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Fulfilling a memory quest at Stairway of the Saints

During the winter of 1938-39, my little 3-year-old sister Dotty had pneumonia. It was very, very serious. The doctor, Mother and Daddy and I waited and prayed for days in the darkened bedroom lit only by votive candles arranged in front of the statue of Mary, mother of God, on the mantle. There were no medications at that time, only cool compresses and liniments.

My father made a vow to the church that if Dottie lived he would make a pilgrimage of thanks to the shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre near Quebec City.

It would be the only family trip we would take while I still lived at home.

I have two vivid memories of that journey. One was a day in the Adirondacks in New York. Mother, Daddy, Dottie and I stayed in a cabin on the shore of Lake Champlain. While Mother, whose name was Sylvia, and Dotty stayed at the cabin, Daddy took me fishing - yes, fishing!

He had never talked about a boat or fishing ever before. Yet, there we were, just the two of us in an antiquated little gray rowboat lazing away a few hours on that sparkly sunny day with no apparent needs or cares. We were actually relaxing.

I remember he caught a small squiggly fish, smiled, took the hook out of its mouth, blew it a kiss and gently put it back into the cold, crystal blue water. This scene was so out of character and so precious to me ... to see this other side of my father.

When we finally arrived at the Catholic shrine in Canada, Daddy and I went to a chapel on the grounds. When we entered, there was a long stairway about 6 feet wide going up the middle of the church to the second level. Embedded in the riser of each step were two small clear oval boxes. A tiny bone chip from a long gone and honored saint was in each labeled box. Lining both sides of the stairs were dozens and dozens of crutches and canes and orthopedic appliances. Yet there were very few people nearby. Daddy said that folks who had been healed left them because they didn’t need them any longer.

As we got a little closer, there were several steps, then a semicircular landing facing the central stairway. It was there Daddy placed his hand on my shoulder and whispered, “Little Sylvia, if you want to go up these steps, you have to do it on your knees. These steps are the ‘steps of the saints.’ It’s OK if you want to go up just a few and come back down. Then wait for me outside.”

I did not fully understand what all this meant, but I did what I was told. I crawled up about three steps, turned around, left and waited outside as he continued the 20-some steps to the top and returned by way of the back stairway.

For some reason those few minutes at that church have been etched in my memory with richness, a potency and affection beyond my 7-year-old comprehension. I knew he was fulfilling his vow to the church and I was a small part of it, a witness.

Sixty-seven years later I was at last able to retrace those steps.

On a day tour from Quebec City in June 2006, I found the Chapel of Scala Santa, the “Stairway of the Saints,” at Saint-Anne-de-Beaupre.

As I entered the chapel I saw the semicircular landing where Daddy and I once stood. Ahead were the stairs, but empty of the canes and crutches. I later was told that there were so many they had to be moved to the Basilica.

Alone in the church, standing on that same landing, I was stunned. I swear I felt my father’s hand on my shoulder again. And though he died in 1977, I also heard his voice again, just as clear as once so long ago. “Little Sylvia, if you want to go up these steps, you have to go up on your knees.”

My heart was bursting. Bitter, happy tears flowed.

There was a sign posted forbidding picture taking, but I took one anyway.

My father had been there.

Sylvia Malagamba is a member of the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.



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