Friday, December 20, 2019

Secret sanctuary a holy place

Colorized postcard from 1938 showing Shrine of Ste. Anne des Lacs in Lake Wales, Florida
Segment from a colorized postcard from 1938 shows the
Shrine of Ste. Anne des Lacs in Lake Wales, Florida.
Photo credit: Florida Memory
Tucked away in Lake Wales is a small, serene Catholic shrine. It once drew hundreds - maybe thousands - of people on pilgrimages in the early 20th century. The shrine even has an entry in the 1939 Federal Writers Project's Florida, A Guide to the Southernmost State.

Today, only handfuls of the faithful and the curious make their way to the lakefront Shrine of Ste. Anne des Lacs. Stonework crumbles in places and chipped inlaid tiles tell of past glory. An ornately decorated church once on the property is long gone.

But the essence and spirituality of the shrine remain.  Many visitors describe feeling a sense of peace when they stop -  and perhaps pray - before a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a grotto built to resemble the one at Lourdes. In a 2015 article, the Lakeland Ledger dubbed the shrine a secret sanctuary.

Secret, indeed. I've lived in Florida a long time and love to explore historic sites and Catholic-related places. How can I have been ignorant of the very existence of the Ste. Anne des Lacs shrine? The site is apparently overseen by the Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Lake Wales. But I found no mention of the shrine on the parish's website.

Instead, I cobbled together the place's history from the WPA guide, the Ledger article, YouTube videos, Wikipedia, and Florida Memory, which is where I located the colorized postcard pictured with this post. Among things I learned is that the local neighborhood has a protective attitude toward the shrine. Local residents look after the property, tend the grounds, and share information with tourists who find their way there.

Thanks for the shrine's very existence are due to a long-ago resident named Napoleon Pelletier. He was among a group of Canadian Catholics who wintered in Lake Wales to escape harsh weather in the early 20th century. Different sources diverge on why the shrine was built. One says the devout Pelletier was the driving force behind creation of a shrine in the group's winter retreat. Another source says either Pelletier's son - or French artist Francois Morsollier's son - recovered from a serious illness while in Florida. The recovery was attributed in part to the healing waters of Saint Anne Lake. The shine was then built in gratitude for the child's recovery.

Either way, we do know the date of the shrine's construction: 1920. By the time of the WPA guidebook's write-up in 1939, the property contained stone grottoes, statuary, and a little church in which Morsollier had painted scenes from the Holy Land. Even relics were kept at the shrine.

Here's how the guidebook describes shrine activity:
"Pilgrimages are made here annually as to the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France and the shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupre in Canada. High dignitaries and priests of the Roman Catholic church in the United States and Canada assist the local priest in conducting the ceremonies." (page 466)
Those days are long gone. The place's faded grandeur - but also is current dignity - are evident in the YouTube video I embedded below and in the photos on Facebook. The Shrine of Ste. Anne des Lacs continues to nurture all who find their way to her doorstep. You can find the wooded retreat at 1207 St. Anne Shrine Road, a circular road that winds around the lake a few miles east of town center. Say a prayer for me if you get there before I do. I'll return the favor.

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