The Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage, founded in 1887, is an event both colorful and religious.

WCR FILE PHOTO

The Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage, founded in 1887, is an event both colorful and religious.

June 23, 2014
CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Lac Ste. Anne is again preparing for one of the most unique and memorable spiritual gatherings in North America.

The annual Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage, set for July 19-24, is a time when pilgrims make their way to the shores of the lake, perhaps in search of healing or spiritual renewal. The pilgrimage began more than 100 years ago, and has developed into the largest annual Catholic gathering in Western Canada.

Roderick Alexis has been going to the pilgrimage ever since he was a child. He started out going there with his grandmother. In the background, he could always hear the sounds of hymns and prayers and joyful worship.

"I like the gathering and coming together, praying, singing and sharing. There used to be speakers all over the grounds, and you could hear them talk wherever you were.

"I think we have to go back to the old way where the speakers were always going. If you were sitting in your tent, you could hear somebody praying or preaching," said Alexis, who is the contact person for the vendors, cleanup and security at this year's event.

The old-timers enjoyed the ongoing lecturers throughout the campgrounds, he said. But these past few years the only prayers and praising one hears is within the shrine, and that's only once or twice daily.

The lake was first called Wakamne (God's Lake) by the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation who lives on the west side of the lake. It was called Manito Sahkigan (Spirit Lake) by the Cree.

"When I hear the old stories, it always talks about the Cree. But what about the people who live here? What about us? There is never any mention in history that we (Alexis Nakoda Sioux) were the first ones here," said Alexis.

FIRST BLESSING OF LAKE

In 1844, Father Jean-Baptiste Thibault blessed the lake and renamed it Lac Ste. Anne. It became the first permanent Catholic mission west of Winnipeg.

Since then, it has become an established meeting place for aboriginal peoples, and the lake has remained a popular Catholic pilgrimage site. Since 1889, First Nations and Métis people have travelled there in July to celebrate the feast of St. Anne, widely revered as the mother of Mary and the grandmother of Jesus, embodying the grandmother figure honoured in many Canadian aboriginal societies.

In 1876, Pope Pius IX declared Anne the patroness of Canada.

Today, as many as 40,000 pilgrims make their way to the shores of Lac Ste. Anne, situated about 75 km northwest of Edmonton, near Gunn and Alberta Beach. Here, the old and new are merged. It's common to see racks of meat and fish drying alongside modern campers and motorhomes.

For the second year, Oblate Father Leszek Kwiatkowski, pastor at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Enoch, is overseeing the pilgrimage. He said the pilgrimage has been revived and is much better organized with more people volunteering their services.

"When you have so many people working and helping, it's not as stressful as it was before. Even the chief agreed to close all of the offices and shut down all departments, and asked the workers to assist at the pilgrimage instead," said Kwiatkowski.

An annual highlight is the blessing of the lake. This year's blessing will be Sunday, July 20, after the 3 p.m. Mass. Kwiatkowski also underscored that a fellow Oblate will make his final vows at the pilgrimage.

PRIESTS NEEDED

A possible struggle this year will be finding enough priests to hear Confessions. The Oblates have always been there for Reconciliation, but they are an aging bunch, so Kwiatkowski hopes other archdiocesan priests will help out.

"Reconciliation is always an important ministry at the pilgrimage. Our Oblates from Saskatchewan and Manitoba, I know they're coming. But we invite more priests to come out, even if it's only for an hour or two. We always see big lineups for Confession," said Kwiatkowski.

"Many of the First Nations people who come to the pilgrimage don't have priests where they are, so only once a year they have an opportunity for Reconciliation and Masses and so forth."

ETHNIC GROUPS

Some people believe the pilgrimage is for aboriginal people only, but Kwiatkowski emphasized there's an open invitation to everyone. Large contingents of other ethnic groups, including Somalian families, East Indians, and Poles often attend.

Both Kwiatkowski and Alexis mentioned that some people complain about the admission price, not realizing that it offsets some of the costs to the community to host the event every summer.

"Some people have a problem with the admission charge because for so many years it was free. But the fee helps cover the costs of the pilgrimage. We have to pay for ambulances, portable toilets and other expenses. The money has to come from somewhere," said Kwiatkowski.

The cost is $5 a day or $20 a week.

The pilgrimage has strict rules. No weapons, alcohol, drugs, fireworks, open flames, furniture, golf carts, dirt bikes, and bicycles are permitted on the grounds. The curfew in the quiet area is 11 p.m. when all music and generators must be turned off.

"We have enough security, and this last year security was really good. One vendor said he didn't even have to put his merchandise away at night because the security was around all night keeping watch," said Alexis.

Campers and vendors will be permitted on the site as early as July 14. However, there is no guarantee of water and sewer services until the gates officially open July 19.

"Most people don't stay the whole five or six days anymore. They just come for a day or two, and they leave, and other people come. The older people like to stay the whole time, from Saturday to Thursday," said Alexis.