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Fredericksburg family of 11 trades vacation for Canadian pilgrimage

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Earlier this month, a blue Sprinter van slowly approached a solitary guard house at the border of New York and Canada. Its yellow “Choose Life” Virginia license plate revealed to tailgaters that the travelers were many miles from home. Matt and Libby Britton, parishioners of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg, had traveled more than 500 miles with their eight children and son-in-law. As soon as they were in sight of the guard house, a border security officer immediately stepped out and sternly beckoned the Brittons forward. Matt and Libby made sure their young passengers realized that there would be absolutely no noise or jokes at the crossing. Similar to being in an airport security line, one wrong move could prolong their wait time or cancel their trip altogether.

Matt rolled down his window when they reached the guard and handed her their stack of passports and birth certificates, causing her to look over the van quizzically.  

“To me worshiping in places that people have been worshiping for 300 years or more is a big impact. We are all on the same journey even though some went in different years.” Libby Britton

“These are all your children?” she exclaimed, as she examined the passports ranging in age from 7 to 22.

 “Yes,” Matt answered casually. As a father of a large family and active supporter of 40 Days for Life, a pro-life group, he was used to people’s reactions.

When she asked where they were going and why he replied, “We are on a pilgrimage to Québec and Montréal.” It was not the typical tourist response she had expected. After matching each person to their passport, the guard’s serious demeanor melted away. She waved them through with a big smile saying, “This is very beautiful. Bonjour everyone.” 

It’s interactions such as this that made the Brittons’ religious journey up the East Coast different from the average summer vacation. 

“We were going there to receive, to bring our prayers, but when you go, you also end up giving to others as well,” said Libby. “When you say ‘we are on religious pilgrimage,’ people’s eyes open and they say, ‘Really? People do that?’ It is an opportunity to evangelize. We were reminding people that people still seek God on pilgrimages.” 

The Brittons first decided to go on a pilgrimage in June 2011 after plans fell through for a family service project. Canada, only a day’s drive away, has majestic churches, Catholic shrines, and burial sites and relics of some “heavy-hitter saints,” such as martyr St. Isaac Jacques.  

“Pilgrims have been going there for 300 years,” explained Libby, who enjoyed researching Canada’s rich Catholic history.

That first trip turned out to be especially meaningful to the family because — as with most pilgrims — they carried a special intention. Matt’s father was suffering from an unknown disease that doctors could not diagnose.  

At St. Anne de Beaupré Church in Québec, the family discovered a replica of the Santa Scala, the stairs that Jesus walked up during His Passion. Matt and some of the older children climbed the staircase on their knees, as is the custom, with their grandfather’s intention in mind. Six weeks after the family returned home, Matt’s father shocked doctors by making a full recovery. Now, six years later, they climbed those same steps again during one of their first stops in Québec. 

It can be daunting to think of the logistics involved in traveling with such a large and young family. But the Brittons were delighted to discover how large family friendly Canada can be. Thanks to the internet they had no trouble finding affordable cottages to rent and places to eat.  

“It is easy with 11 people,” said Libby. “We found restaurants we could go in and they could easily serve us. We spread the word about 40 Days for Life and gave information to the priests and people we met.”

They visited the sites of two miracles attributed to Notre Dame du Cap (Our Lady of the Cap) and saw the beauty of God in nature at Sainte-Anne Falls which as the locals point out, is higher than Niagara Falls.

Soon the family was off to Montréal, home of St. Joseph’s Oratory and dozens of Catholic sites.

“This whole city of Montréal was an idea of the Société Notre-Dame de Montréal in order to evangelize,” said Libby. “It’s a French place but it is also a Catholic place.”

She compared the prevalence of Catholic shrines and monuments in Canada to that of Civil War memorials back home. “In Virginia, you drive in a little community and you see a little grassy area and it’s for the Civil War,” said Libby. “But in Canada, you turn a corner and there is the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”

The family met many pilgrims from all walks of life and the children enjoyed hearing all the different languages and attending Mass in French. 

 “During the trip, we talked (about it) to the children every day and my oldest daughter and I collaborated on a journal project,” said Libby. “They just liked getting out and being free to walk around, excited to find little statues or things they recognized.” 

Some of the most memorable statues were those of Jesus’ passion. Outdoor stations are popular in Canada and are often placed along winding paths. Sometimes the stations are small, while others are ornate and larger than life. 

Their final stop on their way home was the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, N.Y.  They also visited the burial site of St. Isaac Jogues and the home of St. Kateri Tekawitha.

“To prep the kids we read about St. Kateri and St. Isaac Joques,” said Libby. She explained that because children are so literal and visual, it means a lot to them to see the relics of the saints and the places where they lived and died. 

While 11 people went together on the trip, no two people experienced the pilgrimage the same way. 

“My husband likes it to flow over him. His favorite part was being with the whole family and praying the Stations of the Cross outside,” said Libby. “To me, worshipping in places that people have been worshipping for 300 years or more is a big impact. We are all on the same journey even though some went in different years. I think praying in those churches was so powerful. It’s a treat for the eyes and you feel a part of something big.”

The Brittons hope to make the pilgrimage a family tradition every five years. They encourage families of all sizes to trade their vacation for a pilgrimage.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017