Alberta (CNS) -- It's easy to drive by the stone grotto at the Skaro shrine for
those who don't know its history.
Tucked in a
corner between two rural highways, due north of Lamont and 50 miles northeast
of Edmonton, truck and cars whiz by. The drivers tend to overlook the small
church and semi-circular stone grotto beside it.
thousands of pilgrims flock to Skaro every year to honor Mary Aug. 14-15 as
they have done for 100 years. Tour buses stop at the site. Recreational
vehicles park on the grounds of Our Lady of Good Counsel, the parish church of
the Skaro district. Vespers are sung in Polish and Mass is concelebrated in
English. Crowds walk through the grounds to the grotto in a candlelit
year's centennial pilgrimage, a new rosary garden was to be blessed by
Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, and 60 children will represent each
prayer in the rosary.
Mackay, an organizer of the pilgrimage and a descendant of the pioneers who
built the grotto, said there is always "a steady stream of visitors ... from
everywhere in the world."
passing drivers are missing is a story of hardscrabble immigrants who came to
the Skaro district and, in 1919, used shovels and horse-drawn plows to build
the grotto. A century later, the 91-by-108-foot stone wall that encircles a
small altar stands as a testament to the faith and determination of the
pioneers, who were mostly from Poland.
brings people together," said Helen Wilchak, 89, who grew up in the area.
Her father, Martin Gabinet, helped build the grotto. People from all faiths visit
"because it is such a beautiful place."
of first-generation descendants of pioneers is dwindling, but those who remember
say the credit for building the Skaro grotto goes to Oblate Father Anthony
Sylla, who was assigned to the Skaro mission in 1917.
1918 Father Sylla proposed building a grotto similar to the Our Lady of Lourdes
grotto in France. He enlisted the help of Father Philip Ruh, who was serving in
Eldorena, north of the Skaro site, and was familiar with the French structure.
pioneers built it because "they had a strong faith," said Stan
Malica, 91, who grew up directly opposite the grotto site and whose father John
helped build it.
you want to look at a miracle, look at this thing here," Malica said.
"It wasn't built with engineers. No blueprints or anything. They just
built it. Father Sylla had an idea how to build it and Father Ruh was the main
contractor. He knew how to use stones."
began June 5, 1919. Working in shifts of 20 to 40 people at a time, men and
women used plows and scrapers drawn by horses, as well as wheelbarrows and
shovels, to haul and place stones. The only mechanical equipment was a
generator to operate the concrete mixer.
would bring loads of stones "from their own fields," said Malica,
whose family still farms the land opposite the grotto.
was like a work bee," recalled Wilchak, who is related to Malica by
marriage. "Everybody helped."
so committed to the project that the grotto took precedence over everything
sacrificed their own duties at home, lots of them. That's how passionate they
were about this," Mackay said. "After about two weeks they ran out of
rocks ... and they were going to give up. Father Sylla convinced them, 'We
started. We have to finish.'"
wagonloads of stones and 300 bags of cement were used to build the grotto,
which was completed in time for the first pilgrimage Aug. 14-15, 1919.
never missed a pilgrimage here," Wilchak said. "It's in our blood.
They came from Poland and they had a strong faith there. They brought it to
Canada. And they kept it."
grotto be around for another century of pilgrimages? "I think it will be,"
Malica said. "If it didn't fall apart in the first hundred years, it will