WAHPETON, N.D. — For 65 years, pilgrims have been flocking annually to a humble spot along the winding Wild Rice River. At the base of a Marian shrine that seems to serenely greet each visitor, they honor Jesus’ mother, pray to God, participate in Mass and offer the first fruits of their harvest.
The sisters within the Carmelite monastery, on the same grounds as Our Lady of the Prairies shrine, who have taken a vow of poverty, receive the abundance in gratitude. Though it’s within the Fargo Diocese and supported spiritually, the monastery, a distinct foundation, receives no funding from it, relying on the surrounding community for sustenance and offering fervent prayers in return.
Of the five nuns currently residing within the cloistered walls, few can give an account of the first pilgrimage, which took place on Aug. 15, 1957.
“It was at the corner of the (old) monastery in town,” says Sister Margaret Mary, who, 18 at the time, had just joined the new order — a breakoff foundation from a monastery in Allentown, Pa. “Mother Mary Rose, the prioress, was sick in bed, and she had her window open so she could hear the whole thing.”
She and the others were praying nearby, within the cloister.
These days, the sisters still take part, while remaining cloistered, with the help of modern technology — a sound system that allows them to hear what is happening outside while praying inside. A cell phone provides the speaker.
At the end of several hours that includes a Rosary walk, through which participants recite the mysteries, traveling from “station to station” marked by trees; a presentation; an outdoor Mass, often presided over by the local bishop; and Confession under canopies, the pilgrims enjoy a meal and can talk with the sisters in a special visiting room from the other side of an iron grille.
“For me it’s like a family reunion,” says Mother Madonna, prioress. “We don’t go to our family reunions. This is our family, so… I look forward to just having everybody come!”
A decadeslong history
Now 85, Sister Margaret Mary holds nearly seven decades of pilgrimages in memory. It was the fulfillment, she says, of the desires of Cardinal Aloisius Joseph Muench and Bishop Leo Dworschak, who wanted a public shrine at the monastery, and pilgrimages to encourage devotion to Our Blessed Mother.
“In August 1959, Fr. Howard Rafferty came to inaugurate the Lay Carmelite Order, in which the laity learn and live the spirit of Carmel,” she says.
On Nov. 1, 1964, the community moved to their new location, 6.5 miles northwest of Wahpeton. “The pilgrimage was held in conjunction with the laying of the cornerstone of the new monastery,” and Mass was celebrated at the shrine in front.
“The pilgrimage is a harvest festival to thank God for his blessings of the fields and crops,” Sister Margaret Mary says, noting the fresh sheaf of wheat placed annually into the hands of Our Lady of the Prairies, honoring the area’s agricultural history.
“The symbolism is clear,” she adds. “The hosts for the Eucharist are made from wheat flour, thus bringing out the connection to the Mass and the Holy Eucharist.”
The local Knights of Columbus participates in the procession and Mass, along with organizing a picnic lunch. Starting in 1970, rotating host parishes began providing music, a choir, servers, programs and preparation aid, along with additional dishes for the meal.
This year, Fr. Peter Anderl, pastor of the host parish, St. Boniface Catholic Church in Lidgerwood, will offer a talk on the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and the lives of the saints, along with presenting his collection of over 800 relics — pieces of clothing or small body parts, like bones or dried blood, of canonized saints.
Prayer for rain answered
“During the drought year of 1989, the entire country was praying for rain, and it came on pilgrimage day,” Sister Margaret Mary recalls. “The pilgrims crowded into the chapel and front portico as the rain began, and the ceremony went on with grateful prayers for the rain.”
Hank and Karen Weber, caretakers who reside on the southeast corner of the monastery property, have been tending the grounds since their arrival in 1998 — and have both taken an active role in the annual event.
Each remembers the rare year it has rained on pilgrimage day, but it was always welcomed.
Hank also recalls the time they were getting ready and “a tornado came by.”
“We had a bunch of kids helping us and told them to get into the chapel,” he said. “I stayed outside to keep an eye on it.”
Danette Onchuck was there with her husband, Arnel, and their three children, Ariana, Danica and Evan, one of those rainy years.
“We ended up sitting out in the drizzle,” she says. “They had set up tents, but we got there late, so we were sitting out on the benches, getting soaked.”
When someone offered them a couple umbrellas, they “snuggled up close and were huddled under that for the Mass.”
If it rains for this year’s pilgrimage, the Webers say, no one will complain. Nor will the many flowers Karen, a master gardener, plants each year to beautify the grounds; including those in pots she places throughout.
“I keep track of my hours, and it’s hundreds each summer,” she says, noting that last year, she tracked over 300 hours of gardening.
“It seems like he puts in way more hours than I do,” she adds, pointing to her husband, the “jack of all trades” who makes sure the grounds are mowed and benches in place, along with many other tasks.
Years ago, the event coincided with the Walk with Christ for Life event hosted by St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fargo. Then, up to 500 pilgrims would head down to the shrine after their walk downtown. Ever since the event was split, average numbers have run closer to 125.
Despite COVID-19 restrictions last year, and the possibility that numbers would dwindle, Karen says 2020 showed “an uptick” in attendance.
“I think they were ready,” she says. “People were like, ‘It’s outside, we can do this! We can have Mass with the bishop!’”
‘Close to the Creator’
Though they haven’t been able to make it every year, Danette says, their family attended the pilgrimage on and off for the past decade. A convert to the faith, she says, initially, the concept of a pilgrimage like this was foreign.
“I couldn’t believe how far some people drove just to be there for this,” she says, adding that she was inspired by people’s willingness to give their whole day to God.” “There are 10 million other things you could be doing, but you set it all aside and say, ‘I’m going to do this instead, for the greater good.’”
The simplicity and beauty of the day also attracted her, she says.
“It makes you kind of just stop and slow down a little bit and take it all in. It brings you closer to the creator, and makes you open your eyes and realize what he has created. I can step back, take a breath, be in God’s presence and just take it all in.’”
Last year, their youngest daughter had the honor of placing the wheat sheaf into the hands of Mary, their son helped serve the Mass, and, as a family, they brought up the harvest fruits in baskets.
But her favorite part might be at the end — visiting the sisters.
“They’re just full of joy and happiness. It’s something you don’t get to witness every day,” Onchuck says. “Everybody’s usually so bogged down in their own worries and anxieties, but (the sisters) don’t have any of that. It’s refreshing to talk to them. You feel lighter when you leave.”
For those contemplating going, she says, even those unfamiliar with pilgrimages, “go with an open mind. Have no expectations, and just see where the Holy Spirit takes you.”
Event details (past)
What: 65th annual pilgrimage to Our Lady of the Prairies Shrine
When: Sunday, Aug. 15 (the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary)
Where: Carmel of Mary Monastery, 17765 78th St. SW, Wahpeton, N.D.
Contact: Karen at 701-640-6152, firstname.lastname@example.org or carmelofmary.org
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Aug. 13, 2021.]