of the day. The priests, Fr. Frederic and Fr. Desilets, responded kindly and escorted him to the new Shrine where he could pray to Our Lady.
The sign from Our Lady that they awaited was wondrously proffered, manifested in the eyes of the statue. The eyes of the statue of Our Lady of Grace had been, in fact, carved with her eyes cast down. Suddenly, the three witnessed the “prodigy of the eyes” wherein the eyes were now wide-open, looking straight in front, with her gaze slightly over their heads. At first, each observer kept the miracle to himself, wondering if the others had beheld the same phenomenon. Finally, Fr. Desilets approached Fr. Frederic and asked him if he saw it. Fr. Frederic replied in the affirmative and then Pierre Lacroix concurred. The testimonies of this miracle of all three observers have been documented and are now contained in the Shrine’s archives.
Fr. Frederic’s testimony appeared on May 22, 1897 on the front page of the Montreal newspaper “La Presse” as follows:
“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.”
The fame of the Shrine flourished and in 1904 the miraculous statue of Our Lady received a solemn papal crowning by Bishop Cloutier. He officially declared Our Lady of the Cape as the “Madonna of the Canadians” and he also confirmed the validity of the miracles of the Rosary Bridge and the Prodigy of the Eyes. Her crown was fabricated from gold, platinum and diamonds from thousands of jewels donated by the Canadians. The coats of arms of the ten Canadian provinces are depicted on the base and proclaim Her as the patron saint and Protectress of all Canadians. In 1947 there was a grand tour of the Statue around Canada. During this journey, over one million Canadians prayed and signed the Consecration prayer of Pius XII (consecrating the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary), and placed it at Our Lady’s feet. On September 10, 1984, Pope John Paul II celebrated an outdoor Mass at the Shrine and said: “This Marian pilgrimage is an immense grace accorded to the Canadian people. May the river of the prayerful never run dry here.”
The prophesy of Fr. Frederic is being fulfilled as numerous pilgrims travel from the Americas. The residents of Trois-Rivieres have learned first hand of the tender care of the Blessed Virgin. They have the continuous reminder of her protection at Our Lady of the Cape Shrine, where are Lady invites all her children to visit, pray for Her intercession and receive an outpouring of her graces.
The legacy of the three priests involved in the history of this church: Fr. Vachon, Fr. Desilets and Fr. Frederic, lives on in (with or through???) the Rosary, the prayer so dear to their hearts. Ultimately, the rosary is an essential element of the shrine’s history and stresses the importance of the prayer close to Our Lady’s heart. The urgency is upon us as indicated in a recent quote by Pope Francis on August 16, 2013: “Mary joins us, she fights at our side. She supports Christians in the fight against the forces of evil. Especially through prayer, through the Rosary. Hear me out, the Rosary. … Do you pray the Rosary each day?” This exhortation to pray the rosary daily echoes throughout the spiritual and physical world – from mountain to valley, from the heavens to the earth, from the rainbow of prismatic colors to the glass sea to the arid desert – from the Virgin Mary to many popes, all elucidating the necessity of supplication, of meditation, of contemplation on the life of Christ with Mary.
When Pope John Paul II came to the Shrine in September of 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. "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. … Through the generations it is the pilgrims' faith that confirms the special vocation of this Shrine." May the faith, which the pilgrims witness to at the Shine of Our Lady of Cap-de-Madeleine, continue to inspire and draw others to the feet of Our Lady. She will teach them, console them and lead them to Her Son.
 an old French term used in measuring the height of stone.