Robert Brehl

Robert Brehl

Robert Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@abc2.ca or @bbrehl on Twitter.

While on our annual family vacation to Prince Edward Island in July, a visiting friend from Ontario made an intriguing remark about her first impression of the island.

“I simply cannot get over how Catholic P.E.I. seems to be,” she said.

Such an impression never occurred to me. But her not being Catholic obviously gave her a different perspective.

“Don’t get me wrong, I am not being critical,” she said. “I just mean driving here from the (Confederation) Bridge we saw so many pretty little Catholic churches, we’ve heard about the lobster suppers in Catholic churches and there just seems to be a ‘Catholic feel’ to the place.”

We had a nice visit that afternoon with our friends and nothing more was said on the topic. But it got me thinking. She had a point. In fact, about half the population of 140,000 in P.E.I. is Catholic, according to Statistics Canada.

Then I started thinking about some of my favourite “Catholic” things on the island and I quickly came up with a tidy little list. (We’ve been visiting P.E.I. each summer for almost a decade after buying a cottage, which we rent when we’re not there.)

We’ve all heard the tourist spiel about Anne of Green Gables, white sandy beaches, the quaint red clay roads and the fabulous P.E.I. golf courses. And we might think potatoes or lobster when P.E.I. is mentioned, but Catholic is not a word that typically comes top of mind.

So, here are some tourist ideas for things to check out with Catholic flavour the next time you are, as the locals say, “on island.”

o The Confederation Trail is a walking and biking trail from one tip of the island to the other. The trail used to be the railway lands. I have not ridden the entire trail but I have found no prettier ride than the 12 kilometres from Morell to St. Peter’s. Most of the ride you’ll have a beautiful view of St. Peter’s Bay with the stately old St. Peter’s Church majestically standing on the hill across the bay. There are many places to stop along the trail for a picnic lunch and a clear vista of the big white church, which is generally open for a visit and with Sunday Mass at 11 a.m.

o St. Dunstan’s Basilica in Charlottetown is a century-old stone French Gothic church built from the remains of the cathedral that had been damaged by fire in 1913. It is the fourth church on the site and one of the most visible landmarks in Charlottetown with its three copper spires being some of the highest points on the city skyline. It is the only Roman Catholic cathedral in the province and one of the most elaborate churches in the Maritimes. The marble altar is 10 metres high and if you look closely at the ribs in the ceiling, you’ll see symbols of the Allied nations in the First World War, which was raging during St. Dunstan’s construction. Guided tours are available but you’re also welcome to quietly visit on your own or attend Mass.

o Ceilidhs (pronounced kaylees) are a fun part of the musical culture in P.E.I. Though not specifically Catholic, the Ceilidh tradition of singing, dancing, fiddling and strumming occurs in many churches and halls around the island. Ceilidhs began some years ago as weekend “kitchen parties” and now they are open to the general public and occur most nights of the week in summer. Each year, we attend a couple of Ceilidhs, especially the Crane Family Ceilidh at the refurbished St. Andrew’s Chapel in Mount Stewart, near our cottage.

o St. Andrew’s Chapel is significant on its own. It was the first church built in P.E.I. by Scottish settlers in 1772. In 1864 it was moved by horse and men on the ice down the river 28 kilometres to Charlottetown where it was converted into a school by the Sisters of Notre Dame. Later abandoned, it was restored and renovated and returned to Mount Stewart in 1998. Next to the chapel is the burial site of Fr. Angus MacEachern, the first bishop of P.E.I. His story is worth exploring and available at the site.

o St. Mary’s Church is the largest wood church in the province and is renowned for its acoustics. Located near Cavendish in Kensington, it hosts the Indian River Festival with world-class vocalists and musicians. It attracts tourists and singers the world over, as well as worshippers every Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m.

o The Chez Shea Inn and Spa is a former convent only minutes from the Confederation Bridge. We’ve never stayed overnight at the beautiful old three-storey building, but are told it is spiritually rejuvenating, although perhaps not as healing as the Sisters of St. Martha who used to reside there. Its grounds are peaceful amid a colourful and fragrant garden.  

A quick word about the P.E.I. lobster suppers; they are no longer run by church councils or CWL members. They are run by for-profit businesses in a few churches and restaurant halls. If you love lobster, they are worth checking out but the ambiance is more like a restaurant than an old-fashioned church supper.

