The breezes of a late summer afternoon blew across Lake Champlain as I drove to the Shrine of St. Anne, nestled on Isle la Motte in the far northwestern corner of Vermont. The Canadian border lies maybe 10 miles away. On that particular day, the handful of pilgrims blended with the summer tourists who happened to be driving through the Grande Isle region and stumbled upon this little tract along the shore that is so welcoming to picnics as well as reflection.
The calm atmosphere of the site today hides the fact that the shrine was once the home of a fort. The French built Fort St. Anne on the island in 1666 to protect Quebec City, down the St. Lawrence River, from hostile Indians as well as expanding British influence. In that same year, here at St. Anne’s, the first Mass in what is today the state of Vermont was celebrated. Already in 1668, the bishop of Quebec had journeyed here by canoe to confer confirmation on several Native American converts.
Fort St. Anne was short-lived and, with the end of French political influence in North America, almost forgotten. Historical memory, however, would give a rebirth to the island as well as propel the foundation of the current shrine. In the 19th century, Louis de Goesbriand, a Breton by birth, became the first bishop of the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., and encouraged devotion to St. Anne. In the 1880s, Father Joseph Kerlidou became pastor of the new parish, which included Isle La Motte, and he set about recovering the history of the original fort’s chapel, the cradle of the church in Vermont.
By 1893, the stage was set for the formal dedication of a new shrine to St. Anne, the current shrine site. Although it started out as a diocesan shrine, it has been under the care of the Edmundite Fathers since 1904, who assumed complete responsibility for it from the diocese in 1921.
Creation and Creator
The dedication of the shrine to the grandmother of Jesus Christ reflects the strong Francophone (and, by extension, Quebecois) influences on the Church in North America. The feasts of St. Anne and the Assumption were both major pilgrimage feasts in Quebec and remain days of special celebration at that province’s main shrines, although the pervasive secularization of the Quiet Revolution of the ’60s has taken its toll. The fact, then, that devotion to St. Anne would spill over into the “Green Mountain State” should surprise nobody who knows the influence French and French-Canadian clergy had on the Church in New England.
Like its Quebec counterparts, the Shrine of St. Anne really comes alive in the summertime. (It is usually open from mid-May until mid-October, when Vermont’s fall foliage is ablaze).
Before World War I, pilgrims often came by steamboat through the picturesque lakes: The annual pilgrimage from St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington, sponsored by the bishop, who welcomed the children as guests on the steamers, is often mentioned as a happy memory of those early years.
The steamboats are gone, but the private boater can still use the shrine’s dock as a jumping-off point for his visit. Daily Mass, occasions for spiritual direction and retreats, healing services and days of reflection abound. The celebrations culminate in the annual celebration of St. Anne’s feast day on July 26. The patronal feast is preceded by a triduum.
Spread over 13 acres, the grounds allow for quiet walking and praying. Stations of the Cross are scattered over the land. There is a gift shop that sells religious articles, local goods and a fair number of books. Meals are served daily at the shrine. A beautiful gold-leafed statue of Our Lady of Lourdes also occupies a prominent place on the shrine grounds, and a small museum, detailing the history of the shrine and its religious antecedents in Fort St. Anne, can be found in one of the buildings.
The shrine blends into its environment beautifully. The simple church is open to the outside, allowing worshippers to take part in Mass under the open heavens. (In case of rain, plain white wooden benches under a permanent roofed veranda are available). The revelation of Scripture thus blends with the revelation of the Creator in this bucolic setting, conducive to prayer as well as communing with the nature God has made.
I found my way to the shrine by accident.
Preparing for a trip to Montreal, I was looking for the best border crossing point when I noticed the shrine on a map of northern Vermont. “What’s a shrine doing out here?” I asked.
Out of curiosity, I found a gem of a church, tucked off in a quiet little corner, perhaps a little forgotten since the heyday of local pilgrimage. It’s a shrine inviting people to look at creation and creation’s God. But isn’t that what the Church is all about anyway?
John Grondelski writes
from Bern, Switzerland.
Shrine of St. Anne
92 St. Anne’s Road
Isle la Motte, VT 05463
Planning Your Visit: Masses for Sundays are on Saturday evenings at 7 and Sunday mornings at 9 (from June 21-Sept. 6) and 10:30 (from May 24-Oct. 11). Daily Mass during the summer is Monday-Friday at 11:15 a.m. On the feast of St. Anne, Mass will be at 11:15 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Getting There: Take I-87 (New York State Thruway/Northway) towards Montreal, exiting just before the Canadian border and following NY-11 East to Route 2 (across the bridge) and south into Vermont. Follow the signs for Isle la Motte. Or take I-89 North to Route 78 West to Route 2 South. Alternate route: Take your boat up Lake Champlain.