As she battled the aching pains of Stage 4 intestinal cancer, Evelyn Mercredi slowly lifted herself from her walker and stepped into the waters of Lac Ste. Anne expecting – and receiving – healing.
“I’ve been suffering so much, it was so hard just to come down here,” said Mercredi, a 79-year-old Dene woman who travelled nearly 2,000 kilometres from Fond du Lac, Sask., to experience the healing waters of the Alberta lake. “But now, I don’t feel any pain. I’m so happy to have gone into the lake.”
Mercredi is one of thousands of pilgrims from across Canada who have gathered for the 130th anniversary of Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage, which runs from July 20-25.
The Lac Ste. Anne site has been recognized by Indigenous people for thousands of years for its powers to heal and transform physical, mental and spiritual ailments. It was called God’s Lake by the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, Spirit Lake by the Cree, and then named by missionaries after Mary’s mother.
Mercredi’s cancer has brought immense pain to her stomach and upper body, so much so that her family doctor warned her against attending the pilgrimage. But as soon as stepped into the lake, Mercredi said she was not only healed of her afflictions, but a great joy suddenly coursed through her body.
Only a short moment after Mercredi stepped out of the water, she took hold of the walker her family had been pushing her around in. She felt restored and ready to walk around the campground.
Countless stories of miracles and the crutches hanging on the walls of the Lac Ste. Anne shrine are a testament to the water’s spiritual power. As Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie and Rev. Les Kwiatkowski plunged into the water and blessed person after person, it was clear that belief in the healing power remains strong as ever today.
“For so many people, this place is the beginning of new life,” said Kwiatkowski, the pastor of Lac Ste. Anne Parish, who has been attending the pilgrimage since 1990. “I am told so many stories each year of healings and conversions.”
Ten years ago Anna Gambler experienced the miraculous power of Lac Ste. Anne first-hand. Since then, she and her husband Andrew have returned to the pilgrimage from their home in Wabasca, north of Edmonton, every year to honour that blessing.
Gambler suffered from diverticulitis for several years. The condition creates holes in the intestines that cause strong abdominal pains. Because of it, Gambler had to give up eating foods with nuts, popcorn and seeds, as those smaller foods could cause harmful infections.
After years of medical treatments that only temporarily reduced her pain, Gambler made the pilgrimage to Lac Ste. Anne in 2009, hoping for a permanent solution.
She wandered far out into the lake and submerged her whole body. She wasn’t sure if her diverticulitis was gone, but her entire body felt cleansed and renewed. When her stomach pains did not return for a week afterward, she decided to take a risk and eat popcorn.
To her amazement, she suffered no abdominal pains and she has been clear of diverticulitis ever since.
“I didn’t know right away that I was healed, but from my face, my heart, to my knees and back, it all felt cleansed and refreshed,” Gambler said. “When I realized that the pain was not going to come back and I had been healed, I instantly just started to pray and thank God and St. Anne for what she had done.”
After another restorative plunge into the water, Gambler dried herself with a towel and spoke with a glowing smile. She said she will always return to Lac St. Anne to thank God for the healing she received.
“Once we kneel down in front of that St. Anne statue and pray that we will be able to come back next year, no matter what happens when we get back home to Wabasca – we are always brought back here,” she said.
Many travel great distances to Lac Ste. Anne not to heal their own afflictions, but in honour of those who are not able to travel themselves.
For the past five years, Adam MacDonald has walked the 500 kilometres from his home in Fort McMurray. MacDonald sees his walks as a personal sacrifice that he prays will heal the pains of all Canadian people.
With a 70-pound backpack and a rosary around his neck, the Métis man spends six days hiking across highway, woods, fields, and even through bear country to reach his destination. He begins each day of his pilgrimage with a smudging of sweetgrass and prayer.
This year, MacDonald walked to Lac Ste. Anne to honour the missing and murdered Indigenous women of Canada.
“I received a vision that this is my quest, to take these long journeys for the Canadian people,” he said. “I come to Lac Ste. Anne because there is such a bond here; no matter where people come from, we’re all joined here for one person – the Creator who is looking over us.”
The strains of his heavy backpack and 80 kilometres of walking each day certainly take their toll. The first thing MacDonald does when he arrives at the pilgrimage site is dip his sore and blistered feet into the water.
“I remember my very first year of doing this – my feet, my legs, my sides, my back, everything was sore. All I could feel was aching,” he said. “As soon as I stepped into the water and relaxed, all that pain and all that aching was gone. It’s like everything is wiped right off of you.
“People always ask me how I’m able to make this walk every year. I tell them you have to have courage and you have to faith to make it to this destination. The Creator helps me in this journey every day.”
The six-day Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage brings together an estimated 30,000 people of various religious beliefs and backgrounds.
That’s the heart of the pilgrimage’s purpose, said Chief Tony Alexis, whose Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation helps run and facilitate the pilgrimage each year. He said it’s about people recognizing their connection to God and joining together in that faith – no matter their background or status.
“In prayer there’s no one higher than anyone, it’s always God first and the people afterwards,” Chief Alexis said. “Some people come here from a path of difficulties, addictions, great heartaches, and some come here from a path of success and thriving. But for all of us, we look at it collectively that we come here to give thanks to God.
“As soon as people get here, they get that sense of good spirit. With prayers all around us and the sacrifices people make to get here. We believe the Creator hears our prayers.”
On July 21, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney visited the site and joined in praying a decade of the rosary. It’s believed to be the first time a sitting premier has visited the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage.