Story by Debra Smith
LOURDES, NEWFOUNDLAND & LABRADOR — With an ”eeny meeny miny mo,” Sheldon Greene picked the ace of spades and flung his arms in the air at the packed parish hall in a tiny Newfoundland town that had become famous for its seemingly never-ending lottery.
It took 44 weeks — almost an entire year — before a participant chose the ace of spades, thereby ending the game of chance. With each passing week, the deck of cards was reduced by one while both the pot and the attention grew. When Greene selected the winner on August 16, the ace of spades was one of only eight cards remaining. His $329,000 win ended the Chase the Ace lottery, pleasing both himself and most of the volunteers who endured one of the most unusual and spontaneous attractions to arise in Canada.
“We’re glad our backs will be getting a break,” said Odilia Hall, one of the 30 volunteers who worked the event over the entire 44 weeks. “We counted over $156,000 of ticket sales in three hours by hand. We couldn’t believe it. Sweat was just pouring off you and you daren’t look up for fear of losing count.”
Hall and the other volunteers were pleased that Greene was one of their own, from the tight-knit community of Lourdes, with a population of 497. The lottery’s success had drawn people from across the province to Lourdes each Sunday. In total more than $500,000 was raised for the parish during the 10-month lottery. The lottery was set up as a weekly draw with a twist — the winner, who received 20 per cent of the pot each week, was given the chance to cut the cards to see if he or she could pull the ace of spades and win the prize amount accumulated from the outset of the game. As the weeks went on and no grand-prize winner was found, interest in the lottery exploded across the region, and so did the money received by the parish.
Long before the Chase the Ace lottery brought national attention to their town in Western Newfoundland, before 44 weeks of lineups, jammed parking lots and the arrival of inquiring TV reporters, a small group of volunteers had quietly started work on a very special site next to the church, the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Lottery Turns Parish Into an Attraction
It began in 1987. A local stonemason, Michael Flavin, offered to carve a grotto into a natural outcrop of rock near the parish church.
Inspired by the famous site in Lourdes, France, where the Virgin Mary had appeared to a young girl, he built a series of terraces and niches, creating a place for reflection and devotion. The Catholic Women’s League of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish began raising funds, adding life-size statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus the Redeemer. Then came a walkway, benches and, later, delicately carved Stations of the Cross. A rosary made of donated fishing buoys provides a nautical link between the parish and the sea.
Finally, a Memory Walk surrounds the site with 87 posts and plaques commemorating parishioners who have passed on. According to Sylvia Radford-Smith, current Chair of Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto Committee, the grotto continues to draw the community together.
Every morning from May to August, the eight members of the committee (seven retired teachers and one retired from the military) are out in the grotto, refreshing the flowers and tending to the landscaping. Visitors from the rest of Newfoundland and beyond are welcome.
“People stop by the grotto for their own personal reasons and we respect that. Sometimes they’re simply looking for a peaceful place to be with their own thoughts,” says Radford-Smith.
The members take it in turn to bring sandwiches and dessert for the group and if you happen to be there when they stop for lunch, you’re welcome to join them.
“We get people coming from all over the world and they can’t believe it when we take them in and feed them. I’ve had people say, ‘You just made our visit.’ And then there are a lot of folks from Quebec coming to research their ancestors. They’ll sit with us and they don’t speak a word of English and we don’t speak a word of French, but we get along just fine. Everyone understands coffee and pineapple squares.”
Lourdes is one of many picturesque fishing villages on the 125 kilometres (78 miles) French Ancestors Route that circles the Port au Port Peninsula. Descendants of early French emigrants still celebrate their heritage in many summer festivals in the area that feature traditional music, singers and dancers. Photographers will spot unique sea vistas at every turn and rockhounds will finding rare geological sites all along the route. Lead Cove holds a limestone column of rare 350-million-year-old fossils and the waterfall and trails of Sheaves Cove overlooking the ocean are a hidden treasure that’s well worth a stop. Notable attractions in the region include Gros Morne National Park, about a three-hour drive from Lourdes, and the city of Corner Brook, two hours by car north of the village.
Despite the increase in visitors, the community hasn’t changed its friendly way of life.
“People are always surprised that we don’t lock the church,” Radford-Smith says. “We put up a sign to say that folks are welcome to use the washrooms and the kitchen too if they’ve brought a lunch and the weather isn’t looking good.”
In the same trusting spirit, there is a tiny gift shop that runs on the honour system, selling rosary beads, “angel of the highway” keychains, small statues and other mementoes. There’s a cash can by the door. The grotto will not be benefitting directly from the Chase the Ace lottery.
“We don’t want it to turn into too much of a good thing. Our committee was partly formed to encourage people to come to the grotto. And if you visit the gift shop, don’t forget to take your change,” says Radford-Smith with a smile.