Aboriginal Catholics find healing at Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage

Lac Ste. Anne pilgrims Genevieve Besskkaystare and her sister Jeanette Tsannie of Wollaston Lake, Sask., prayed in the sacred waters of the lake on July 20.


Lac Ste. Anne pilgrims Genevieve Besskkaystare and her sister Jeanette Tsannie of Wollaston Lake, Sask., prayed in the sacred waters of the lake on July 20.

July 27, 2015

Canes and crutches are left behind at the Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage site, evidence of healing miracles experienced at the sacred shore.

Impressive stories of people being healed of diseases such as leprosy, entering the water lame and coming out walking, and other healings of various sorts are not hard to come by at the pilgrimage, which is likely the largest annual Church event in Western Canada, drawing tens of thousands of people, mainly Aboriginal.

But for many pilgrims, like grandmother Genevieve Besskkaystare, who travelled from Wollaston Lake, Sask., it is not the physical healing, but the inner healing that draws them back to Lac Ste. Anne year after year.

Besskkaystare, 65, was lost with nobody to turn to as a teenager when her mother died. But her life changed when she found Jesus and his mother Mary who filled the void in her life.

When she came to the Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage for the first time in 1978, her life was again in shambles. She had a good husband but she was drinking a lot and not being a good mother to her children.

Her turning point came in 1984 on her way to back to the pilgrimage, when she realized something was missing in her life.

"I wasn't living my faith," said Besskkaystare, who brought all of her burdens to the lake for the first time that year. "It renewed my faith."

Besskkaystare said St. Anne, revered as the grandmother of Jesus, has helped transform her into a good role model for her family and community, and a passionate lay worker for her parish and teacher of catechism.

The Dene elder said she is happy even though she walks with a cane because her inner healing journey is continuing. She returns to the pilgrimage to pray for her family and her community all over the world.

"The younger generation, they're committing suicides because they have no meaning in life. They need to find faith again and change their lives," Besskkaystare said.

"We won't have any peace unless we remember God and find faith. There's no other happiness you can find in this world."

Pilgrimage co-ordinator Stephanie Alexis said traditionally people believe the presence and love of the grandmother helps them heal, so they bring all of the suffering in their hearts to the pilgrimage.

"They believe St. Anne is there, and she is there," said Alexis. "They go right to the lake, and a lot of them receive that grace and blessing because they believe."

Pilgrims who have come for healing from addictions take a pledge to quit alcohol and drugs.

The Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation first called the lake Wakamne, or God's Lake, because the ancestors believed it was holy, said Alexis.


Oblate Father Garry LaBoucane, spiritual director and chair of the pilgrimage board, said the event has run smoother since the band, led by Chief Tony Alexis, took on the grounds keeping operations.

The Catholic band has faced criticism from other First Nations communities for embracing the Church despite pain from residential school experiences, said Alexis.

Alexis has 125 members involved in helping with the pilgrimage grounds, including 73 volunteers, and they do it out of service, she said.

"People say 'How can you love these people?' But when you know who Jesus is, of course you're going to serve him," said Alexis. "Because we love Jesus we serve him."


LaBoucane said many people of different cultures were present at this year's blessing of the lake, including Ethiopian and Italian Catholics who remained to pray in the lake for hours.

The priest said he is grateful for the increased involvement of archdiocesan clergy, especially given the reduction in the number of Oblate priests who ran the pilgrimage for more than a century.

This year's event ran from July 18 to 23 and also featured healing Masses and a dramatic presentation of the life of St. Kateri Tekakwitha.