From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:
2019 marks the 25th year that the “Journey of Love” - Holy Walk will take place in the small town of Bruce Mines, Ontario.
The idea for the Holy Walk was founded and organized in 1991 by Pat Robinson. She had an idea to utilize the community of Bruce Mines to re-enact the Biblical Christmas Story, the walk to Bethlehem to see the birth of Jesus Christ. She had been inspired after visiting friends in Midland, Mich. where she first saw a similar walk take place.
Over the years, visitors have continued to attend this unique reenactment that starts out at the historical, Bruce Mines United Church on Williams Street.
Although the wait time to enter the church has typically been lengthy, once seated and warm the excitement builds while singing Christmas Carols. Musical performers entertain and keep the waiting crowd feeling festive until it is their group or family’s turn to exit the church for the Walk.
When their turn comes to leave the church, they are led on a one-kilometre candlelit walk through the woods where many exciting events of the era keep walkers watchful and wary, similar to what Mary and Joseph may have experienced on their way to Bethlehem before the birth of their son, Jesus.
There is safety in numbers and each group or family has about 12 members. Each member is given a piece of paper ordering them to pay their taxes and be counted in the census. Walkers encounter many characters throughout the walk like short-tempered Roman soldiers, eager market merchants, wise men, angels and even some live farm animals along the journey.
Betty Mills, a long-time volunteer, offered some firsthand information about the beginnings of the Holy Walk. She also knew Pat Robinson very well.
Betty began volunteering for the Holy Walk when it first started in 1991 and was still a volunteer in the 2018 Walk. She said you never know who’s going to show up because of the weather conditions, both for volunteers and visitors.
Over the years, Betty has volunteered in many different roles. She has sung in the choir in the Bruce Mines United Church, she’s been Ruth at the well, and has also sung in the choir of angels out on The Walk. She has found over the years that sometimes it’s difficult to obtain volunteers. High school students often take on volunteer positions and use them towards their mandatory volunteer hours.
She reported that there were a few years when The Walk didn’t happen because there were not enough volunteers and there was also a year when the buildings that stored some of the props were vandalized and the items were destroyed after they were stolen.
During the early years, the number of people who attended the walk was incredible. It was common to see between 3,000 and 5,000 visitors. Robinson, the founder and organizer, once said that the event had become even bigger than anyone could ever have imagined.
The event used to run from Thursday night to Sunday night. It began at 6 p.m. and finished at about 2 a.m. and it was reported that nobody was turned away even if doors were about to close. Bus loads of people came from Sault Ste. Marie sponsored by Arthur Funeral home. Buses transported people in from areas like Elliot Lake, Chapleau, Wawa and even Michigan.
Cars and buses could be seen scattered throughout the small town. People lined up outside the church dressed for the long wait. Some brought along lawn chairs. In 1992, there were 4,800 visitors who attended the four-day event and in 2018 there were approximately 900 people who attended the two-day event.
With the influx of visitors to the community, the Holy Walk was and still is a great financial benefit to local restaurants during the quiet month of November. It is a non-denominational event where all are welcome. The purpose is to allow people to focus on the true meaning of Christmas.
If you do plan on attending this year then you’ll want to bundle up! As past attendees attest, the wait can be chilly and long but the experience definitely enhances your Christmas Season! To conclude the Holy Walk, participants gather in the church basement for a time to visit with others, a warm drink and a Christmas treat or two!
This year, the Holy Walk will take place on Friday, Nov. 22, from 6-9 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 23, from 6-8:30 p.m.
Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.