Walking on Rosary Path is prayer in motion

The Rosary Path at Marylake

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on June 27, 2019

Here’s a novel way to pray the rosary: In the middle of a field, with rosary beads so large an adult can kneel inside them, in the company of a gaggle of geese — mom and dad with five goslings in tow.

That was my experience at the Rosary Path at Marylake, run by the Augustinians and touted as the world’s largest living rosary. Located 30 minutes north of Toronto in King City, the Rosary Path is a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of life in the city. Linked pink and white rosary beads are spread across a winding 1.5-km path, and the 19-acre landscape is punctuated with statues of Mother Mary amidst a backdrop of nature.

Walking the path is prayer in motion. The physicality helps bring the joys and sorrow of the rosary to life on what feels like a mini-pilgrimage. You don’t just pray the rosary, you enter into it intimately.

The path starts at a 7.5-metre statue depicting the crucified Jesus. Immediately, it grounds you in the reality of the faith and the reason for your visit. When you detect the hum of others praying nearby the route is infused with the spirit of faithful community.

Running parallel to the rosary beads alongside the path are the Stations of the Cross, which add another prayerful dimension. Images etched in vivid stained glass illustrate each of the stations. It was here that we encountered a family of geese, which scurried alongside my mom and I as we prayed the second decade.  

The Rosary Path is a great summer escape for Catholics in the Archdiocese of Toronto, but I was interested to learn that internationally there is a wide array of “record-breaking” rosaries, both indoor and out, that have been assembled — or curated — to help the faithful meditate on the sacred mysteries. 

In the Philippines, for example, a reported 25,000 people formed the world’s largest human rosary at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila in 2010. Participants wore different coloured t-shirts depending on whether they were representing a bead, the cross or a connecting chain. 

In Tagum City, a giant rosary outside of Christ the King Cathedral weighs more than 6,000 pounds — with each of its roughly 77-pound beads fashioned from iron wood native to the local mountains of Davao Oriental and Surigao del Sur. 

A museum in Washington state boasts a whopping 4,000 rosaries, the largest collection in the world, according to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. They belonged to the late Donald A. Brown, a Catholic convert who began collecting rosaries in 1917 after a bout of pneumonia brought him into contact with the Sisters of Mercy, who cared for him in hospital. 

In Lebanon, there is a project underway to construct a concrete rosary path not that far away from neighbouring Syria, where many Christians are persecuted for their faith. The living rosary being built by the Lebanese Maronite order will measure 600 metres long and will be built in such a way that visitors can pray inside the Hail Mary “beads” — which look like little mushroom-capped huts — and go to confession inside the Our Fathers. 

What is it that makes all these renderings and experiences that are related to the prayer given to us by Our Lady so compelling? 

Having visited Marylake, I can attest to the power of combining movement and prayer. It’s often said that movement is medicine — meaning that exercise can prevent and help to alleviate symptoms of illness. In the spiritual realm, movement in prayer helps bring prayer to life.

I was profoundly struck by how that movement affected me as I walked from decade to decade through the winding path. Every step was intentional. You are required to make a conscious decision to keep going, to keep praying. I could feel the spiritual flame of pilgrimage guiding us along and helping us focus on why we were there, for prayer.

Sr. Lucia of Fatima, one of the children who witnessed the Marian apparition in Fatima a century ago, famously said, “There is no problem I tell you, no matter how difficult it is, that we cannot resolve by the prayer of the Holy Rosary.”

It can be a struggle to fit prayer into our daily lives, and the Rosary Path at Marylake is certainly not an every-day outing. But the reality is that we all need the Blessed Mother’s help and support. Walking and praying along the Rosary Path was a good reminder of that. 

Move. Pray the rosary. Repeat. 

Fine food feasts fit for feast days


Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on May 30, 2019

Faith and food are two of the best parts of my life. So when I stumbled across a cookbook that brought these life-giving elements together, I was hooked.

Feast Day Cookbook, originally published in the 1950s, showcases recipes from around the world that have a connection to patron saints and to Mother Mary in her many titles across different cultures. And it’s chock-full of Catholic trivia. The premise is that holy days are often times of joy and celebration, so it’s fitting to fete with the absolute magnificence that is food. 

The first recipe that caught my eye was peasant soup, or potage paysanne in its native France. Comprised of potatoes, carrots, cabbage, turnip, leeks and chicken stock, the soup is humbly seasoned with salt and pepper. This hearty meal is connected to the May 19 feast of St. Ives, who was known in the 13th century as an advocate and patron for the poor because of his resistance to the king’s unfair taxation. 

