First called Wakamne (or “God’s Lake”) by the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation who live on the west end of the Lake and Manito Sahkahigan (or “Spirit Lake”) by the Cree, the lake was called “Lac Ste Anne” by Rev. Jean-Baptiste Thibault, the first Catholic priest to establish a mission on the site. The pilgrimage grounds had been sacred for generations of peoples and had become widely known as a place of healing.
According to Alexis’ oral history, a long time ago a charismatic Nakota chief from the south-east followed his vision and led his people to the shores of the sacred lake Wakamne (God’s Lake – Lac Ste Anne). Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation people lived on the site long before the arrival of European fur traders and settlers. The lake and the surrounding area is rich in natural resources and during the early fur trade it used to supply Fort Edmonton with fish. To this day, it remains a spiritual centre celebrated during each annual pilgrimage.
Father Lestanc organized the first annual pilgrimage to Ste Anne in July, 1889 after an inspirational visit to St. Anne d’Aurey shrine in French Brittany the previous year. Over the years the Lac Ste Anne pilgrimage has continued on an annual basis and always during the week of July 26 (the feast day of Ste Anne, mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary). The grandmother figure has a very strong importance within aboriginal culture.
The annual Pilgrimage in honor of Saint Anne is one of the most unique and memorable spiritual gatherings in North America.
Founded in 1887 by missionaries of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate this historic event today draws as many as 40,000 pilgrims. The pilgrimage is especially close to the hearts of many First Nations people who attend faithfully each year.
The pilgrimage site is located on the shores of beautiful Lac Ste Anne in Alberta, Canada about 45 miles west of Edmonton.
In 1841 a local Métis named Piché asked Bishop Provencher in far-off St. Boniface to send a priest to live among them. Priests were scarce. Bishop Provencher had only four priests to minister to a territory that stretched from Ontario to the Rocky Mountains. Still, the next spring he sent Father Jean-Baptiste Thibault to make an exploratory trip of over 1,400 kilometers.
In 1844, a small shack was built to house Fr. Thibault and a young priest named Joseph Bourassa. Fr. Thibault immediately blessed the lake and called it “Lac Ste Anne”. This was in fulfillment of a promise he had made to give her name to the first mission he would ‘father’. It was the first permanent Catholic mission west of Winnipeg.
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate are a society of Catholic missionaries. Founded in France in the early 1800’s, they are especially dedicated to preach the Gospel to the poorest of the poor and to serve in the most difficult of missions. With the coming of the Oblates, such as Father Lacombe, the Mission enjoyed a period of great growth and importance. These men quickly gained a reputation for bravery, goodness and holiness. In plagues, they cared for the sick and comforted the dying, asking nothing in return. They worked for peace between warring parties and brought an end to the fighting. They preached the Gospel everywhere and many came to believe in Christ.
After that first permanent mission was established iby Rev. Thibault and Rev. Bourassa, Father Remas and Father Lacombe began the service by Oblate missionaries in 1855 and the Oblates have continuously served the area ever since.
Father Remas especially had a reputation for great holiness. Once, when the men were fishing on the lake and suddenly threatened by a violent storm, their wives – fearing for their lives – ran to get Fr. Remas. The priest went to the shore and commanded the storm and the angry lake to be calm. He sprinkled it with holy water and immediately all became still.
By 1887, the buffalo had disappeared and the lake lost its importance as a gathering place. Most of the population moved away and the mission was almost deserted. Its pastor Father Lestanc then decided to close the mission. Then, on his first holiday back home to France in thirty years, he paid a visit to the Shrine of Ste Anne d’Auray.
He later related that while in prayer at this Shrine, God revealed to him in a powerful way that he must not close the mission. Rather, he must build a shrine there in honor of St. Anne, the grandmother of Jesus. It would be a place for pilgrims to come and receive spiritual help.
Fr. Lestanc was deeply moved. On his return, he lost no time in carrying out what God had revealed to him. The first pilgrimage was held in 1889 with several hundred attending. It soon became an annual event, drawing people from all directions and many nations.