I am sure there are plenty more Catholic sites in P.E.I. and I expect to find more during our future visits.

Jesuit Father James (Jim) Martin is quickly becoming one of my favourite religious writers and orators. And the more I read of his works or watch his talks on TV and the Internet, the more impressed I become.

This American Jesuit thinks clearly, speaks and writes directly, and best of all, he is funny, although he has serious messages. (He is the official chaplain of Comedy Network’s The Colbert Report where he sometimes appears.) He is a populist who endeavours to make Catholicism ever more popular.

If you’re looking for summer reading, Fr. Martin has several best-selling books, including My Life With the Saints, A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Centre Stage with Jesus, Judas and Life’s Big Questions, and the Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything.

They say you can’t teach old dogs new tricks, and that may be so.

But there is something special about an old dog, and he (or she) can often teach an owner a thing or two. Puppies are adorable, but old dogs are like comfortable shoes that when slipped on can sometimes walk us to unexpected places.

(If you’re not a pet lover, I implore you to stop reading immediately and move onto something else in The Register. These meanderings from a sappy dog lover will only frustrate you.)

Should the Canadian-owned racehorse I’ll Have Another pull off one of the rarest feats in sports next weekend and win the Triple Crown, I am sure it will evoke a memory of Holy Cross Elementary School in east-end Toronto and an affable nun who used to be the principal.

I’ll Have Another is the plucky thoroughbred owned by Windsor, Ont., native J. Paul Reddam and ridden by an underdog jockey named Mario Gutierrez, who earned his spurs at the racing outpost known as Hastings Park in Vancouver.

They say you can learn more about a person on the golf course than you can in a business meeting or a social setting. And I believe it.

Love it or hate it, golf has this magical quality of exposing fabrics of your personality very quickly to strangers. Sometimes these traits can be pleasant, or quirky, or annoying, or worse.

If you’re a golfer and have been paired with a stranger on the first tee, you know what I am talking about. From that first tee ball to the first green, before the first putt falls into the hole, often you can tell if it will be a long day or not. (Believe it or not, I have played golf with priests — an occupation not altogether unfamiliar with the game — who made for a long day and I knew it quickly! Most priests, however, are a delight to play with.)

The other day, I finished a terrific page-turner and then picked up the newspaper to read about the latest attacks on the Christian faith, this time in Saskatchewan. They were two seemingly unrelated things that really got me thinking, searching deep down.

The book is best-seller Unbroken written by Laura Hillenbrand about a courageous American airman during the Second World War. If you’ve not read it, pick it up because it’s difficult to put down. But let’s talk about Saskatchewan first.

No doubt, some people will be offended by this column. Seems whatever is said about Catholicism offends someone these days. Even the most benign comment is challenged. Instead of listening to and discussing other points of view, there is a tendency to shout at those who see things differently.

Think I am exaggerating? Take a quick spin on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and elsewhere and you’ll easily find the shouting, name-calling and misunderstandings. (Just Google “Catholic faith arguments” or “contraception” or “women priests” as starting points and then simply click away.)

There has been much fuss recently about ancient burial boxes and whether the bones of Jesus remain here on Earth.

In March, an Israeli antiquities collector was acquitted of forgery charges concerning a Roman-era burial box inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” If genuine, the ossuary could be a direct link to Jesus and His family.

And next week, Vision TV will air The Jesus Discovery, a documentary by Toronto filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici that claims to cast new light on the Resurrection. It bills itself as: “Part archeological adventure, part biblical history, part forensic science, part theological controversy, The Jesus Discovery is a story that will carry around the world.”

The British government’s flagrant insult to the cross is more than a religious issue. Though it is clearly anti-Christian, it is yet another example of chipping away at Western society and the ideals that make it the envy of the world.

People from all over the world for years have flocked to Western democracies to experience freedom, raise families and live better lives. And, for the most part, the West has welcomed them with open arms. There has been discrimination, but in the larger scheme of things, rising tides lift all boats and as newcomers arrive, our society rises with them.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, when it comes to human rights violations and protecting religious freedoms, Israel is the worst country in the Middle East — except for all the rest.