The cookbook recounts the story of St. Ives and how he became linked with peasant soup. “After his death, St. Ives’ manor was left to the poor, and here they continued to come especially on the eve and day of his feast. On one occasion in the 19th century so many beggars presented themselves that no one knew how they would be fed. But no matter how much was dipped out of the kettles on the hearth, they were always found to be filled to the brim with good, nourishing soup.” 

Peasant soup isn’t exclusive to France. When I told my dad, who grew up in the Italian countryside, that I was making peasant soup, he said, “Don’t forget the stale bread!” Apparently, varying styles of this soup are made around the globe, with different ingredients based on what’s local and inexpensive. I’ll admit, however, that my first crack at making it shocked me, as it turned out bright purple, thanks to the red cabbage. 

In anticipation of the warmer weather, the next recipe on my list was an iced drink called coffee-flavoured granita, associated with the 600-year-old, July 16 feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who is known for healing all kinds of ailments. This recipe is drawn from the street celebrations for Our Lady that used to be spearheaded by the Italian immigrants of New York. They sold this refreshing drink at tables and carts along streets lined with throngs of people participating in devotion to the saint. 

To make it, I warmed a small pot of water, added lemon juice, decaffeinated coffee crystals and a touch of coconut sugar, then popped the mixture in the freezer overnight. When I opened the freezer the next morning, the aroma was heavenly. The coconut sugar I added in place of white sugar was my nod to modernity, to make the granita a little healthier. (Although the Cool Whip topping surely cancelled out any nutritional benefits.) 

Flipping through the cookbook, I also learned that tacos are associated with the feast of St. John the Baptist — given that he is beloved in Mexico. A not-so-appetizing-sounding dessert name I stumbled across was “St. Roch’s fingers,” a mix of lady fingers and custard. The story goes that after surviving the plague, his body was disfigured. His end came in a French jail in 1327 after being accused of being a spy because he was unrecognizable. Fittingly enough, he is considered the patron saint of surgeons. 

I’ve always found comfort in turning to patron saints in times of need. There is a wide variety to choose from. 

In the realm of food, St. Lawrence of Rome is the patron saint of cooking, a title bestowed on him after he was brutally roasted to death by the Romans in the third century. While he was being burned alive, legend suggests the martyr said something along the lines of, “Turn me over, this side is done!” 

Then, there’s the patron saint of baking, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who rejected life as a princess to distribute bread to the poor. 

St. Lawrence of Rome and St. Elizabeth of Hungary, pray for us!

Research can never break my canine bond

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on Oct. 1

My Siberian Husky, Stella, who lived to the ripe old age of 16.

My Siberian Husky, Stella, who lived to the ripe old age of 16.

Among the many compelling narratives coming out of recent hurricane disasters were stories about displaced residents saving their pets — and rescuing those of complete strangers — amidst treacherous flooding.

From a fleeing Texan saving a dog clinging to the guardrail at the side of a water-logged highway to the story of a Houston woman who spent 14 hours in her attic with 21 dogs — four her own, the rest left behind by neighbours — until she was rescued via boat by a couple of Good Samaritans; these testaments to the love our neighbours to the south have for their canine companions has been unfolding in real-time across social media.

We, Canadians, also love our dogs (and cats). Hockey may be Canada’s national pastime, but pets have become our national obsession. In recent years, they’ve become increasingly important to us — likely a result of the growing number of single-person households, aging population and couples marrying and having children later in life.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “animals are God’s creatures and He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence, they bless Him and give Him glory. Thus, men owe them kindness.”

stellaAnd kindness we definitely show them. According to a Canada-wide survey commissioned by the Canadian Animal Health Institute, pet ownership is on the rise. The latest figures, released at the beginning of this year, report that there are 7.6 million dogs considered household pets (up from 6.4 million in 2014) and 8.8 million household cats (up from an estimated seven million).

But pet love is nothing new. What has changed the conversation in recent years are the copious amounts of research on the ways in which our relationship with dogs and cats is improving our collective mental and physical health. This is why “pet therapy” has become so common at hospitals, long-term care homes, universities and even in some workplaces. On September 11, the Toronto courts will be welcoming their first facility dog, Iggy, to comfort traumatized children through court appearances.

