Up to 40,000 Catholics typically take part in 100-year-old pilgrimage
CBC News · Posted: Jul 24, 2021 4:20 PM MT | Last Updated: July 24
Tens of thousands of people from across the country are gathering virtually this week in search of healing and spiritual renewal.
In any normal year up to 40,000 Catholics would descend on the shores of Lac Ste. Anne, west of Edmonton, to bathe in the water that many believe has the power to heal.
The tradition of the Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage began more than 100 years ago and has developed into one of the largest gatherings of Indigenous Catholics in Canada.
The decision to hold the event virtually for the second year in a row was made months ago, before the province announced it would be relaxing COVID-19 health restrictions.
‘We do not want any outbreaks’
Father Susai Jesu has taken part in the pilgrimage for more than a decade and is on the organizing committee.
He said they felt it was important to be as cautious as possible with the pandemic still lingering.
“Children are vulnerable, lots of elders will be coming,” he said. “We do not want any outbreaks.”
Jesu will be onsite offering a final blessing in Cree and English later this week.
He said while there’s no programming at the lake this year and pilgrims aren’t able to drive in, no one will be turned away if they do make the journey.
“People come with a faith. A deeper faith that is being honoured. So you walk in, you’ll have your time to pray, go to the lake, take the water. Those people, we are letting them do that because it matters a lot,” he said.
For the thousands expected to take in online programming, there will be a variety of prayer sessions and masses as well as musical performances daily until Wednesday.
Despite the recent discoveries of unmarked graves at several former residential school sites across western Canada, one thing Jesu said won’t be on the agenda is any dedicated discussion on the issue.
“At this time we don’t want to divert anything from the heart to the mind,” he said.
Jesu said religious leaders are just content to listen and offer support if needed.
“People are really looking for solidarity and nothing else. We are with you at this time.
“We are here in person for anyone who came here with their questions so definitely it’s a humbling experience for me, personally.”
Jesu said plans are in the works to address the legacy of residential schools next year, when pilgrims are once again expected to gather at the lake in person.
This year’s Lac Ste Anne Pilgrimage is once again going online.
The five-day pilgrimage which attracts thousands of mostly indigenous people from across Canada will be strictly spiritual and not physical. The year’s pilgrimage July 24-28 will held online in an effort to maintain social distancing, protect pilgrims — many of whom are elderly or in poor health — and avoid the spread of COVID-19.
The pilgrimage site, west of Edmonton, is closed. There will be no camping or on-site visits.
Instead, organizers hope to keep alive the enduring spirit of the healing and spiritual renewal pilgrimage with a virtual Lac Ste Anne event that includes livestreamed Masses celebrated by bishops from Alberta and the Northwest Territories, video messages, and other programming.
While pilgrims won’t be able to be on site, some of the most important aspects of the event will remain.
This year’s pilgrimage will begin with a welcome from the Alexis Nakota First Nation, healing prayers by the lake and a blessing of the lake by members of the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton. Sacred Heart Church is the national parish for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people, meaning that anyone with Indigenous ancestry is considered a parishioner.
The events include Mass from Behchoko, N.W.T. celebrated by Bishop Jon Hansen of the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith and Mass from St. Bernard Mission in Grouard, Alta., 300 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, celebrated by Archbishop Gerard Pettipas of the Grouard-McLennan Archdiocese.
The Alexis Nakota Sioux First Nation call it Wakamne, or “God’s Lake,” and to the Cree it’s Manito Sahkahigan or “Spirit Lake.” Lac Ste Anne is renowned for its healing waters and for its spiritual significance to Indigenous people well before Catholic missionaries arrived in Alberta.
In 1844, Rev. Jean-Baptiste Thibault, a priest and missionary, dedicated the lake to St. Anne, the mother of Mary and grandmother of Christ. Grandparents play a significant role in First Nations families, raising children and passing faith and spirituality from one generation to the next.
In 1889, the first annual pilgrimage was arranged by Fr. Joseph Lestanc, who was inspired by a visit to the St. Anne d’Aurey shrine in Brittany, France. The feast day of St. Anne is July 26.
The Lac Ste Anne Pilgrimage is directed and operated under the LSA Trust of which Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith is chairperson.
In a normal year, an estimated 35,000 people make a pilgrimage to the lake.
“Water is a lifegiving source,” Father Jesu said. “This water, this lake, because St. Anne blesses it through her intercession and prayer, becomes a holy lake and holy water. The faith is what heals them.”
Pilgrims would set up tents and motorhomes on the site, and wade into and take water from Lac Ste Anne.
hey come to wade into the lake, and take some of the water home, for its healing powers. Many of them come in wheelchairs, on crutches and stretchers, hoping for healing both physical and spiritual.
Father LaBoucane took his first dip into the healing waters of the lake when he was just 10 months old.
As a child, Father LaBoucane was sick with the skin condition eczema at the time, he said, and his parents brought him to the lake for healing, with positive results.
The healing that normally comes with the pilgrimage will take a different form this year.
One of the online events include pilgrims pledging that they will give up smoking, drinking or other ills.
Archbishop Emeritus Sylvain Lavoie of Keewatin-Le Pas will be asking pilgrims online to make those pledges in silence and, if they are able, to hold a lit candle in their hand. Archbishop Lavoie will then pray for those making pledges to Christ instead of laying hands on them.
“Bishop will be asking them to hold a candle and make their pledge,” Father Jesu said. “You are promising before the light, who is Jesus Himself.”
Father Jesu acknowledges that watching the pilgrimage online is not the same as being there in person.
“It’s going to be tough for them. This COVID situation is even affecting Lac Ste Anne,” Jesu said. “It’s a different way of worshipping, a different way of praying, this year because of the pandemic. The Lac Ste Anne pilgrimage has not stopped. It’s a change of programming that has taken place.”
“That’s why it’s so important that we make a special intention to St. Anne, that wherever you are, you think of her and pray that the intercession of St. Anne and St. Joachim will come upon them.”
A pilgrimage by definition, is a journey, and while pilgrims can’t be with each other physically, Father Jesu said they can connect with each other, with St. Anne and St. Joachim – the father of Mary and the grandfather of Christ – and with their faith spiritually.
“A pilgrimage is that you keep a specific intention to the Lord,” Father Jesu said. “You are not going to be there, but yet you make pilgrimage because in spirit you can pray to St. Anne. ‘St. Anne, St. Joachim I’m not able to be there but intercede for me for whatever I need.’”
Alberta’s chief public health officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, has also recommended the cancellation of large-scale, in-person events this year in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Statement of Archbishop Richard W. Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton Regarding the Lac Ste Anne Pilgrimage 2020
In view of the COVID-19 pandemic, and following upon the counsel of the Chief Medical Officer of the Province of Alberta, the Board of Trustees of the Lac Ste Anne Pilgrimage Site today unanimously made the decision to cancel the 2020 pilgrimage.
It is the first time in living memory such a decision is taken. This is a very sad and difficult one to make, but at the same time necessary. Over the course of a few days there can be as many as 30,000 people come on pilgrimage to the Lac Ste Anne site, many of whom are elderly or of poor health. We simply cannot hold this event when we know that doing so would risk the health and possibly the life of the people who participate.
Let’s turn at this moment to Good Ste. Anne. She has a special love for us, and we for her. Our tradition of going to her in prayer when we need healing dates back generations. Let’s ask now for her intercession that this pandemic come to an end, and that God’s blessings come upon all who are ill with the virus, their families and all who care for them.
Good Ste. Anne, pray for us!
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith Archbishop of Edmonton Chair, Lac Ste. Anne Board of Trustees