A tent city 40 thousand strong has been erected overnight on the shore of Lac St Anne in northern Alberta. First Nations People from across North America have been making this annual Pilgrimage for over a hundred years. They come from little known towns and cities, such as Hay River in the North West Territories and Gilliam, Manitoba. They arrive in rented motor homes and pickup trucks, driving long hours for days. Some make the journey in groups of horse drawn wagons, while others walk for months, barefoot and in solitude, for hundreds of kilometers.
The Pilgrimage at Lac St Anne has become the largest gathering of First Nations People in North America. Long ago the Cree and Métis who gathered on its shores in the summer for the buffalo hunt called it Spirit Lake. In 1844 the named changed and was blessed by Father Jean-Baptist Thibault. Lac St. Anne became the first Catholic mission west of Winnipeg. Even though the Buffalo eventually became depleted and populations moved on, First Nations People kept coming back. They came to visit the shrine of St Anne, renew their faith, seek healing from its waters and visit with old friends.
A unique fusion of Catholicism and traditional native culture blends together the grandmother of Jesus (St Anne) with the native grandmother Earth. The Holy Eucharist, held a few times each day during the event, begins with a traditional native smudging ceremony. I watch as the priest fans smoke from burning sweet grass, tobacco, sage and cedar over his person to cleanse his mind, spirit, body and soul. This happens in the huge shrine under a large hanging cross with a First Nations Jesus watching over.
Curley Eldred, of North Battleford Saskatchewan, arrived in his 1983 Mercury Grand Marquis. It’s his first pilgrimage to Lac St Anne, but Curley is not a newcomer to long road trips. He was a professional saddle bronc rider and enjoyed the fast paced life, traveling from one small town rodeo to the next. He is a wandering spirit who has been forced to sit still after a hometown rodeo ride snapped his spine in two places. He’s the oldest son of a medicine man and has come to the lake because he believes it will heal him. “Native traditions and the church are the same, there is only one creator. The tools we are given and how we choose to interpret them are what make us different.”
There are no shortages of miracles caused by the healing waters of the lake. A wall in the shrine is dedicated to such miracles, with hanging crutches and canes that are no longer needed. Twice during the week a large procession gathers and walks from the shrine to the lake. Thousands follow the priest and a cross bearer into the cool waters to bless the lake. Father Lobacon makes the first blessing of the lake and then patiently blesses each person with a wet hand to the forehead, one at a time. The lake fills with wading pilgrims holding rosaries and praying. It’s emotional for most; some weep openly while others emerge without a sound, in silent prayer.
I stand for a moment and watch the thousands of faithful slowly stirring through the waters. I’m up to my waist in the lake at this point. It’s nine in the evening and the sun is just starting to make its slow descent into the horizon. The Canadian summer sky is a soft shade of blue with warm accents of orange clouds. Twirling my hands through the smooth calm waters I wonder how many people have been healed by this same water.