Much research has shown that our four-legged friends can help to decrease anxiety, loneliness and depression and help with prevention and treatment of a whole slew of physical maladies, such as heart disease, asthma and obesity.

Growing up with two dogs that lasted a combined total of 28 years — first there was Blackie, a rough and tumble German Shepherd and Labrador Retriever mix with a penchant for running away, followed by Stella, a Siberian Husky with a big personality and a knack for catching unsuspecting birds with the misfortune of finding themselves within her radius — I always had unfettered access to unconditional animal love.

These companions ushered me through growing pains: from awkward teenage years and rotating friends to heartbreak and career transitions. No matter how bad your day, a hug from your judgment-free dog somehow makes you feel like everything is going to be alright. (At the time, little did I know this is because as simple an action as petting your dog can increase levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin in your brain and lower production of cortisol, a stress-inducing hormone.)

Continue reading

Comment: Bride’s best laid plans melt in Pope’s hand


Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on July 28

Rome in June is notoriously hot. But Rome in June wearing a wedding veil is even hotter.

Four days after tying the knot in Toronto, my husband Daniele and I were in St. Peter’s Square amid a sea of newlywed lace, chiffon and satin. Along with about 100 other sposi novelli (newlyweds) from around the world, we sweated it out while waiting for Pope Francis to bless our new marriages. (All the marriages were less than two months fresh as that’s the requirement for attendance.)

Seated to the left of the stage at Pope Francis’ weekly general audience, we could see him above a crush of parasols, umbrellas and wide-brimmed sun hats. There was no breeze, only a collective whir from sun-soaked newlyweds furiously fanning each other. I had no idea that a short time later I would be holding the Pope’s hand.

Time crawled by as we waited for the audience to begin and the morning temperature fast approached 30 degrees. Three hours after we arrived in the piazza, the reading began. It was translated into several languages and focused on the example of the saints.

When the general audience ended, some of the newlyweds started to form a line. The opportunity for an individual blessing or a chance to be close to the Pope largely depends on how many newlyweds are in attendance and how busy the Pope is on a particular day, as I was told when calling to book the tickets. With so many excited couples in the square, we figured it was a longshot, yet we shuffled into the queue with high hopes.


The line led us to steps behind the stage and, after waiting about 20 minutes, we could see the Pope making his way towards where our group was gathered. As he got closer, Daniele and I rehearsed a few words we’d prepared just in case we got a chance to speak with him.

Grazie per essere forte e noi saremo forte con te,” was our Italian script, which roughly translates to, “Thank you for being strong and we will be strong with you.”

The Pope is always asking his flock to keep him in their prayers, so we wanted him to know we were with him and to encourage him to keep up his good work because his daily actions embody the Gospel values of love, justice and love of neighbour — to name only a few.

Vatican view 2

As the Pope arrived in front of our group, a space in front of me suddenly opened up. It wasn’t big enough for me to squeeze into the front row but, instinctively, I reached out and, wondrously, I was holding his hand through the crowd. No word of a lie, time seemed to stop. Then I heard Daniele excitedly urging me to share with Pope Francis the words we had prepared.

The chatty newlyweds around us were suddenly silent. He held my hand but I was still a couple of feet away from him. He was smiling at me. It felt too impersonal to just shout out. I hesitated.

Then, overwhelmed by the moment, I blurted out, “Ciao!”

So much for our script.

Still, I’d like to believe he heard me and that his smile widened slightly as a result, but all I know for certain is that I was fighting back tears of joy.

The rest was a blur. I let go of his hand, then found myself holding it a second time before he continued to make his way among the couples.

To say I felt his presence is an understatement. His friendly demeanour is humbling to experience and witness firsthand. His beaming, infectious smile made Daniele and I feel that he was genuinely happy to see us all. We couldn’t stop smiling.

Vatican 3

The Pope exchanged words and, no doubt, dispensed individual blessings to the newlyweds fortunate enough to be wedged in the front row. We watched for a few minutes before taking as many selfies as possible (albeit poorly executed) with the Pope in the background. (Maybe the selfie stick so many vendors tried peddling to us wouldn’t have been such a bad investment after all.)

Walking back through the crowded streets amidst shouts of “Auguri, sposi!” (“Congratulations, newlyweds”) — since we hadn’t made a wardrobe change — we picked up a panino and pizza and took a cab back to our hotel.

The experience was surreal. It was time for a siesta.

Continue reading