David Twardowski maintains a family tradition of walking at the front of the processions in the Skaro Pilgrimage.

WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN

David Twardowski maintains a family tradition of walking at the front of the processions in the Skaro Pilgrimage.

August 16, 2011
GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Right from the beginning, the Twardowski men have led the processions at the annual Skaro Pilgrimage. So this year David Twardowski again walked at the head of the procession prior to the Aug. 14 evening Mass and the ensuing candlelight procession with the Blessed Sacrament.

How did the Twardowski tradition start? David says he doesn’t know.

For 93 years, the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes at the Skaro Shrine has been drawing Catholics to celebrate the feast of Mary's Assumption on Aug. 14-15.

WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN

For 93 years, the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes at the Skaro Shrine has been drawing Catholics to celebrate the feast of Mary's Assumption on Aug. 14-15.

But the fact that there is no known reason for the tradition doesn’t stop it from continuing. Tradition looms large at the Skaro Pilgrimage, held every year since 1919 on Aug. 14-15 to mark the feast of Mary’s Assumption into heaven.

Twardowski, 62, has attended the pilgrimage every year except once when he was travelling overseas.

Nor is it hard to find others like him among the thousands at the event held at the Skaro Shrine, built by local Polish pioneers to replicate the more famous shrine of Our Lady at Lourdes, France.

Helen Malica has also only missed once. That was because one of her 10 children was born a few days before the pilgrimage one year.

Then there is Larry Koziak. “I’m 79 and I don’t think I’ve missed more than two or three,” he says.

It might seem, then, that the pilgrimage is a yearly reunion of the descendants of those first pioneers. Yet there are few signs of it being old-home week. Pilgrims seem to do little socializing outside the group with which they came.

Miguel and Cheryl Lyn Sumalinog and Marcelino and Nieves Robles are among the growing number of Asians attending the annual event.

WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN

Miguel and Cheryl Lyn Sumalinog and Marcelino and Nieves Robles are among the growing number of Asians attending the annual event.

Ask them why they attend and the answers are straightforward.

“It’s the spirituality,” says Koziak. “It strengthens your faith. The procession afterward is very uplifting.”

“It’s a very nice feeling here. It’s a peaceful place,” says Malica.

For Twardowski and his wife of five years, Sharon, the best time of the event is after the candlelight procession when everyone has gone home.

“Everybody has left and the candles are still burning,” says Sharon. “That’s our time to pray.”

Yes, the candles. What would the Skaro Pilgrimage be without the candles? Despite the hours and hours that local Catholics spend scraping wax off the stones of the grotto every year, plenty is still left behind.

Helen Malica and Patricia Carter-Koziak enjoy each others company before the pilgrimage Mass begins.

WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN

Helen Malica and Patricia Carter-Koziak enjoy each others company before the pilgrimage Mass begins.

Everyone it seems carries at least one candle in the breaktakingly beautiful procession of the Blessed Sacrament around the pilgrimage site and up and over the grotto. Pilgrims painstakingly adhere their candles to the grotto as a material memorial of their prayers for loved ones and other intercessions.

That’s the tradition here at Skaro and tradition does not die easily. Yet some things are changing. The towering line of spruce trees that once sheltered the shrine on the east from Highway 831 succumbed to old age and chainsaws a few years ago.

TIMES CHANGING

As well, the people themselves are changing.

A woman from Edmonton’s Our Lady of Good Hope Maronite Parish comes by the table where Sharon and David Twardowski are working and hands them a flyer about the upcoming Maronite festival in Edmonton.

Pilgrims crowd around the top of the grotto to put their candles in place during a procession at the end of Mass.

WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN

Pilgrims crowd around the top of the grotto to put their candles in place during a procession at the end of Mass.

“Lebanese Catholics! I love it,” exclaims Sharon.

“Everyone is welcome, by all means,” adds David.

It’s not just Lebanon. Every year, a few more Asian faces appear in the crowd.

Give Miguel Sumalinog credit for some of that. Last year, the member of St. Joseph’s Basilica Parish, who has been in Canada for seven years, came to his first Skaro Pilgrimage.

This year, he brought Cheryl Lyn, his bride of one week, and her parents, Marcelino and Nieves Robles of the Philippines.

“It’s a very nice experience. I thought I could share it with my in-laws,” says Miguel. “It’s a good experience to see people who practise the same faith and come from different countries worship together. There’s a common bond.”

Marcelino, a Manila police officer, says he and Nieves attend Marian pilgrimages in the Philippines and were glad to attend this one in Canada too.

The opportunity for Reconciliation makes Skaro a true pilgrimage of repentance.

WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN

The opportunity for Reconciliation makes Skaro a true pilgrimage of repentance.

As for the Twardowskis, now retired, they plan to leave Canada for warmer climes. But does that mean they will miss the pilgrimage and David will no longer be at the front of the procession?

Not a chance. “We’ll come back as long as we are able,” says Sharon.

For David, the memories stretch back to when he was 10 years old. The Sisters of Atonement came up a couple of weeks early to prepare him and other local children for the sacraments. They made their First Confession and First Communion just before the pilgrimage.

“I remember carrying around the candles in the procession. The sisters were so proud of us.”

Skaro has 93 years of memories, tradition and pride. There’s every indication the heritage will continue.

“It’s not dying down,” Helen Malica’s husband, Stan, says of the pilgrimage. “Every year, it’s growing.”