Kevin O'Hara: A timely gift from St. Anne

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During the summers of my distant youth, when neighboring families scooted off to exotic places such as Lake George, Howe Caverns and Catskill Game Farm, our dad would take his young charges to magnificent cathedrals in the Canadian province of Quebec.

One might think that visiting these holy shrines would bore young pups like us, but here we could find more mischief than Chief Pontiac did with the Redcoats. When I was 12 and Dermot 10, we visited the beautiful Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de Beaupre, a pilgrimage site along the St. Lawrence River, known for its miracles. In fact, the walls of the church were covered with so many crutches that I wondered why Catholics needed hospitals at all.

Along with the cathedral's many splendors were nightly candlelight processions, where Derm and I would drip candle wax all over our thumbs to peel away leisurely at bedtime. There were also gift shops that sold Mackintosh Toffee, Humpty Dumpty potato chips and, best of all, Black Cat Fireworks.

After we purchased a few packets of firecrackers, Dermot and I slinked up a wooded hillside behind the life-size Stations of the Cross. There we lit our red bangers, scaring the living bejabbers out of praying pilgrims below. We quickly learned the more pious the pilgrims, the higher they'd jump. Oh, what fun!

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Our antics came to a screeching halt when one angry devotee took it upon himself to leave his prayer group and seek out the brazen hooligans responsible.

Imagine our surprise — and his — when the furious penitent turned out to be our dad. After giving us both a swift boot in the pants, he promised greater retribution when we'd return to our spartan Basilica Inn that evening.

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Although our vacation had taken a dismal turn, Derm and I still had the rest of the day to ourselves. We promptly exchanged our last Canadian dollar for 100 Maple Leaf pennies, and made our way to the flower-encircled wishing wells sprinkled throughout the spacious grounds. There we played "shooting fish in a barrel," by slinging our pennies at goldfish within the pools. The fish wouldn't get hurt, of course, as our pennies would lose their zing upon hitting the water's surface, but we sure had those little guys gasping at the gills.

Next we dropped to our knees in the flower beds and splashed each other with cool fountain water. Suddenly a gardener appeared, cursing in French at the sight of two buckos murdering his marigolds. When we stood up, he noticed our wet pants pockets were bulging with our remaining pennies, and he wrongly assumed we'd been trolling for coins. The irate gardener dropped his buckets and came running toward us. Dermot went hither and I went yon, and it was yon that the gardener followed. Quick on my feet, I broke through a phalanx of priests, scattered a covey of nuns, and bowled over a rosary society from Winnipeg. I was nearly in the clear when I came to a steep, grassy embankment. Unable to apply the brakes, I tumbled ass-over-teakettle to the merciless black pavement below. Splat!

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Dermot filled me in on the gory details when I regained consciousness the following day. First he bawled his eyes out, thinking I was dead, for I had lain lifeless in a pool of blood, "like somebody had poured a gallon of red paint over your head." The still-swearing gardener arrived, but kindly flagged down a horse and buggy, whose driver delivered me posthaste to a hospital in nearby Beaupre.

When I awoke the next day, my fretting parents were cupping my hands tenderly, while Dermot waved a hand mirror in my face, eager to show me my head wound. In queasy fascination, I counted 12 stitches covered thinly by a reddish gel that sealed a two-inch gash over my swollen right eyebrow.

Now, one might suspect that this catastrophe was a direct result of my childish capers at such a sacred site. Payback for pranks, so to speak. In my fuzzy state of mind, however, I believed my accident was nothing short of a miracle—a timely intercession by dear St. Anne herself. After all, not only did my cracked noggin save me from one of dad's royal shellackings, but I was left with the most marvelous scar to show all of my friends back home.

Kevin O'Hara is a longtime Eagle contributor. Contact him at kevinbohara@gmail.com


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