Where Vikings Mingled with Missionaries


Canada's Viking Trail marks the site of the arrival of Viking explorers 1,000 years ago, nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus made his momentous voyage. For the Catholic traveler, the Viking Trail means the region in which Christianity first came to the New World.

Located on the northwestern shore of Newfoundland, along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada's Viking Trail marks the site of the arrival of Viking explorers 1,000 years ago. Here, nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus made his momentous voyage, Norseman Leif (the Lucky) Ericson became one of the first Europeans to set foot on North American soil.

In the 1960s, a group of archaeologists uncovered evidence of Ericson's arrival in Newfoundland after an arduous voyage from Greenland.

For the Catholic traveler, the Viking Trail means the region in which Christianity first came to the New World. It is also believed that, following his conversion from Viking paganism to Christianity, Ericson was charged with bringing his new faith to the indigenous people he encountered in the new territory. By the year 1,000, Viking colonists on Iceland had embraced Christianity. From there, the mission spirit spread to Greenland and later to the shores of Newfoundland.

Much of the original Viking settlement is based at L'Anse-aux-Meadows on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula. However, the entire region, from L'Anse-aux-Meadows in the north, to Gros Mome National Park, holds a wealth of geological and historic wonders.

In addition to the region's historical significance, western Newfoundland features a number of natural attractions not found in the rest of the North American continent. Among these are Old Fjord Lake, with its steep cliff overhangs, and the Long Range Plateau, home to caribou, moose and other Arctic wildlife.


According to historians and archaeologists, the Vikings encamped at L'Anse-aux-Meadows, from which they explored the land they called Vinland and Markland. Pilgrims and visitors can experience Norse culture at the l'Anse-aux-Meadows National Historic Site, which the United Nations declared a world heritage site in 1978. The site features an interpretation center and a rustic reconstructed village. Costumed "Vikings" who demonstrate Norse cooking, blacksmithing and other aspects of their lifestyle are a colorful part of the presentation.

Throughout the millennium year, L'Anse-aux-Meadows National Historic Site will be the focal point of a number of special events. In addition, the communities throughout the entire Viking Trail region, which includes the Northern Peninsula and Southern Labrador, will hold a series of regional activities.

The Catholic Diocese of St. George's, Newfoundland, as well as the neighboring Labrador City Schefferville Diocese, have encouraged Catholics to visit the Viking Trail as a millennium-year pilgrimage (though it should be taken into account that the nearest official Jubilee pilgrimage site is the Cathedral of the Holy Redeemer in the Corner Brook, a six hour drive from the Viking Trail).

One group taking advantage of the area's religious offerings will be led by Father J.P Horrigan, head of Canadian Jesuits International. Father Horrigan will lead a group of 30 pilgrims on a June 30-July 16 tour of the Viking Trail. The group will set out from Toronto and spend the 16 days touring the sites and celebrating Masses and twilight retreats.

"The rationale for the pilgrimage is celebrate the Christian heritage in our country," says Father Horrigan. "There is a verified presence of Christianity arriving on this site from 1,000 years ago."

Father Horrigan says many North Americans assume that Christianity came to North America with Columbus, or with the missionary activities of Jesuit priests in New France in the 17th century. He adds that a study of Norse adventures indicates a much earlier arrival of Christianity on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to visiting the various attractions along the Viking Trail, the Horrigan group will visit St. Anthony, Newfoundland, home of a medical and religious missionary, Sir Wilfrid Grenville. The tour will head west for the second leg of the pilgrimage visiting Trinity, home of the oldest wooden church in Newfoundland, and the Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Newfoundland's capital city, St, John's.

First Baptisms?

Mark McCarthy, operator of a St. John's-based tour group, says the Viking settlements have inspired renewed interest among Catholic pilgrims this year. "Theologians enjoy the concept of the first Christians arriving in North America with the Vikings and perhaps performing the first baptisms in the New World," he notes, "It is written in the records of the time that a priest on a voyage to Vinland baptized two native children in Markland."

McCarthy says the sites visited by Father Horrigan's group have special significance in the development of Christianity and Catholicism in North America. The Viking arrival brought the first Christians to the New World as Leif the Lucky had adopted Christianity and had a priest accompany him to Vinland.

Bishop Douglas Crosby of the Labrador City-Schefferville Diocese tells the Register that the local church had studied the possibility of organizing a youth pilgrimage to the Viking site. "We were hoping to raise a cross in the Viking style in L'Anse-aux-Meadows," Bishop Crosby says, "but logistical problems caused us to cancel those plans. We were disappointed because it is close to many of our parishioners. As well, the Vikings landed first in Labrador, and because the first baptisms in North America took place here, we are very interested in the Viking celebrations in L'Anse-aux-Meadows. Sadly, there will be nothing here in the Labrador portion of the province.

Although official pilgrimage plans fell through, Bishop Crosby acknowledges the faith dimension of the Viking Trail as a travel destination in the year 2000. Similarly, Bishop Richard Lahey of the St. George's diocese believes the Vikings rudimentary efforts to evangelize in the area make it well worth a visit.

The Viking Trail, may be an ideal option for the Catholic traveler looking for an international Jubilee pilgrimage that doesn't require a flight across an ocean.


Mike Mastromatteo. "Where Vikings Mingled with Missionaries." National Catholic Register. (May 14-20, 2000).

Reprinted by permission of the National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.


Mike Mastromatteo writes from Toronto.

Copyright © 2000 National Catholic Register

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