WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Aaron Half of saddle Lake Reserve takes sacred lake water home to share with his mother.
LAC ST. ANNE — For Roberta Beaulieu, the Lac St. Anne Pilgrimage is a family tradition. She's been coming since she was a little girl.
The 30-year-old Metis woman is familiar with the grounds, the shrine and the lake and she feels comfortable in the surroundings. She's proud of the fact the priest who runs the pilgrimage is a relative. Getting a blessing from him is a big thing for her.
Over the years, Beaulieu has heard of people recovering from terminal illnesses after dipping themselves in the water. Others have been able to throw away their canes and walk on their own after going in the sacred waters. She doesn't know what to make of those stories but she believes the water has the power to heal.
"What we usually do is when the lake is blessed, we take a couple of bottles of water home and throughout the year when you are not feeling so good or you want to pray you use the water to bless yourself."
Beaulieu lives and works in Grande Prairie but her family lives in Paddle Prairie Metis Settlement just south of High Level.
Her grandparents began the pilgrimage tradition decades ago and Beaulieu happily continues it.
Sitting on a bench in front of the statue of St. Anne, Jesus' grandma, Beaulieu, dressed in black, prayed under the hot sun with her eyes closed July 16, the first day of the pilgrimage.
"I pray to God and Jesus and then I say a little prayer like a Hail Mary and I ask for her blessings," she explained. "It's like a Catholic thing; you don't just pray to one saint."
She has heard St. Anne "landed on some rock" on the lake. "So the thing we do every year is we go into the lake and try to find the rock. A couple of times I touched the rock and I felt her footprints in there."
WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Roberta Beaulieu prays before the statue of St. Anne and the child Mary.
As a teen, Beaulieu and family used to tent for the duration of the pilgrimage. Nowadays they spend the nights in the comfort and security of their new camper.
This year she travelled with her parents, her little niece and her mom's cousin who brought friends from Tucson, Ariz.
"I've been coming all my life. My parents used to bring us here every year but it was my grandparents who made it important to our family. Now that I'm a grownup, I keep coming for their memory and stuff."
Beaulieu said coming to the pilgrimage and attending Mass refreshes her for the year.
"Whatever troubles you have you just come here, get a blessing and then you start your year again," she said. "Then a lot of times you'll run into people you haven't seen for years. If you walk around, you will run into somebody you know."
Sitting on a picnic table across from the concession is Edmonton's Melinda Billette, her six-year-old daughter Santana and her son Troy, 17.
They have been coming faithfully for the past 10 years to pray, confess their sins and visit family. Normally they camp. This year they came July 16, the first day of the pilgrimage, for the day.
For the Billettes the pilgrimage is an opportunity to see relatives from other places. They have lots of family from different communities in Saskatchewan and they were anxiously awaiting their arrival.
Like many pilgrims, the Billettes dip themselves in the sacred waters of the lake and take some of it home to use for blessings and to give to family and friends.
Standing on the shore of the lake besides two jugs of water was Aaron Half of the Saddle Lake Reserve. He was watching his eight-year-old daughter, Serenity, in the water.
Half, a father of three, comes on a regular basis with different people and camps for the duration of the event. This year he came for the day to attend Mass and to help out his mother Angelique, 77, who is in a wheelchair.
"The attraction for me is basic faith, I guess," he says. "I believe the lake has healing powers but it's all based on belief."
Half says he and his mother use the sacred water of the lake for prayer and for drinking on special occasions, particularly when they are feeling down.
The theme for this year's pilgrimage is The Many Paths to Reconciliation. Different native communities and parishes hosted the various Masses celebrated at the shrine.
The roots of the pilgrimage date back to 1844 when Father Jean-Baptiste Thibault blessed the lake - then called Manito Sakahigan or Spirit Lake and renamed it in honour of St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. Before 1844, aboriginal families and clans and tribes were drawn to its shores for ceremonial summer gatherings.
Four hundred people attended the first pilgrimage 121 years ago. Now it is a major pilgrimage destination - the largest event of its kind in North America. This year an estimated 55,000 pilgrims, mostly aboriginal and Métis, were expected to make their way onto the pilgrimage site. An RCMP constable estimated that on July 17 alone there were 28,000 people on the site.