WCR FILE PHOTO

Aboriginal Catholics walk in the sacred waters of Lac Ste. Anne following the annual blessing of the lake.

March 19, 2012
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

For several days each July, thousands of aboriginal Catholics from across Western Canada gather on the shores of Lac Ste. Anne. They come to visit old friends, to seek healing and to be renewed in their faith.

This pilgrimage, which began almost 125 years ago, has become the largest annual gathering of First Nations people in Canada. Last year close to 55,000 pilgrims, mostly aboriginal and Métis, made their way to the lake.

The Oblate Fathers ran the pilgrimage for well over a century. A few years ago, the missionary priests turned over the management and operation of the pilgrimage to a lay board, which has worked hard to continue the Oblate legacy.

Things are beginning to change, though, and mainly because of high costs. Each year, the pilgrimage has become more expensive to operate, leaving the nine-member lay board in dire financial straits.

"The revenues do not match the expenses," laments pilgrimage director Oblate Father Garry LaBoucane.

The board gets a bit of revenue from the Mass collection, from the concession booth and from the campground - at least $30 per vehicle for whatever length of time they stay there. But it's never enough.

"(The pilgrimage) is very expensive, like porta-potties I think are $40,000 right there," LaBoucane pointed out. "In addition, we have to have to pay for showers, water, electricity and staff to clean those places and have the grounds cleaned."

ANNUAL SHORTFALL

To be sure, the pilgrimage has never made any money.

In the past, the Oblates would pick up the shortfall. They can't do that anymore "so we need to take the responsibility of doing that," LaBoucane said.

Charging an entrance fee or asking pilgrims for additional donations is out of the question "because people make sacrifices already to go there."

To cut operational costs and start paying off its $150,000 debt, the pilgrimage board has come up with a business plan that contains some sweeping measures - the first of which is to shorten the pilgrimage by one day.

This year the pilgrimage will run from July 23 to 26 with the focus on the feast of Ste. Anne, the grandmother of Jesus, and Blessed Kateri Tekawitha, the first North American native to be declared a saint. Blessed Kateri's canonization will be on Oct. 21

WCR FILE PHOTO

Tens of thousands of people from across Western Canada and beyond attend the annual Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage in July

"There is probably going to be one day where we are going to honour her," explained LaBoucane. "She is not being canonized until October."

Other debt-reducing measures include contracting out the campground and facilities, tendering out all the concession booths and the gift store, cancelling the golf carts to transport the elderly and infirm, and eliminating accommodations and meals for volunteers.

"We are going back to the basics."

LaBoucane said the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage Company will engage in fundraising events, such as a golf tournament in June, and actively seek sponsorship from various companies, communities and organizations to support the annual pilgrimage.

"With continual cost-effective measures being undertaken and fundraising being everyone's responsibility, we are confident we can be debt free within a year or two," the Oblate priest said.

The history of Lac Ste. Anne stretches back to the distant past. Here native families, who in fall had scattered to winter camps and traplines, gathered in summer for the buffalo hunt.

The Crees called the lake Manito Sakahigan or Spirit Lake. Later, white traders referred to it as Devil's Lake, because in storms it could quickly become dangerous.

In 1841 a Métis named Pich, who lived in the area, travelled to St. Boniface, Man., to ask that a priest be sent to live among them. Priests were scarce.

Bishop Provencher had only four priests to minister to a territory that stretched from Ontario to the Rockies. Still, the next spring he sent Father Jean-Baptiste Thibault, who spoke Cree, to check things out.

By 1844, a mission was set up and a shack built to house Father Thibault and a young priest named Joseph Bourassa.

Thibault blessed the lake renaming it Lac Ste. Anne, thus fulfilling a promise he had made to give her name to the first mission he would father. It became the first permanent Catholic mission west of Winnipeg.

With the coming of Oblate missionaries such as Father Lacombe, the mission enjoyed a period of growth and importance.

By 1887 the buffalo had disappeared and the lake lost its importance as a gathering place.

MISSION DESERTED

Most of the population had moved away and the mission was almost deserted. Its pastor Father Lestanc, along with the Oblate council, decided to close the mission. Then, on his first holiday home to France in 30 years, he paid a visit to the Shrine of St. Anne D'Auray.

While in prayer at this shrine, God revealed to him, in a powerful way, that he must not close the mission. He asked him to build a shrine there in honour of Ste. Anne, the grandmother of Jesus. It would be a place for pilgrims to come and receive spiritual help.

Lestanc was deeply moved and, on his return lost no time in carrying out what God had revealed to him.

The first pilgrimage was held in 1889 with about 400 pilgrims attending. It soon became an annual event, drawing people from all directions and many nations.

Today the pilgrimage has grown to a sort of tent city with as many as 30,000 people camped in tents and trailers along the south shore of the lake on any single day.

It is possible to see vehicles with plates from the United States, Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and Manitoba.

Prior to the upcoming pilgrimage, camping days will be Saturday, July 21 and Sunday, July 22. The gates will open at 7 a.m. and close at 11 p.m. until the pilgrimage is over.