Virtual pilgrimage draws Indigenous Catholics close in spirit

The screens, small and big, will be turned off as this year’s Lac Ste Anne Pilgrimage comes to a close, but organizers say the spiritual power and connection it has generated remain long afterwards.

For the first time in generations, the five-day pilgrimage which attracts thousands of mostly Indigenous people from across Canada was virtual rather than physical. The pilgrimage has been an official, annual event for more than 130 years, and First Nations people have had the tradition of coming to the lake for spiritual and physical healing for generations before that.

The year’s in-person pilgrimage July 25-29 was cancelled in an effort to protect pilgrims — many of whom are elderly or in poor health — and avoid the spread of COVID-19. In a normal year, an estimated 35,000 people make a pilgrimage to the lake, an hour’s drive west of Edmonton, camping on the grounds, wading into the lake or filling canisters with its healing water.

Instead, organizers worked to keep alive the enduring spirit of healing and spiritual renewal with a virtual pilgrimage that included videotaped masses, messages from pilgrims, and other programming.

Preliminary figures show that the virtual pilgrimage had 15,346 views on Facebook and 2,417 on YouTube.

Events included a Way of the Cross prayer service from St. Theresa Point in northern Manitoba, the opening flag-raising ceremony by Chief Tony Alexis of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation as well as daily masses from the dioceses of Mackenzie-Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories, Keewatin-Le Pas in Manitoba and Grouard-McLennan in northern Alberta.  All can be viewed on Grandin Media’s Youtube Channel.

One of the traditional events that went online was the Twelve Step Pledge and Prayer for inner healing, which was pre-recorded by Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie, Emeritus of Keewatin-Le Pas. Based on the principles of Alcoholic Anonymous, the event invites pilgrims to make a sobriety pledge. They pledge that they will give up whatever addictions challenge them – smoking, drinking or other ills – and to keep praying to St. Anne for her intercession to heal them.

Normally it’s a three-hour event that goes well into the night. Instead, Archbishop Lavoie asked pilgrims online to make those pledges in silence, and if they were able, to hold a lit candle in their hand. He then prayed for those making pledges to Christ instead of laying hands on them.

“The focus is on inner healing,” Archbishop Lavoie said. “It brings people to a deeper level and opens them up to receive that inner healing that God is waiting to give us if we come and ask Him for it.”

Archbishop Lavoie introduced the Twelve Step Pledge and Prayer to the pilgrimage. He has written Walk A New Path, a book about the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, which he has been a part of since the 1970s. He noted he has used the AA program himself for his own personal growth and healing.

Archbishop Lavoie has been attending the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage for more than 40 years. He is the spiritual director and chaplain of the Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert.

Even if pilgrims had to participate online instead of onsite, First Nations leaders say the spirit of the pilgrimage – and its healing – continued this year.

“Our great-grandfather, the one who signed the treaties, brought us to this area for a reason, because he said the healing begins in this area,” said Chief Rod Alexis, the former chief of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation and the grandson of the last hereditary chief.

The people of Alexis Nakota Sioux First Nation call it Wakamne, or “God’s Lake,” and to the Cree it’s Manito Sahkahigan or “Spirit Lake.” Lac Ste Anne was renowned for its healing waters and for its spiritual significance to Indigenous people long before Catholic missionaries arrived in Alberta.

Rev. Les Kwiatkowski says the pilgrimage, in a spiritual way, took place because everyone was united in prayer.Matthew Bodnarek, Grandin Media

“The pilgrimage, in a spiritual way, took place because all of us, I believe, prayed and were united in these days,” said Rev. Les Kwiatkowski, pastor of the Lac Ste Anne Parish and Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Enoch. “We were together.”

“We don’t have to be here but we can be spiritually connected to this holy place,” said Yvonne Rain, who was born and raised on the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation. “One thing that I know our First Nations people have is a real close connection with the Creator. And they won’t lose faith.”

Rain was one of a group of elders who gathered at the Lac Ste Anne site to record the praying of the rosary in Cree, Dene, Nakoda and English – one of the new events at this year’s pilgrimage. A great-grandmother, Rain said she’s inspired by St. Anne, the mother of Mary, grandmother of Jesus, and  namesake of the lake that attracts pilgrims from across Canada to its healing waters.

Father Kwiatkowski said he never imagined that the in-person event would be cancelled, and he recalls the sombre meeting of the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage trustees where the decision was made.

“People understand that we can’t celebrate this year, but they say that they understand and they pray and, in a spiritual way, they are with us and we are with them,” Father Kwiatkowski said.

Elder Yvonne Rain says First Nations have a close connection with the Creator and won't lose faith.Matthew Bodnarek, Grandin Media

There was mixed reaction from pilgrims, ranging from sadness to resignation and some anger, when the announcement was made. It was an additional adjustment after the temporary cancellation of all masses with a congregation. Masses have since resumed under certain conditions to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

“We’ve had that experience in the past few months where we couldn’t have physical Mass and people said they need the Eucharist. They need the place especially for native people; being physical, touching, being together is so, so important. This is a different experience for all of us,” Kwiatkowski said.

“I miss when thousands of people are coming and camping. There’s life here. There’s very much life here. Obviously it will not be the same but in a spiritual way we can connect.”

In spite of that news, faith leaders came together to provide a full slate of events and masses.

“That’s the beauty and the spirit of this place and of the people who come here to celebrate the pilgrimage every year,” Kwiatkowski said. “In the spirit we are united. So many priests and bishops feel the same way, that we are connected and we can have this celebration in a different way.

“They pray for the people who normally gather here. There is that contribution and the connection to the people whose hearts are here.”

Elder Ella Arcand has attended the Lac Ste Anne pilgrimage from the time she was a child.Matthew Bodnarek, Grandin Media

“I thank the good St. Anne for allowing us to meet once more time,” said elder Ella Arcand, who has attended the Lac Ste Anne pilgrimage from the time she was a child.

“It is here that a lot of us relate to prayer. Before there was the Catholic Church here, my grandma – she lives three miles from here – she said there was a trading post, a school here, a post office, the Metis had their settlement, the native people gathered,” she said.

“They are the ones who saw that figure on the lake. They said it was the good St. Anne. It is a beginning, that we did not lose the spirit of St. Anne to take care of us. Ayhai (Thank you!)”