I dragged my mom to the shrine of St. Ann in Cormac. I hadn’t noticed it during my previous visits, but this time the elaborate stonework caught my eye while driving by and I asked my mom what it was. She told me it was a healing shrine that hundreds to thousands of people visit once a year in order to pray for healing and to leave offerings. She said cars would line up all down Cormac Road and the large field adjacent to the old church would be full of people. My interest was piqued, and so off to the shrine we went. Some of you may not know that my father is Irish Catholic, so even though I wasn’t raised so, the imagery and saints have always fascinated me. It is located in Bonnecherre Valley on about an acre of land surrounded by rolling hills covered in trees, a few run down farms, a small early 1900s graveyard, and a vast swamp. That is all that is left of Cormac, Ontario.
Saint Ann was the mother of Mary and the grandmother of Jesus. She is the patron saint of woodworkers, horsemen, seamstresses, fertility, pregnancy, parents, grandparents, childless people, poor people, and Canada in general. In iconography her symbols are a door or a book and she is often depicted with Mary as a child. Anne is the anglicized version of the Hebrew name Hannah. It means gracious one or graceful. The name has been unintentionally passed on for three generations of the women in my family – my mom and I realized this on the way to the shrine. My distaff grandmother’s name is Mary Hannah, my mother’s name is Anne, and my name is Sarah Anne.
Saint Ann isn’t associated with healing, but nonetheless thousands of people have made the pilgrimage from near and far to the shrine the last weekend of July for the last seventy-three years to petition her to heal them, to heal their loved ones, and to reverse infertility. They come for mass to the 1917 stone church with its silver steeple, they light colourful votive candles, they kneel and pray, they leave offerings, and come to be anointed with Saint Ann’s oil –consecrated by a priest and believed to have the powers to bless and heal.
The shrine itself has been handcrafted from stones of granite, rose quartz, and quartz crystal with an elaborate stairway, different levels, smaller stone shrines, with a white statue of Saint Ann with her daughter Mary at its heart surrounded by votive candles and rose quartz embedded in the mortar. The stonework looks brand new, but it was built in 1950. There are flowers everywhere and gardens surround the shrine itself. It is beautiful and I can feel all of the power and energy the Catholic pilgrims have given to this place. When I walk through the field away from the shrine cicadas burst into flight around me and buzz by my ears.
A church was originally built at this spot in 1891 because of the crossroad and the shrine was built in 1939 thanks to a pastor who was a devotee of Saint Ann. At one time up to 40,000 people would make the pilgrimage to the shrine. Today only a few thousand people still make their way to the Cormac crossroad. A shrine to Jesus has been added more recently closer to the church. It is surrounded by scenes of the stations of the cross and gnarled ancient ash trees. Like Saint Ann’s shrine it is surrounded by beautiful stonework and well-tended flower gardens.
There’s a local joke here that there are more churches than there are people in the Bonnecherre Valley. I have seen so much Christian folk magic here since I arrived: Brighid’s crosses over doorways, crucifixes on walls and in the woods, horse brasses to protect houses, cross roadside shrines full of offerings marking where someone died in a car crash, statues of Mary guarding people’s gardens, and I even found an old paper charm of crosses tucked in the mantle above my parents’ front door. There are older heathen bits of folk magic here too –mainly horseshoes over barn and house doors and bull, deer, or moose horns over the doors of livestock buildings. Most farmers may not know why they do it, but these protective practices go back a long ways.