Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
August 27, 2001
Pilgrims gather at Beaver Lake
Native people recall origins of Marian pilgrimage 50 years ago
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
BEAVER LAKE — The final day of the pilgrimage on this First Nations reserve southeast of Lac La Biche wasn't much of an event, if you measure events by the numbers who attend them.
Fewer than 40 people came for the Stations of the Cross and about 100 attended the closing Mass, Sunday Aug. 19.
While some blame the low attendance on a storm the night before, others said it was due to lack of native involvement in running the event.
Whatever it is, the pilgrimage site looked somewhat deserted for a Sunday full of religious events. The previous two days, when temperatures reached 30C, more than 150 people took part in the pilgrimage.
Some say the pilgrimage is slowing down, although others contend it is on its way up. More than 200 people attended last year. The year before, between 400 and 500 people took part.
Numbers aside, the Marian pilgrimage attracts devout people from across Alberta, mostly native.
Many of them use the opportunity to pray alone in front of a statue of Mary placed in a huge grotto across from the small Sacred Heart Church. Others visit the 14 Stations of the Cross lined up in a semi-circle around the pilgrimage site. Each station seats on a white, altar-like platform made out of cement and rocks.
Rose Nepoose of Hobbema was among the pilgrims. "This is my first time," she said. "I came to be with Jesus and to pray for things that I want in my life."
Yvette Laventure of Sunset Beach has been attending the pilgrimage on and off for the last 40 years. "I feel this is very spiritually fulfilling," she said. "It's a new start."
Most of the pilgrims camp on the pilgrimage grounds beside the lake for the duration of the event. They relaxed with family and friends outside their campers and motorhomes during breaks.
Edward Adby of Conklin said he came this year to show support for the pilgrimage and to encourage young people in his community to do the same.
The high point for Adby is to "see my own kind of people coming together as a unit, to see old priests you haven't seen for years and to pray to the Lord."
Among other events, the pilgrimage features a gospel jamboree with local artists, recitation of the rosary, blessing of the fire and a candlelight procession through the Stations of the Cross, the sacrament of Reconciliation, blessing of the sick, blessing of the lake and Baptism of children.
Those who participated in the Stations of the Cross on Sunday took turns carrying a large wooden cross while the rest followed singing hymns.
At each stop Saddle Lake pastor Oblate Father Camillo Prosdocimo, who presided over pilgrimage services, would recall Jesus' ordeal and words while Pat Murphy, the pilgrimage coordinator, would respond on behalf of the people.
Following Mass at the grotto, Prosdocimo blessed the sick gathered at the small Sacred Heart Church and then led the faithful in procession toward the lake. He baptized four children on the beach following the blessing of the lake. Many people filled plastic bottles with blessed water from the lake.
Oblate missionaries who ran a mission school on the site started the pilgrimage in 1950. But the history of the event is sketchy at best, with more than one version floating around.
Some attributed the start of the pilgrimage to an apparition of the Virgin on the lake, a version which native pilgrims are quick to deny.
"There have never been any apparitions here," said Flora Whitford, a native woman from Kikino who has been attending the pilgrimage since she was a small girl. "It was started because the bishop (of St. Paul) visited this place and suggested it."
Rita Glaude, a member of the Beaver Lake reserve, confirms that the pilgrimage "was started by the old people from the reserve" at the suggestion of the Oblates and the bishop.
"They hauled the rocks (for the stations of the cross and the grotto) from the reserve," she recalled. "And we keep coming back because we believe in it. We believe it is a holy place."
Julian Gervais of Lac La Biche was 39 when the pilgrimage began and recalls the effort to build the place. "How it started, I can't remember," the 90-year-old man said.
What he remembers, though, is that a Father Gauthier, who was the parish priest at the time, started the pilgrimage. Gervais said he and Father Simone Gagnon from Saddle Lake built the grotto and the Stations of the Cross with the help of parishioners.
"It took us two years to build the grotto with Father Gagnon," he said. "I'm glad it attracts so many people."
The Beaver Lake pilgrimage "is nothing like the Ste. Anne pilgrimage," noted Murphy, the event coordinator. Although it began as an annual event, there were periods in which it wasn't held at all. "It would be held one year and then there would be nothing for the next two years."
An attempt to revive it six years ago nearly failed because it was held for only one day, on a Sunday, and camping on the grounds was banned.
People started to come back in greater numbers the following year when the pilgrimage became a three-day event with camping allowed.
Whitford and Glaude, who have been preparing the pilgrimage site for years, said the event's true revival will come when the site and the organization of the pilgrimage is handed over to native people.
"If we owned the land, we would run it the way they run Lac Ste. Anne," Glaude said. Since Sacred Heart Parish in Beaver Lake became a mission of St. Catherine Parish in Lac La Biche a few years ago, a joint committee of both parishes has run the pilgrimage.
But native people feel they have lost control. "The people in town are running it, we just follow orders," Glaude noted. "But we won't let it die. We'll do whatever we can to keep it going."
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