The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes of Sudbury
par Lavictoire, Mélissa
The cultural identity of Ontario'sFrench speaking population has always been closely tied to its religious heritage. Since the construction of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes of Sudbury in 1907, the grotto has been an important religious site for prayer and religious gatherings for Northern Ontario's French language community. It is also considered to be one of Sudbury's historical milestones. Over the last hundred years, the grotto has undergone of many changes. There have been periods of considerable popularity, but also times when it has been neglected. Nevertheless, due to the efforts and care of many community members, the site has now regained its former importance as a site for community events and as an ecumenical place of worship.
The Grotto owes its existence to Frédéric Romanet du Caillaud, born in Limoges, France. The descendant of a family of Italian origin, he undertook many trips all around Europe and developed an interest in North America. He dreamt of one day making a journey to Canada. Romanet saw Canada as a country of great opportunities, where it was possible and even easy, to make a fortune in the field of natural resources. He corresponded with many priests, bishops and rectors in the French speaking regions of Canada. With time, he developed a keen interest in Sudbury. At the beginning of the century, the city was growing constantly, people having discovered many nickel deposits in the surrounding area. Romanet contemplated building a nickel refinery in Sudbury, as well as the purchasing of a number of lands in the area. He even published a brochure on Northern Ontario's nickel mines (NOTE 1).
In 1902, Romanet embarked on his first journey to Canada. Upon arrival, he immediately showed great enthusiasm for the country. The presence of a large French Canadian community in the region also explains his interest for Sudbury. Romanet, an ardent defender of both Catholicism and the French language, felt that there was a certain spiritual kinship between France and French Canada.
Frédéric Romanet du Caillaud is remembered in Sudbury for his implications in the development of the city and particularly for his involvement in the construction of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. The grotto's story began on August 22nd, 1907, with the erection of a statue of the Virgin Mary on top of the hill behind Van Horne Street. This imposing 1,83 metre [six foot] bronze statue weighs 680 kilograms [1,500 pounds]. It was purchased in France and delivered to Sudbury for the price of $7,000. The statue was placed at the mouth of a six metre [twenty foot] high by three metre [ten foot] deep grotto. Romanet had the inscription Regina Gallorum, "Queen of the Gauls" engraved on the statue. His motivations behind the dedication have puzzled more than a few over the years, but it seems likely Romanet considered it important to give the grotto a universal dimension. The reference to the Gauls would have made it easier to unit all the peoples under the veneration of the Virgin Mary.
Two years after the erection of the statue, on Whitsunday [Pentecost], May 30th, 1909, Father Ragari, of Copper Cliff blessed the shrine. About 400 people came to pray and worship. To respect Romanet's desire for unity, the event was celebrated in five different languages: French, English, Italian, Latin and Greek. Romanet du Caillaud wanted above all that his shrine become an important prayer site. For this reason he worked hard to beautify the shrine.
During his visits to Sudbury, Romanet du Caillaud became close to the Drago family who lived near the hill where the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes would stand. Romanet would often stay with this Italian family when visiting Sudbury. After the founder's passing, the Dragos took responsibility for the shrine's maintenance. Being the first to look after the grotto's shrine, the Drago family played an important role during the first years of its existence. Yet, it was the voluntary work and generosity of Sudbury's French speaking community that assured the long-term maintenance of the grotto, as well as its continuity and development.
The grotto is not a site created exclusively for French Canadians or Catholics. Nonetheless, over the years many French speakers have developed a strong bond with the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. In the 1950s, two people played a major role in the preservation the shrine. One was Alphonse Raymond. A priest ordained in 1945, he took the position of rector at the Collège Sacré-Cœur in 1952. He was also very much involved in the religious activities of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie. The second was Omer Nault, a Montreal-born barber and a devout Roman Catholic who had been living in Sudbury since the 1940s. Upon returning from a pilgrimage in Rome, in 1950, Omer Nault decided to organise a pilgrimage in honour of the grotto's statue of the Virgin Mary. His desire was that the grotto become an important religious site for the population of Sudbury. It is largely due to his efforts that the grotto would become a prosperous site of widespread veneration for some time.
