Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 29, 2004
Volunteers at Lac Ste. Anne
Western Canada's largest pilgrimage needs hundreds of people to help
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
Lac Ste. Anne
Serving in the kitchen during the Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage means a lot more than filling hundreds of orders for French fries to Cecile L'Abbe.
A long-time volunteer for the annual spiritual gathering of thousands, L'Abbe returns year after year as head cook because of the fulfillment she receives from placing the needs of so many people ahead of her own.
"I come to serve, not to be served," said L'Abbe, a retired dietitian at the General Hospital and Youville Nursing Home in St. Albert.
"I started volunteering in 1981 when it was much smaller. I am a disciple of the Lord and whatever I do, I do for him. We touch people's hearts during the pilgrimage. I feel great because I'm helping people."
But it's the number of people - estimated at more than 30,000 most years - that has begun to put a strain on the small core of volunteers who continually dedicate themselves providing for the ever-increasing multitude of pilgrims.
From a cook's helper to a parking attendant; from being an usher to helping collect garbage, any bit of help adds to the service to the people of God.
And pilgrimage coordinator Rod Lorenz knows that with any charitable organization or event, you can never have enough volunteers.
"Cecile has been our mainstay in finding and organizing volunteers especially for the snack shops and kitchens," he said. "She is tireless in her efforts and we depend on her a great deal."
About 300 people are needed every year, any of whom can receive the intrinsic rewards of satisfaction and purpose in the giving of oneself to the work that has such value in the spiritual realm.
But with severely limited funds, Lorenz says it is impossible to do a lot of advertising for helpers.
"Even something as humble and necessary as picking garbage contributes to an atmosphere of order and peace that facilitates this awesome purpose," he said.
The history of the pilgrimage dates back to 1844 when Father Jean-Baptiste Thibault blessed the lake and renamed it in honour of St. Anne, the mother of Mary.
Before 1844, families, clans and tribes were originally drawn to the shores of the lake, then called Manito Sakahigan or Spirit Lake, for ceremonial summer gatherings usually around the annual buffalo hunt.
While 400 people attended the first pilgrimage in 1889, Lac Ste. Anne is now a major pilgrimage destination in Western Canada, the largest event of its kind in North America.
The 2004 pilgrimage will be July 24-29.
Lorenz theorizes there are many reasons why people come to help. Some have received great gifts and favours in their lives and want to give something back to God. Others might be searching and want to experience what happens during the pilgrimage.
"Many are drawn every year by the wonderful sense of community and friendship that develops among the volunteers," Lorenz said.
Most of the volunteers set up camp nearby in tents and RVs. However, a limited number of rooms are available to those not equipped for camping. There are a few single rooms but most that are shared see two or three to a room.
A meal is provided during the volunteer's shift and those who work full days have all meals provided.
Rooms and meals for priest volunteers are provided next door by the Oblate Fathers at the Atonement Camp.
"Priests especially, who come to help with confessions, tell me how deeply moved they are by the experience," Lorenz said. "Many pilgrims come from isolated northern areas where they rarely encounter a priest. Many are profoundly wounded and carry heavy burdens.
"Their simple faith and openness in seeking reconciliation with God and neighbour - and the healing and peace they find in Christ - is truly edifying."
It is an experience Doris Kaleks has passed to her children.
Well known for her help with the information booth and caring for Mass stipends, the schoolteacher now travels from Vancouver to attend the pilgrimage.
Kaleks is also a Eucharistic minister.
"I grew up in Morinville. My great grandfather is buried (at Lac Ste. Anne) and my grandparents on my dad's side were baptized there and married there," she said.
Kaleks has a daughter living in Brooks and the pair hook up and volunteer together.
"What I really enjoy is listening to the people's stories. Some things that have happened to people are unbelievable," Kaleks said. "They tell me their stories about their hardships and my eyes would pop open. They come despite the sorrow.
"When I help with the Eucharistic ministry, I can feel the glow from the holiness of some of the people who come. I feel their spirituality when they come for Communion. It feels awesome."
Volunteers receive no pay of course and, like Florence Large, an elementary school counsellor in Saddle Lake, people take the opportunity to relax and pray. There are quiet moments for reflection, or there are thousands in the candlelight processions, the Way of the Cross or the blessing of the lake.
Drumming, raising voices and spirited dances highlight the closing evening.
Large's first recollections of the pilgrimage are as a child with her parents and grandparents. She now makes volunteering for the pilgrimage part of her life's plan.
"Don't ask me to do anything else that week," she said.
Large has coordinated the children's program at the
pilgrimage for three years, blending Catholicism and traditional native ways with sweetgrass prayers, smudging and animal spirits.
She says it is a delight to see the fascination of the children - both aboriginal and non-aboriginal - when they learn about God and the spiritual world.
"Parents who come to volunteer bring their children. I would do the overall teaching but when we broke off into four groups, the parents would be the group leaders," Large said.
Being on site provides Large with an opportunity to meditate and participate in the Masses. She finds volunteering in the children's ministry a peaceful experience.
"We have had 98 children at one time, but it fluctuates on different days," she said.
She agrees that finding enough volunteers is difficult, but if the leader of a particular group is committed and well organized, the word spreads and by grace, the voids fill - mostly.
"Once people come out and volunteer, they find their niche. It's very gratifying because we are doing the Lord's work and we can be role models for people," Large said.
"The friendships and the chance to be on holy land for a week is good for my soul for the whole year.
"It's a place for rejuvenation," she said.
Anyone interested in volunteering is encouraged to contact the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage at 1-780-924-3231 or 1-780-460-6935.