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August 2, 2009

110 years of prayer to St.Anne

By Hilary Anderson


Wayne Smith is one of thousands of worshippers who recently made the annual pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. Anne de Brighton at Our Lady of Fatima Church, marking the 110th anniversary of the nine-day novena prayed there.

The devotion to St. Anne ended on her feast day, July 26, with Mass celebrated by Cardinal George.

Many of the faithful first made the pilgrimage as babies when their parents brought them. Others, like Smith, learned about the devotion to St. Anne recently.

“Ten years ago I barely knew anything about it other than St. Anne’s name and that she was the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother,” he said.

Smith had a good reason not to know anything about St. Anne. He was raised Jewish, became an atheist and then in 1996 converted to Catholicism.

The pilgrimage is a sacrifice for Smith. In order to reach the shrine, he must ride two El trains and two buses from his home. Sometimes he gets a ride home but not always. Smith does it even though he is blind.

“It is a sacrifice but that’s what a pilgrimage is. If you love someone, you will go that extra mile. In this case, you go that extra mile for God.”

Still drawing crowds

Despite its age, the novena is as popular as ever.

“We have worshippers coming from local parishes and faraway places like New Mexico and Kansas,” said Father Nestor Saenz, pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Parish. “Our mailing list for the novena exceeds 5,000 names.”

Josephine Danca, now 84, once attended St. Anne School and believes her devotion to the saint grew as a result of her grandmother’s. It deepened when she married her husband, John, who also said the novena.

“I love St. Anne,” she said. “She has watched over my family and me all these years. It’s a powerful prayer, especially important during these times when the world is trying to pull people away from God.”

Why do these pilgrims think St. Anne will answer their prayers?

Smith puts it simply. “St. Anne was the grandmother of Jesus, her grandson. If a grandmother asks her grandson to do something, he will listen.”

Early days

The roots of the Shrine of St. Anne at Our Lady of Fatima Church date back to 1900, when Father Joseph Lasage, a priest of French descent, brought his devotion to St. Anne and a first-class relic of her to the church, originally named St. Joseph and St. Anne. It was established as the national church for French Canadians. A history of the church says France donated a second first-class relic of St. Anne around 1914.

During the Great Depression, the church fell onto hard times. To avoid closing its doors, the church sold some of its statues and artifacts but the two first class relics of the saint — one a part of her shin bone — remain in a reliquary there.

The devotion and novena to St. Anne never stopped even though the parishioner base migrated from French to Polish to English to Spanish-speaking. The name change of the church from St. Joseph and St. Anne to Our Lady of Fatima occurred about 20 years ago.

Jonathan Mercado, the shrine music director, is awed by what he sees there during the devotion.

“What touches me is the number of people who come here to express their faith,” he said. “I daily see at least 500 to 700 pilgrims during the novena. It is my pinnacle point of the year. I am so privileged and blessed to be part of this novena.”