Sophie and Walter Domshy stand beside the replica of the grotto of our Lady of Lourdes at Skaro, Alta., that Walter built.


Sophie and Walter Domshy stand beside the replica Walter built of the grotto of our Lady of Lourdes at Skaro, Alta.

July 25, 2011

Building things has summed up Walter Domshy's whole life.

The TV cabinet, keyboard stand and most of the furniture within his west Edmonton home were handcrafted by him. He's built merry-go-rounds, sandboxes and seesaws that are still in use at school playgrounds. He also made many useable items, such as the votive candle stand, found at Annunciation Church.

One of his greatest creations, however, was built 92 years ago and is still visited by thousands of people every year. Walter, who turned 100 in February, is the last surviving person who helped build the outdoor shrine at Skaro.

The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, north of Lamont, about 80 km northeast of Edmonton, is a replica of the grotto in Lourdes, France. Walter was eight years old at the time of the grotto's construction in August 1919.

Father Philip Roux, an Oblate priest who served in the region, designed the grotto. Mostly Polish parishioners from Skaro did the construction, although Ukrainians and Poles from neighbouring settlements came to help. Most of the labour was done by hand with the help of a horse-drawn cart.

There is a photo, which has since been misplaced by the family, showing young Walter holding a stone used in the grotto. He lived on a nearby farm, about three km west and three km south of the grotto site.

"Grandpa's farm had a lot of rocks on it, so dad and some of his brothers would haul rocks to the site from their place every morning. Then they would put the rocks in place to build the grotto," said Albert Domshy, one of Walter and Sophie Domshy's six children.


For Polish and other Catholics, Skaro has special significance. More than 4,000 pilgrims went to the first pilgrimage in 1919. The grotto has been the site of annual pilgrimages ever since, and is a firmly established tradition for many families.

Replica of The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, north of Lamont.


Replica of The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, north of Lamont.

"They have had Mass every year since 1919, and someone from our family has been at every Mass. Dad went every year, and then after Dad and Mom got married they went together every year up until a few years ago, and now the kids go too," said Albert.

Walter designed a large replica of the grotto that he keeps protected under glass in his garage. The family cannot recall exactly when his replica was built, although they estimate it was at least 20 years ago.

The grotto is made to scale, and shows faultless details in the rocks, candles, altar and cross of the actual Skaro shrine. The replica even has functioning lights and running water.


Devotion to the Virgin Mary is the main reason pilgrims have been flocking to the Skaro shrine for almost a century. The pilgrimage marks the feast of Mary's Assumption. At such a peaceful and meditative site, pilgrims recharge their spiritual batteries. Held Aug. 14-15 every year, the pilgrimage includes Confession, the rosary, Mass and an opportunity to get reacquainted with old friends.

"Going there is a good way to renew friendships with people you have known for most of your life. Unfortunately, there are not many of them left," said Albert, noting Walter has outlived most of his acquaintances.

A highlight of the pilgrimage for the Domshy family is the candlelit procession. Participants sing hymns as they follow a parade of people carrying lighted candles.

"By this time it's dark and everybody has a candle, so you see probably in the vicinity of 4,000 or 5,000 people going with this procession," said Albert.

Walter's wife Sophie said, "There are candles all the way around and people can see them from along the road. The procession has children, Knights of Columbus, over 50 priests, and the bishops - it's so beautiful."