As for Father Raymond, he created the Rosary club in 1951, with the help of Francis Ségin and Patrice Charrette. The club was strictly reserved for women. Its duties were to lead the rosary on the radio and to care for the poor. But its members became more and more involved with the development of the Sudbury grotto and officially took over its maintenance and promotion. In 1953, members of the Rosary Club financed the construction of a Station of the Cross that cost $30,000. For many decades, they remained responsible for various activities, such as leading the rosary,celebrating the Holy Communion and organising evenings of prayers on the grounds of the grotto.
Unfortunately, the original members aged and grew older and without finding sufficient younger members to take their place and as a result, the club had to be dissolved in the early 1990s.
During its hundred years of existence, the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes of Sudbury has served as a pilgrimage site on a few occasions. As a result of Omer Nault's efforts, three pilgrimages took place in 1950. Each time between 500 to 1,000 people attended these Eucharistic celebrations. The pilgrimage on October 5th, 1952 - by far the most important - was honoured by the visit of the statue of Notre-Dame-du-Cap. About 10,000 people gathered on the site, coming from al lthe various parishes of the Sault-Ste-Marie diocese. For this occasion, many major improvements were undertaken, so as facilitate easier access to the grotto, as well as to embellish it: excavations around the grotto, the construction of a large stairway, including a concrete base at the foot of the hill on which an altar could be set up and, finally, the installation of lighting to light up the Shrine at night. The following year, more then 10,000 residents of Sudbury took part in the Corpus Christi procession that concluded at grotto.
These repeated pilgrimages had a positive effect on the grotto's reputation and increased the number of visitors. It was once more popular, as citizens of Greater Sudbury and parishioners from the Sault-Ste-Marie's diocese rediscovered their grotto. The site had been all but forgotten after Romanet du Caillaud's passing in 1919. Only the handful of people that looked after the Shrine's maintenance still visited the site. For many years only a small number people visited the grotto on a regular basis. Thus, it can be said that the 1950s' pilgrimages did much to revive and to encourage the inhabitants of the region to rediscover of this place of worship.
Today, the site is cared for by the Friends of the Grotto, who have taken responsibility for its development. This group was founded in 1994 by Sister Claudette Marchand, in order to fill the void created by the dissolution of the Rosary Club. For Sister Marchand, as for the ladies of the Rosary Club, it was necessary that a group be created to insure the continuity of the grotto's preservation and ongoing development. A small committee was created, composed of members of the Chevaliers de Colomb and of the Filles d'Isabelle. The committee had two goals: first, to promote the veneration of the Virgin Mary and second, to make the grotto known as a historic site and tourist attraction to the citizens of the Greater Sudbury. The Friends organize a variety of activities on site, such as workshops, music celebrations and evenings by the campfire.
In 2007, the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes of Sudbury celebrated its hundredth anniversary. To commemorate this important event the Friends of the Grotto worked on a project to restore and embellish the site, so it would be ready to welcome tourists as a regional attraction. The group hopes that, with their efforts, the grotto will become a major pilgrimage site and that more people, whether from Sudbury, the surrounding regions and from further abroad will come to know this wonderful place of worship.
The efforts of the Friends of the Grotto are part of a current trend that marries community and cultural activities with faith. This is being done in order to preserve the longevity of a number of elements of Canada's religious cultural heritage, which are currently suffering in the wake of the increased secularisation of modern society. Thus, Sudbury's Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes has been able to simultaneously become a site infused with the region's history and a place of worship where faith is still very much alive.
Research Assistant; Institut Franco-Ontarien
Note 1: Frédéric Romanet du Caillaud, "Les Mines de Nickel de la Région de Sudbury", Société historique du Nouvel-Ontario, Documents historiques, n˚38, 1960.
The personal diary of Frédéric Romanet du Caillaud, University of Sudbury Archives.
Friends of the Grotto Association Archive Foundation
-The Sudbury Star
-The Catholic Register
Studies and Other Documents:
Barras, Nancy-Gaëlle, Enquête ethnographie; La grotte de Sudbury, Projet de folklore, Université de Sudbury, 1er août 1998, 31 p.
Cadieux, Lorenzo S.J., Frédéric Romanet du Caillaud « Comte » de Sudbury, Montréal, Les Éditions Bellarmin, 1971, 141 p.
Romanet du Caillaud, Frédéric, "Les mines de nickel de la région de Sudbury", Société historique du Nouvel-Ontario, Documents historiques, n˚38, 1960.
Interview with Sister Claudette Marchand, 24th July, 2006.