In the early 1900’s the pilgrimage was attended by about 1000 pilgrims each year. Many came from St. Albert and the Morinville area.
The pilgrimage grew to a two day event. One day was especially for indigenous and Métis people, with the sermon preached in Cree, and the second day served the white population with services in English, French and often vespers in Polish. The white population included large groups from the French, English, Polish, and German communities and parishes.
Many priests attended the pilgrimage during these years. Upwards of 20 Oblate priests (most or all who spoke Cree) and often several Redemptorist and Diocesean priests as well.
Father Patrick Beaudry, OMI, a Cree-Métis priest from St. Albert and a gifted speaker, was a familiar figure at Lac Ste Anne from the time of his ordination in 1902 to his death in 1947. Father Patrick was responsible for ministry to Cree reserves in Northern Saskatchewan from 1929-1944. He also visited missionary posts along the Grand Trunk Railway, preaching in French, English, and Cree, while building churches and rectories. He was in great demand to preach retreats and missions.
Father Pierre Lebre, OMI, a contemporary of Father Beaudry from 1906-1947, is known as Ste Anne’s greatest apostle and builder, serving 15 years as director of the LSA parish as well as 33 years in the adjacent parish of Riviere Qui Barre and St. Albert.
In 1918 Father Beaudry, OMI, a frequent traveler on the Grand Trunk Railway, obtained a special train from Edmonton and other points. One day was set aside for all other nationalities, so a special train brought a number of pilgrims from Edmonton (WCR 1925) and another train ran from St. Albert, Morinville and Legal. This train service continued until 1936. The trains brought over 2,000 pilgrims to LSA.
A road was built in 1926 making it possible to come by car. However, even into the 1940’s, the road could turn to mud and become impassable.
In 1926, 2500 indigenous and Métis pilgrims and 3000 more white pilgrims attended the pilgrimage. Pilgrims came from Lac La Biche, Cold Lake, Lesser Slave Lake, Fort Vermillion, Wabasca, Grand Prairie, Île-à-la-Crosse, Peace River, Fond Du Lac, Wainwright, southern Alberta, Onion Lake, and Meadow Lake in Saskatchewan.
The pilgrims included people from Cree, Montagnais, Assiniboine, Chipewyan, Beaver, Sarcee, and Blackfoot nations. They traveled mostly by trail in a traditional manner. Often the journey of the pilgrimage and back home took two months. A mass was held in Cree.
By the 1950’s, pilgrims were starting to come from as far away as Wabasca, Frog Lake, Prince Albert, Beauval, Buffalo Narrows, Cluny, Cardston, Montana, California, and Southern Carolina.
Attendance continued to grow with about 4,500 in 1938 and over 6,000 pilgrims in 1950.
1950 – 1970
In order to bring even more pilgrims, it was decided to change the date of the pilgrimage for the white population from a Thursday to a Sunday afternoon.
Father Patrice Mercredi, OMI, a Métis-Cree from Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca, continued in the footsteps of Father Beaudry, visiting and preaching in communities situated along the Northern Alberta Railway between Waterways and Lac La Biche (Fort McMurray, Gregoire Lake, Philomena, Janvier, Conklin) and at Lac Ste. Anne. A gifted speaker, Mercredi also composed Cree hymns and directed the choir at the pilgrimage.
During these decades, approximately 10,000 people attended the annual two day event. This was the result of the building of good roads in the 1950’s.
The 1980s Renewal
In the 1980’s, Father Jacque Johnson was assisted by Colin Levangie and Father Fred Groleau, and Father Gilles Gauthier assumed the leadership of the pilgrimage. The program was changed from the two-day format, expanding to a full five-day program. The pilgrimage now opened on Saturday afternoon, programming was added to the Monday and Tuesday, and a closing ceremony was added on the Thursday.
Cree, English, and French — the languages used from the very beginning, were enhanced by adding more aboriginal languages, increasing in number over the years as participation became broader and wider.
A new shrine which could seat up to 4000 people was built in the early 1980’s. Significant improvements were made to the grounds, sidewalks, washrooms. A shower building was added, and new stations of the Cross were built with paintings by Alex Twinn.
