Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fr. Maillard's ode to joy

"At the center of your being, you have the answer;
you know who you are and you know what you want."

Lao Tzu

Mural on town wall commemorating 100th Anniversary of Gravelbourg.
I have left Gravelbourg. Travelled north to meet up with C.C. in Saskatoon. As I was leaving town I asked a man for directions. "Which way did you come into town?" he asked.

"From the west, through Swift Currant."

"Then follow the road east, to Highway 2 and head north," he replied. "You'll see the turn-off in 60 k. (kilometers) You can't miss it."

There is no question that I will go back the way I came. Only the belief I will continue on my journey, in new directions, upon new roads, seeking different views and experiences.

He was right -- on all counts. I couldn't miss the turn-off. It was the only one I came to. A t-junction. Little traffic.

There is only one road into Gravelbourg. And one road out. And both roads connect to highways further north heading east and west and further north.

I drove through more wide-open prairie, past farmland and grazing cattle, a lake filled with pelicans floating on its ruffled waters stirred by the wind that kept blowing. And I left behind the grandeur of this small prairie town with its majestic cathedral and turn of the century (20th not 21st) architecture that sits exposed to the winds and chills of prairie weather.

On a tour of the cathedral my guide told me that they don't use the upper balconies too often. "Way too cold up there in winter," he told me. "Though it's a nice place to be in summer when the heat is bearing down," he added.

There aren't enough people coming to church these days to warm up the place -- no matter the language of the service. French and English. There is one of each every Sunday. And sometimes, like last Sunday, there is an event, in this case, Confirmation. "The place was humming," he tells me. "It was nice to see it so full."

The Cathedral was constructed in 1919. An enormous structure built on the prayer that the elite of the province would be drawn south, that population would grow, that culture would thrive and this tiny town would become a mecca for religeuses and those seeking spiritual redemption, or just a place to renew their faith.

The growth didn't happen, but the draw and the beauty of the Cathedral has withstood time and politics and religious infighting to become a beacon of hope, of faith, of celebration of mankind through the work and commitment of one man, Fr. Charles Maillard.

He was 45 when he began his odyssey of painting along the Cathedral's walls and ceiling For the next ten years, Fr. Charles Maillard would dedicate his life to painting murals of the old and new testament in the style of the grand masters. Like Michelangelo, he spent time lying high up in the air on scaffolding that let him reach up so he could paint the ceiling, a brush in one hand, a mirror in the other. For the ten years it took him to complete his masterpiece along the walls, scaffolding lined two sides of the cathedral -- which is why there is no centre aisle, but two separate aisles in the interior of the space.

"Brides and grooms come down the separate aisles to meet at the altar," my guide tells me.

I like that idea. Two separate paths meeting as one at the front of the church.

Fr. Maillard, wanting the cathedral to have stained glass, but not having the money in the coffers to commission it at a time when the Depression was gripping the hearts and tightening the pocketbooks of everyone, originally painted the windows. Later, a patron paid for stained glass to be created that reflected Fr. Maillard's design exactly as he had painted them. Stunning. Beautiful. Inspiring.

I left Gravelbourg in awe of the people and the courage and commitment it took to build the town upon the hard-scrabble earth of the prairies.

I left Gravelbourg knowing that whatever happened to bring my father there, he could not have left without carrying with him some of that awe of its beauty. I remember visiting Cathedral de la Notre Dame with my father in Paris. He didn't like 'the church' -- its rules and political infighting. He didn't like the clergy, but he loved the architecture, the majesty, the soaring buttresses, the arches, the stained glass, the beauty of its spaces. He admired what man had created in the name of God, what they withstood so their faith could withstand the tests of time.

And I left knowing that had Gravelbourg not played a role in my father's history, I might never have visited this jewel upon the prairies. I might never have stood beneath glorious stained glass windows and said a silent prayer of gratitude.

Thank you Dad for bringing me here. Thank you for showing me the wonder of this place.

My father was an enigma throughout his life. In Gravelbourg I found him to be a part of the land. A part of a history that stands proudly in the midst of wide-open prairie beneath a cerulean sky that soars into infinity where all things are possible, all dreams come true. And where faith has room to be become the One through which we are all connected, no matter our beliefs.


Anonymous said...


wonderful commentary

as you head north, you will see more nuance of Saskatchewan; best described as it was in the title of a painting I once owned by Hans Herold called 'prairie, south of Saskatoon' ... you will find it a little rock/craggy, getting green and the view ..... well, the view, not unlike the roads, just goes on for miles and miles and miles


Maureen said...

Wonderful post, Louise.

Unknown said...

Beautiful post and pictures. So well written. Thanks for sharing this.

Diane Walker said...

What a glorious church; thanks for sharing your thoughts and photos. I love that you are journeying in search of your father...

Anonymous said...

i like golden grain against a clear blue sky...

Unknown said...

Love the quote.

This journey whilst with a purpose also sounds healing and comforting.

Enjoy your time with CC

Hugs, Fi

S. Etole said...

this is a trip of the heart ... beautifully taken