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Western Oblate Studies 5

Western Oblate Studies 3Patronage and Pilgrimage: Walking under the Wing of Mary

Henriette A. Kelker
Provincial Museum of Alberta
Edmonton (Alberta)


Pas disponible in Francais.

When leaving the harbour of Marseille the last view the image one carries along in the mind and heart - is that of Notre-Dame de la Garde overlooking the harbour (photo 1). Over the years generations of missionaries from every order have come to this shrine to receive a last blessing before embarking on their journey to "go into all the world, [to] proclaim the good news to the whole creation."1 In 1852 Eugene de Mazenod undertook the restoration of the Romanesque shrine of Notre-Dame de la Garde, which dates from 1214, and built for her a new Byzantine-style basilica.

Missionary Oblates commissioned to evangelise the poor, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, and blessed by Notre-Dame de la Garde sailed the seas and crossed the land. Some of their boats and later aeroplanes were named after the Virgin: the schooner Notre-Dame de Lourdes, the aeroplane Santa Maria. In Canada's west they travelled - often alone for hours on end, trusting in the Virgin's protection during adverse conditions, rejoicing with her in the healing of the sick, offering comfort to those in pain. When listening to stories, looking at photographs, reading about the work of the missions, there is a common theme which runs through these experiences: that of a life lived in solitude. A solitude which has the danger of reverting to loneliness if it were not for a strong sense of vocation and a confidence of being at home on the land wherever on earth.

Harbour of Marseille (Provincial Museum of Alberta, Folklife Collection #PH99.74.1)

Travelling under the protection of the Virgin means travelling with the Virgin. I asked one priest how he conducted his thoughts during journeys of several days duration alone by dog sled. He said he recited the Rosary. Mary is there as a comfort and a sanctuary, she is home. The theme of Mary as home is one I have only implicitly encountered in our conversations. Questions in this direction are readily reduced to comments about Mary as type of the church. However, I like to explore the association of Mary with the notion of home.

Missionaries know well the words of Jesus to his would be followers: "Foxes have holes, and birds have their nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."2 In light of this knowledge the Marian hymn sung at the sending forth of the missionaries asks Mary to watch over the blessed traveller:

Ô Bonne Mère
Du Missionaire,
Sois son appui.
Veille sur lui.
Sur terre, il n'a plus de patrie,
La Croix lui reste, et Toi, Marie.
Ô Bonne Mère
Du Missionaire,
Sois son appui.
Veille sur lui

(Guéguen, 1947, p. 162)

The missionary has chosen to live bath a celibate and a homeless life. The roIe of Mary as personification of the feminine side of the human psyche as it relates to a church with exclusively male clergy has been abundantly described (Kassel, 1983). Mary as an archetype of the feminine offers a way towards completion of that which is incomplete in bath the male and female psyche. But the archetype of Mary as mother offers also an image of Mary as home, responding to the primal human need for rootedness. The centre of stability for the one who is called to journey into all the world is a sacred place, the central location which connects heaven and earth. Mazenod knew, long before Jungian psychology came into vogue, to cultivate and call into service the feminine side of his being.

l have come to understand the Oblate missionary as one who is able to create a home in the wilderness, guided by his own need and his own faith and his special gifts to give to this place an earthly and earthy shape. The work of their hands reveals a love of the land, and an understanding that through being part of creation - being totally immersed in it with hand and feet and mind and heart - one loves the creator (photo 2). Through planting trees and gardens, building churches earth is home to the sacred, places where the missionary and the community can dwell in the presence of one another other and of Gad. Western Canada has numerous Lourdes Grattas, places built by the Oblates where pilgrims return to and experience a coming home (Kelker and Goa, 1996).

Thus, reading between the lines of Oblate life there emerges an image of Mary as Mother of divine life which reflects the receptiveness of the earth. Not just the companion of men, but the Mother who nurtures and gives life, who leads by example, who stands firmly on the side of the believer and guides him or her to Christ.

For the past two years The Missionary Oblates of Grandin Province and the Folklife program at the Provincial Museum of Alberta have undertaken a joint project which has brought together some of the finest Oblate artifact collections in this country. In conjunction with this collection we have embarked on a research and documentation project which aims at deepening our understanding of the Oblate world and the place of the missionaries in the formation of our country. One of the questions I have had, and which I explored in an earlier paper, is the relationship of contemporary Oblates to the Immaculate Conception (Kelker, 1999). I was touched by the maternal concern which Mazenod had for his congregation, and his keen awareness that this was a quality gift - worthy of cultivation in his missionaries. The founder possessed "a mother's heart."3

Fr. Jean-Louis Michel at the plough in 1929 (Provincial Museum of Alberta, Folklife Collection #PH98.15.14)

When I looked at the world of the Canadian Oblates against the backgrolmd of French folk tradition and doctrinal development a series of questions arose and a number of insights emerged. This led for me to a rich foray into the area of Mariology and folk tradition. What has occurred to me during this work is that there is a continuity between European popular piety - in particular of the south of France, the manner in which Mazenod understood the concept of "mother" - the Blessed Virgin being his model and guide, and Oblate culture in Western Canada.

Whether growing melons in St. Norbert or planting trees in Standoff, much of Br. Leon ['Heureux's ministry has involved sharing the fruits of the earth. (Provincial Museum of Alberta, Folklife Collection #PH98.50.1)

I understand "culture" to be the web of meaning which binds a community. Its strands form common ways of understanding and knowing the world. Part of the reason why Oblates have been so influential in shaping the communities they served is the fact that there has been a understanding between the Oblates and the people they served regarding ones relationship to the land. Conversation with Aboriginal people has deepened this understanding and offered to it a new perspective.


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