A volunteer center (added in 1990) and a sleeping complex for volunteers (added in 1997) were brought in from the closed Kitsamanito center in Grouard.
The Jubilee Year
The Oblates of Grandin under the leadership of its Provincial Father Camille Piché began in 1999 to seek new ways to operate the pilgrimage in full communion with the baptized lay Catholics. There were several discussions and dialogues about what that new partnership should look like.
On July 26, 2000, in the year of the great Jubilee, the Missionary Oblates made a public declaration of intention to enter into a new partnership with the aboriginal people to own, direct, and operate the Lac Ste Anne Pilgrimage.
The Oblates invited individuals who shared these beliefs and who supported the mission and vision of the LSA pilgrimage to ensure that the legacy and sacredness of the pilgrimage site continues for generations yet unborn. To make this happen, lay individuals were added to the Board of the LSA organization to help plan the annual pilgrimage.
The LSA Trust was established in July 2003. (A trust is a legal structure whereby the Trustees are obligated to manage the assets within the objects of the Trust documents). The Oblates transferred the lands and the operating company to this Trust.
The Trust is composed of three First Nations Catholics (from Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories), one Métis Catholic, the Provincial of the Oblates (or his designate), and the Archbishop of Edmonton. The mission of the trust is to:
- Encourage and support aboriginal people to direct and operate the Pilgrimage
- To preserve, enhance, strengthen, and facilitate the spiritual nature of the Pilgrimage, its site and facilities
- To provide an environment where all peoples may express their Catholic faith
- To promote growth and healing in all stages of life
- To invite individuals, who share the beliefs and who support the mission and vision of the Pilgrimage, to ensure that the legacy and sacredness of the Pilgrimage site continues for generations yet unborn
The Board and the Trust have often been called a remarkable phenomenon by many aware of non-profit charitable governance structures. It is the only such board in Canada where several First Nations, Métis and Catholic volunteer board members and trustees meet as equal partners toward a common event.
The Pilgrimage Today
One of the first actions of the Board and the Trust was to apply to have the pilgrimage grounds declared a national historic site by the Government of Canada. This approval occurred in 2004 and a plaque unveiling was planned for 2007.
Today, over 4,000 individuals camp on the site and up to 30,000 pilgrims attend the weekly events. The program includes three daily Eucharistic Services each hosted by different Communities. These communities usually include: The Lac Ste Anne parish, The Alexis and Paul Bands, Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples (national aboriginal parish – Edmonton), the Métis Nation of Alberta, The Blackfoot (rotated among the various parishes), the Cree of Northern Alberta (e.g. Wabasca), the Dene and Dogrib from the Northwest Territories, and often aboriginal communities from Northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Spiritual Director since 2002
Father Garry LaBoucane, born in Red Deer, Alberta, was ordained in 1984 at Lac Ste. Anne. He is the Chair of Program member of the Lac Ste Anne Pilgrimage board. Father Garry has served the community as a pastor at Grouard, Joussard, St. Albert, Sacred Heart of the First Peoples, Saddle Lake, and Slave Lake. He is the oldest of six children in his family and has attended the Pilgrimage since he was a baby.
Each year, we have chosen a theme for the Pilgrimage. Sometimes, the theme followed an idea from the Holy Father. For instance, when the late Pope John Paul II came to Canada for the World Youth Day, we used the theme of being the Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World. That was the theme of WYD in Toronto. Since then, however, we are emphasizing one of the sacraments as a theme for each year. Themes have been about the Sacraments of Baptism, Holy Eucharist and especially Reconciliation. Over time we cover all the Sacraments.
From these humble beginnings the pilgrimage today has grown into one of the most unique spiritual events in North America. The lake once again became a place of meeting, a place where once traditional enemies now gather as friends under the Sign of the Cross. As many as 30,000 people attend on any single day. Here the old and the new are blended together. It is possible to see racks of meat and fish drying alongside modern campers and motor-homes. And always, in the background, the sound of hymns and prayers and worship.