By Clint Buehler
LAC STE. ANNE, AB – They still come by the thousands—an estimated 50,000 this year—from across western Canada and the northwestern United States.
They walk and hitchhike, ride bicycles and motorcycles, drive in clunkers and fancy SUVs, and some come on horseback or by horse and wagon.
They camp in lean-tos and tents, in the back of pickups and in tent trailers, in travel trailers and fancy motorhomes.
They come for physical and spiritual healing in the mythical waters of the lake, to worship, to visit and reminisce, to cavort in the lake’s waters and to frolic on the beach.
They come to the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage, overwhelmingly Aboriginal pilgrims, to one of the largest gatherings of Aboriginal people in North America. And they’ve been coming for hundreds of years.
Religious services are Catholic-focused, although some services are in Aboriginal languages and such Aboriginal spiritual customs such as smudging with sweetgrass have been included.
The pilgrims seek physical and spiritual healing in the waters of the lake, at the Masses held three times a day at the shrine on the site, at the Stations of the Cross and at the statue of Ste. Anne.
A highlight of the Pilgrimage each year is the Holy Eucharist Blessing of Lac Ste. Anne in which the waters of the lake are blessed, recalling new life, received in baptism, the waters becoming a source of blessing for all believers. The pilgrims then wade into the water, the faithful believing the waters will cleanse their souls and heal them spiritually and physically.
Before the arrival of Europeans, before the arrival of the Roman Catholic Church, First Peoples from across the Northwest would gather, usually during buffalo hunting season, on the western shore of what the Cree then called Manito Sakahigan (God’s Lake or Spirit Lake), believing it was blessed and offered spiritual and physical healing.
Cree, Dene, Stoney, Blackfoot, Metis and others, the many different tribes would gather—even those who were traditional enemies—setting aside their differences for healing, trading, friendly competitions and social events.
In 1843, Father Jean-Baptiste Thibault, an Oblate missionary, arrived in the area and set about converting the Native people gathered there. It was he who changed the name of the lake and established the Catholic imprint on the pilgrimage in honor of Ste. Anne, the Mother of Mary and the patron saint of the Oblates.
A small log church was built, but when it was destroyed by fire, Fr. Thibault returned to nearby St. Albert, the most populated centre in the area, and with a large Metis and First Nations population. He expected his congregation to follow him, but they did not.
The Oblates attempted to establish a Pilgrimage with its Aboriginal converts in 1880, with little success. It was not until 1889 that the Pilgrimage became an annual Catholic event, with the number of pilgrims increasing over the years until they regularly numbered in the tens of thousands in the last half of the twentieth century, and into this century.
The furor over residential school abuses, and the potential for lawsuits as a result, were of concern because the Lac Ste. Anne site was owned by the Oblates, and they were among those being accused of residential school abuse.
This was of particular concern to Aboriginal leaders who felt the Pilgrimage was a vital part of the life of their people. They feared if successful lawsuits were launched against the Oblates, the prime lakeside property on the shore of Lac Ste. Anne could be seized and sold to developers. (There is already significant development of lakeshore properties near the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage site.)
Charles Wood and other concerned Native leaders were able to negotiate with the Oblates. who were fully cooperative, to transfer the title for the land to a newly-created Lac Ste. Anne Trust, which Wood now co-chairs with Oblaste Fr. Camille Piche.
The actual management of the Pilgrimage and the site is handled by the Lac Ste. Anne Management Board chaired by local long-time resident Murleen Crossen.
The transfer from the Oblates has brought a sense of security, underscored by the site being designated a National Historic Site by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada as “an important place of spiritual, cultural and social rejuvenation, central aspects of summer gatherings of Aboriginal people.”