Sante’ Mawio’mi (Chapel Island Mission)
Sunday, July 28, 2019 marked the 278th year the Mi’kmaq have congregated on a little island off the Chapel Island Reserve in Richmond County to honor their patron saint, St. Anne.
More than three thousand people now gather on the mainland and on the island to renew friendships and develop new ones. This celebration has deep religious significance to the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia. The influence of the conversion to Christianity of Grand Chief Membertou along with 21 Mi’kmaq in 1610 can still be felt today.
The island has been a meeting place for the Mi'kmaq of the maritime provinces since time immemorial. The Mi’kmaq Grand Council, which represented the Mi’kmaq leaders of the seven districts of Atlantic Canada, held their annual meeting to discuss their goals and aspirations and during time of war discussed their alliances. Today this annual meeting is referred to as Sante’ Mawio’mi and the missionaries incorporated this yearly event with the celebration of St. Anne. The annual mission is also known as the Chapel island Mission or St. Anne's Mission.
The island has also been called by different names. It was called one name by the French and another by the English, but to the Mikmaw it was and still is, simply called, Mniku. (island) Mniku was chosen by Father Maillard, missionary, 1710-1762 for his ministry to the Mi'kmaq. Abbé Maillard was the first missionary priest to visit Richmond County. He lived first in Malagawatch and then led his Mi’kmaw flock to Chapel Island and said the first Mass on the island on a boulder in 1742. Here they settled and built the first chapel in 1754. The boulder still exist today. The present church on the island is the sixth church; the fifth one burned down on December 11, 1976.
Mniku might be the oldest reserve in Canada (1792). The Chapel Island Mission is the longest continuous mission in Canada if not North America. St. Anne is the patron Saint of housekeepers and grandmother of Jesus. People come from far and wide to this holy ground to worship her. At one time this was the place where all marriages, baptisms, communions, and burials took place. It is also where the different “clans” came to share information of their area with other Mi’kmaq.
Today many Mi’kmaq communities in Cape Breton and Nova Scotia do not have the opportunity to gather as often as they used to. The Chapel Island Mission reaffirms the greatest Mi’kmaq trait, the sense of community. The continuation of this cultural tradition reinforces the importance of being Mi’kmaq.
Mniku was declared a national historic site three years ago. It is a part of Cape Breton’s rich history, our diocesan history, and Mi'kmaw hstory. If you never attended the Chapel Island Mission, make the trip to experience an awe-inspiring tradition.
Story and photos: George Paul, Diocesan Communications Committee