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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)


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Page 3

There were, at one time, three Black Virgins in Aix, two of which are still present and were likely familiar to the young Mazenod, since his mother was particularly devoted to the Virgin. Thus, an understanding of the nurturing qualities of Mary had an early influence on him. He developed a deep appreciation of the Virgin as Mother - Mother of the Church, Mother of God's people, a place of comfort for those far from home throughout his formative years.

Notre Dame de la Sedz, one of the Black Madonnas of the town of Aix-en-Provence (Provincial Museum of Alberta, Folklife Collection #PH99.74.8)

The point is not that the Mariology of this region is in any concrete manner different then elsewhere. Rather, there is here a certain earthiness to the devotion of the Virgin. One walks in her constant presence as one goes about one's daily life. Some of this earthy quality, I believe, has been brought to Canada by the Oblate missionaries, like soil on the soles of their feet. Marian devotion in Western Canada reveals a bond with the earth.

Leflon (1966) often refers to the reflection of the climatic elements of the Provence on the founder's character. Mazenod had a great love of and need for the Marian shrines as places of renewal in the most difficult hours of his life. Years before the apparition of the Virgin to Bernadette at Lourdes (1858) Mazenod took the initiative to restore shrines and revive pilgrimages. Through this the Oblates restored the piety of many in post-revolution France - a piety which needed a physical location for its expression: processions of penance and pilgrimage, visual signs and symbols, personal engagement in the devotional life which ties providence to life on the land.

The first place to be restored was in the mountainous region outside Aix, 10 km from Gap. Here was a sanctuary dating from the late 16th century, buried under the ruins of the revolution. The buildings were abandoned, the pilgrimage to the shrine of Notre-Dame du Laus forgotten. To this sanctuary in the French Alps Mazenod retreated repeatedly during his difficult hours during which he contemplated his role in the political game played between Rome and Paris. Here he battled with the wishes of his friends and his own insights like Joseph battled with God at the Jabbok River.

The Oblates restored or established shrines also at Notre-Dame de rOsier (1834), Notre-Dame de Lumieres (1837), Notre-Dame de Bon-Secours (1846) and Notre-Dame de Sion (1850) (Roche, 1960). I already mentioned the restoration of the shrine of Notre-Dame de la Garde. Notre-Dame de la Garde is one of three Black Madonnas which reside in Marseille. In 1840 the Oblates opened a juniorat near the shrine to Notre-Dame de Lumieres where numerous Oblates prepared themselves for their task. Mgr. Faraud, VicarApostolic of the Athabasca-Mackenzie diocese was among them. Notre-Dame de Lumieres is black also.

In balancing devotional life with tireless action I recognize in the Oblate community of Canada the character and charisma of its Founder. Through their learning of language and culture their own lives would become interwoven with that of the community, synchronize with its rhythms. Their relationship to the people was mediated by their relationship to the land. The image of Mary as Mother has been fundamental for the Oblate's understanding of their mission.

Besides being trained in the official doctrine of the church and guided by the example of their founder, the first Oblates were also sons of their country. In their veins ran an understanding of the knowledge and vernacular wisdom of their birth place. They knew well the colourful world of legend and tale which freely weaves and mingles with gospel stories and lives of the saints. Provencal tradition includes stories of how the earth came to float on the ocean like a ship, or rest on a foundation of pillars (Johnson, 1927). In this vernacular world magic and miracle are only vaguely separated concepts, and storytelling satisfies both the need for edification and entertainment. At the core of these stories we encounter the constant human struggle between good and evil. Fate and human willfulness are invariably pitted against each other. The Virgin Mary and the Devil face each other in an endless series of tales of temptation and redemption.

The relation between the place of Mary in the doctrine of the church and her place in the life of the faithful has been in creative tension particularly during the lifespan of the Oblate congregation. The last 150 years have seen an intensification of Marian piety, which culminated in the doctrine of her Assumption and the celebration of the Marian year. The Second Vatican Council struggled long and hard with the place of Mary in the church. Since the rise of Feminist theology the image of Mary as Mother, in its variety of interpretations, has been much criticised for its role in the subordination of women (Warner, 1990; Halkes, 1983). Mazenod's relationship to women was generally one of respect and empowerment. Aime Roche (1960) notes the absence of paternalism in his work with the most abandoned. Several religious sodalities for women were organized through his encouragement, not the least of which was sodality among the fish-wives of Marseille (Hubenig, 1991). While not defining the behaviour of every Oblate, this disposition became part of the Oblate missionary practice. Martha McCarthy (1995) reports that from the earliest missionary days among the Dene, devotion to Mary was used to foster a higher respect for all women.

In light of the Marian cult which flourished in his time Mazenod constantly cautioned against the excess of popular piety, stressing that Marian devotion was to conform to the teaching of the church (Hubenig, 1991). Doctrine - that which is believed, taught and confessed as the official teaching of the church 7 - attempts to adjust popular trends in thinking. Much has been written since the Second Vatican Council about the need to actively change the metaphoric images of Mary (Schillebeeckx and Halkes, 1993). Feminists have critiqued the use of the metaphors "Virgin" and "Mother" as these images have burdened women for centuries with expectations of fertility, submission and passivity (Halkes, 1983). There are authors who find the root of the domination of women in the domination of men over nature. But that the very quality of being close to the land could also ring in a new era both for the valuation of women and for the earth (Ruether, 1983).

The image of the Virgin who empowers others to reach out and nurture new life in the world, old as it may be in vernacular traditions, only seriously entered the conversation of theologians in the 60s (Merkx, 1993). Edward Schillebeeckx took up this image during his writing in the 50s and refined his insights during the years of the Second Vatican Council and beyond. Feminist theologians have joined the conversation and for many a new relationship to the Virgin has emerged. This image of Mary again resonates with the wisdom of the Earth Mother, the Black Virgin who was part of the soil in which the Oblate congregation has its roots. Catharina Halkes remarks:

[...] it is unthinkable that God created human beings in such a way that certain religious content should constantly emerge in human consciousness as being evident without being true [... ] (Halkes, 1993, p. 72)

Mary gives men and women the confidence to explore their vocation as tree planters, gardeners and midwives – the earthly work of incarnation.

I do believe that when trying to understand the charism and gifts of the Oblates we cannot afford to overlook the traditions which have shaped them. The Provence lays in the crucible of the wax and wane of cultures - Greek and Roman, Celtic, Gaul and Teutonic - all superseded by Christianity. It would be surprising if there was no trace of this influence.

The Immaculate Conception under whose patronage theOblates live appeared in Lourdes on the side of a mountain, in an opening of the earth. Since that day "Lourdes Grottos" have been built by thousands of people out of rocks and cinders, in hillsides and on level ground - an outcropping of the earth made sacred by her presence (photo 9). Many Lourdes Grottos have been built in Canada by the Oblates. When journeying afar there needs to be a place where one knows that one is home (photo 10).

Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes at Duck Lake built in 1882 by Br. Piquet (Provincial Museum of Alberta, Folklife Collection #PH98.54.14)
Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes at Paulatuk, Northwest Territories (Provincial Museum of Alberta, Folklife Collection #PH99.74.10)



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