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"Une Génération Spontanée"
Father Clement Desrochers, o.m.i.: Animateur

Henriette Kelker
Research Associate
Provincial Museum of Alberta

Page 3

Several months after his arrival in Girouxville, Fr. Desrochers suggested local students work with him to build a small grotto. Fr. Nadeau, who had a deep devotion to the Virgin Mary, supported the idea, and with help of Fr. Desrochers' choir boys and hockey stars, the grotto was built. In May 1941 the first procession was held to the "Madonna of the Mini Grotto" with about thirty people attending. On 9 December the first parish pilgrimage was held by the Jean Côté parish. Nine sick people were blessed, and Yvonne Parent Boucher experienced a miraculous healing. After this, each parish (Girouxville, Falher, Donnelly, Jean Côté) undertook their own pilgrimage to the grotto. On 15 August 1942, the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary,15 all parishes gathered for the first regional pilgrimage. Communion was served to more than 500 people. School pilgrimages became a regular feature, especially on 27 June - the start of summer vacation - to ask the Virgin Mary for her blessing on their lives in the weeks ahead. In the following ten years annual attendance at the pilgrimage on the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary climbed to about 3,000. Some say that on occasion 5,000-6,000 pilgrims attended.

The statue of Notre Dame de Lourdes in the grotto in Girouxville.Fr. Desrochers in front of the old Notre Dame de Lourdes Grotto. Photo taken in the late 1950's.

The pilgrimage became the major community celebration of the year. It was also a time for boys to meet girls, for extended families to gather for a picnic, and for men and women to discuss the progress of the crops and the events of the summer. Many would visit the cemetery and pray for deceased family members. Over the years, Fr. Desrochers developed the site. Donations of stones, cement and money were accumulated in anticipation of building a larger grotto, which was built in 1962. In 1964, the stations of the cross were put in place by Br. Donat Leblanc, o.m.i., of Falher. They were set on a strong deep foundation and are topped by slabs of marble, provided by Fr. Desrochers' cousin, a stone cutter in Montreal. The load of marble was transported without charge by the Canadian National Railway. Fr. Desrochers recounts how, through his work, the mason himself was specially blessed and experienced relief from his alcoholism.16

Fr. Desrochers brought the community together for many projects. Together they built the grotto, the boarding school, the pilgrimage site, the Museum and the church basement. He helped shape various community institutions and brought numerous new settlers to the area. What made Fr. Desrochers such a successful motivator? The parishioners with whom I talked described Fr. Desrochers as a person with an irresistible enthusiasm, who always had a project underway for which he was seeking support. He would draw on all his personal resources: his ability to inspire people, his gift for organization, his endless energy, his ability to stay on course once he had conceived a project, and his position in the community. There is no doubt that as a priest he enjoyed a particular consideration which was not always extended to others, and which he used to strengthen the community and improve it as he saw its needs. True to the Oblate tradition, he was a man of action who combined compassion with a practical approach to any new situation. Like the apostle Paul, it was one of Fr. Desrochers' gifts to see what was already present in the community and to build on those foundations and strengths.

The building of the grotto and the development of the pilgrimage are an example of this ability. In 1928 Bishop Grouard went to the General Chapter meeting in Rome. A statue of Notre Dame de Lourdes was offered to the assembly and the many Oblates at the chapter meeting each had a compelling argument why he should receive the statue. Finally, Bishop Grouard said "I will help you, I will take it for the new parish which I am starting in Girouxville. I will dedicate the church to Notre Dame de Lourdes." This event helped establish a strong Marian devotion in Girouxville and a link to Lourdes. The first grotto was built for this statue. The newsletter of the Vicariate, La Voix de Grouard17  in 1942 expressed a palpable excitement, which was mounting as the feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary drew near. The communiqués from Fr. Desrochers appeared with clockwork regularity, informing, inspiring and summoning his fellow priests to make the trip to Girouxville with their parishes to honour Our Lady of Lourdes during the first regional pilgrimage. In 1942, 1,000 pilgrims made the trip by car, truck, horse and wagon or on foot: "Un triomphe à Notre-Dame de Lourdes." 

In the community, Fr. Desrochers was a central figure. As parish priest he benefitted from a regard and consideration which reflected the position of the Church in the life of the people. He was a member of each family, a friend of each child. Irene Boisvert has lived her whole life in the Falher-Girouxville area and has attended all but two of the pilgrimages.18 For her, Fr. Desrochers stands out for his community projects. He was the driving force behind the numerous groups of volunteers which ended up working together in the village. He helped start many institutions and buildings. Perhaps most significant was the opportunity he offered to many to work on these projects together. Irene was sent by Fr. Desrochers to museum conservation courses19 in Peace River and Grande Prairie, and shared her knowledge with other museum volunteers back in Girouxville.

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