Genevieve and Edward Matheson hold Skaro in their hearts. Seen here with their daughter Brenda Weidman (standing), the couple married in the Skaro Church in 1951. They have rarely missed a pilgrimage since.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Genevieve and Edward Matheson hold Skaro in their hearts. Seen here with their daughter Brenda Weidman (standing), the couple married in the Skaro Church in 1951. They have rarely missed a pilgrimage since.

August 31, 2015
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Edward and Genevieve Matheson's annual pilgrimage to Skaro has a special meaning. They were married there in 1951. Genevieve was born and raised in the area and has been coming to the pilgrimage all her life.

She learned the catechism in a house near the Skaro shrine and as a child she came to the pilgrimage by horse and buggy with her parents.

The Mathesons met in Edmonton at a dance in 1950 and married at the Skaro church the following year.

The couple, members of Good Shepherd Parish in Edmonton, were at the pilgrimage site again Aug. 14, seated under the shade of a tree and a large motorhome as they waited for evening vespers and Mass. They were surrounded by about 25 family members, including three of their four adult children and several grandchildren.

"I've been coming here ever since 1951," said Edward, 86. He served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and has lived in various parts of the country. But the family rarely missed a pilgrimage.

"We were (stationed) in Ottawa and we would come out in August for the pilgrimage," recalled Brenda Weidman, one of the couple's daughters. "We come because we are Marian people. Mom and Dad say the rosary every evening."

Genevieve said the memories and the spirit of reverence in the place bring her and her family back to Skaro year after year. Many family members, including her parents, are buried in the Skaro cemetery. "This is home for us," said Weidman. "This is an unscheduled family reunion. Whoever can come comes."

Skaro is a small Polish farming settlement, about 80 km northeast of Edmonton. The grotto, a replica of the famous grotto of Lourdes in France, was constructed as a place of devotion to Mary.

Since Aug. 15, 1919, Catholics from the region and beyond have been coming to the pilgrimage.

The day marks the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary - an important feast day for the Church, but especially in Poland. More than 4,000 pilgrims came from across Alberta attended the first pilgrimage.

This year a large crowd enjoyed the pleasant weather, barbecued burgers and shared earnest fellowship at the 97th annual Skaro Pilgrimage's Aug. 14 vigil. Confessionals circled the shrine, offering participants the chance to confess their sins before Mass.

The pilgrimage also provided an opportunity to buy religious artifacts, rekindle friendships and place candles or flowers on the graves of family members buried in the adjacent cemetery.

Pilgrims carefully choose religious items offered for sale at the Skaro celebration.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Pilgrims carefully choose religious items offered for sale at the Skaro celebration.

Many priests assisted at the Mass celebrated at the shrine by Archbishop Richard Smith, who in his homily called on the faithful to accept the word of God, not that of society, as the compass that gives direction to their lives.

OBEY GOD'S WORD

The archbishop said by accepting and obeying God's word as the foundation of our lives, we become a people of hope, "which we are called to share with others in this world that is suffering so deeply from a lack of hope."

Archbishop Richard Smith

Sherrie Kelland was at the Skaro shrine with her fiancé Sidney Hoculak helping run the sound system. They live on a farm nearby and are parishioners at the Skaro parish.

"I have been coming here for 10 years because I enjoy the religious celebration," Kelland said. "I find it peaceful."

Hoculak said he has been attending the pilgrimage "since before I was born" 56 years ago. "My great-grandfather, who arrived here in 1898, donated this plot of land for the church (and graveyard) and then after he donated it, the pilgrimage started," he explained. "To me this place has a lot of meaning."

FOREFATHERS

Pointing to the graveyard, Hoculak said, "Those are all my forefathers, eh?" Asked why their last names are all spelled with a "u" as in Huculak, Sidney replied, "That's another story."

Paul Riopel and his wife Debbie have been coming to the pilgrimage for two years. This year they came with a group of parishioners from Holy Family Parish in St. Albert. "I personally feel that coming helps you deepen your relationship with Mary, whom I have a special love for and seek special protection from," Paul said.

MARRIAGE ENHANCED

Debbie said the pilgrimage helps strengthen their marriage. "Praying together keeps us closer to each other and closer to God."

Clarence Joseph Mistal has been coming to the pilgrimage since 1970. "I just like coming here. It's quite peaceful and it's just a nice place to come."

A Skaro pilgrim for 45 years, Clarence Joseph Mistal enjoys the peace of the event.

This year Mistal came for the day as part of a group of 55 members of Edmonton's St. John the Evangelist Parish. "This place kind of makes you feel peaceful and relaxed," he said, standing by a tree in the cemetery. "It gives you a feeling of closeness with God and Our Lady."

RELIGIOUS TRADITION

Jadwiga Milanowski started to come to the pilgrimage in 1991 after she arrived from Poland, where pilgrimages are common.

"Grandpa and grandma always visited one shrine in Poland so when I came here I continued," she explained.

Back home, Milanowski used to walk 600 km to the shrine in Czestochowa to celebrate the feast of the Assumption.

"I would walk for 10 days to Czestochowa. That's why I like to see and celebrate that feast the same here."

Milanowski normally comes with her husband Mike and her three children but this year she was by herself.

"This is not new for me," she said of the Skaro Pilgrimage. "This is a special day in Poland too. It's part of my culture, of my tradition."