Notice the three white chapels overlooking the hill in the distance. A trail blazed over the centuries will guide you to Calvaire d'Oka, a historical site unique in North America. The Sulpicians built these Stations of the Cross between1740 and 1742 for the evangelization of the Amerindians. Le Calvaire trail culminates in a panoramic view of Lac des Deux Montagnes. Four oratories containing reproductions of famous religious scenes mark the road and create a contemplative atmosphere.
At the summit, three Roman-style chapels stand as proud witnesses to great historical events and religious pilgrimages. The peacefulness of this spot and the buildings still convey a sense of spirituality, even today.
The following historical information was written by Gilles Piédalue and provided by Ameriquefrancaise.org;
"In 1676 the Kentaké mission, located on the south shore of Montreal Island, was a centre for a number of different Amerindian nations from the region: Huron, Mohawk, Oneida, Algonquin and Nipissing. From this nucleus came the Amerindians of the missions that were later founded near Ville-Marie, including the one at Lac des Deux Montagnes, which the Sulpicians established at the confluence of the river of that name and the Ottawa River. According to the Sulpicians the site, easy to defend and located on the fur trade route, would attract more Amerindians. The Sulpicians built houses, a church, two schools, and a fort.
Around 1750 this mission had a population of 750, mostly Amerindians. To the west of the fort, Mohawks and Hurons, sedentary agricultural nations speaking languages of the Iroquoian family, lived together. To the east of the fort, Nipissings and Algonquins, nations of nomadic hunters speaking Algonquian languages, each had their own grounds. The garrison’s missionaries occupied the small fort located at the centre of the mission. A few nuns, some officials, and settlers of European origin also lived at the mission.
Lac des Deux Montagnes in the nineteenth century
The feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, 14 September, was an important event at the Deux Montagnes mission. This feast day commemorates the return to Jerusalem of the Holy Cross, which had been taken back from the Persians in 626. The feast occurs near the autumn equinox, and marks the end of the harvest. The event also gave the Amerindians a pause before they left for the winter hunt. The Sulpicians took advantage of the opportunity to organize great ceremonies at the Calvaire d’Oka. It was a special occasion for Amerindians to meet until the 1870s, at which time many of them joined the Protestant religion.
During the 19th century, farmers from the neighbouring parishes gradually replaced Ameridians in the annual pilgrimages to the Calvaire. Around 1830 they began to visit the site together with the Amerindians. From 1850 on, more people from Montreal joined the worshipers. At that time, Oka became the most popular pilgrimage site in the greater Montreal region. At the same time in Europe, the miraculous apparitions at Paris (1830), Notre-Dame de la Salette (1846), and Lourdes (1858) renewed interest in pilgrimages in Quebec as well as in Europe. Visits to the Sanctuary of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré increased, and new pilgrimage sites appeared: Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes at Rigaud in 1874, Cap de la Madeleine in 1888, and the Huberdeau grotto in 1892.
From 1872, the Sulpicians of the Notre-Dame de Montréal parish encouraged their parishioners to go to Oka for the Way of the Cross. Thanks to the development of railroads and steamboats at the end of the 19th century, Oka became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Quebec. In the 1880s and 1890s, there were even two Calvaire festivals. The first was held on 14 September for people who came by steamboat; the second took place the following Sunday for local people.
Steamboat Empress at Oka dock, around 1920
In 1889 the newspapers reported on a crowd estimated at 30,000. The pilgrims from Notre-Dame de Montréal took the train at Bonaventure station about 8:00 a.m. When they arrived at Lachine, a steamboat of the Ottawa River Navigation Company took them to the dock at Oka, where they disembarked at 10:00. The return was set for 3:00 p.m. In the meantime, the pilgrims went to the parish church, singing and praying. Indulgences were granted to those who confessed, took communion, and prayed for the Pope on this occasion. The pilgrims then followed the Chemin de l’Annonciation. Turning off to the right at the barrier of the cross, they gathered at the “Orée” at the foot of a large red cross before beginning the climb. There, on a small platform, a preacher addressed the crowd. After crossing the Calvaire farm, the pilgrims followed a rocky trail for a six-kilometre round trip. While walking and at the stops at stations, they sang and prayed. On the way back, they stopped again at the village church to venerate a relic of the True Cross. Later it became customary to perform this ceremony at the hilltop.
Pilgrims gathered around the three chapels
In the 20th century, the route followed by the procession between the church and the first oratory changed slightly. However, between the first oratory and the chapels at the top, the path has remained the same since the beginning. From the turn of the century the crowds at Oka became smaller, although pilgrimages remained popular in Quebec for the first half of the 20th century. In 1948 there were still 5,000 pilgrims at Oka for the Calvaire festival. In the 1960s only a few hundred people took part in the pilgrimage. Then, as at most pilgrimage sites in Quebec, participation dropped sharply. The growth of outdoor activities and cultural tourism, however, has kept the Calvaire d’Oka site alive in collective memory. Today the pilgrimage still draws a few worshipers, especially on the Sunday nearest to 14 September."