Reverend Garry LaBoucane remembers going to Wakamne – or God’s Lake – during Lac Ste. Anne’s pilgrimage as a boy.
“It’s always been a family tradition,” the 74-year-old said in an interview from Vancouver, where he is a Métis priest at Sacred Heart Parish.
He remembers sleeping in a small tent near the cemetery with his grandfather, attending church services in Latin he didn’t understand, and meeting people from all walks of life.
“It was a social time, visiting with family,” LaBoucane said before the Vatican announced that a visit to the holy lake west of Edmonton would be part of Pope Francis’ planned trip to Canada on next month.
“It’s a pilgrimage, a time to pray, a time to be with other nations. It’s the largest Indigenous spiritual gathering in North America.”
The annual pilgrimage had grown to around 40,000 people in 2019 – the year before it was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is to resume face-to-face this year from July 25th to 28th.
The papal visit is scheduled to begin in Edmonton on July 24, continue in the Quebec City area on July 27 and end in Iqaluit on July 29. It will include public and private events emphasizing Aboriginal participation.
Before the pope’s plans were confirmed, Reverend Les Kwiatkowski said in an interview that there was a lot of talk about a possible visit by the pontiff.
“A lot of people are very excited, but it could also bring even more healing and more reconciliation,” he said.
Lac Ste. Anne has been considered sacred for many generations and has become a place of healing.
The oral history of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation suggests that a Southeast chief followed his vision and led his people to the shores of the lake.
An annual pilgrimage was organized by a priest in 1889 and continued each year during the week of July 26, which is the feast of Saint Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary. It is said that the figure of the grandmother has great importance in Aboriginal culture.
The pontiff is to celebrate an outdoor mass at Commonwealth Stadium, home of the Edmonton Elks football team, that day and travel to Lac Ste. Anne in the early evening.
Kwiatkowski, who has attended the pilgrimage every summer since 1990, when he left Poland, said he heard from many people from Western Canada who were excited to come this year.
“People need this, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “It’s not just spiritual, it’s also social.
“They come to worship, they come to pray, they come for healing. They also come to spend time together.”
Half of those who attend, he said, come from isolated communities and it is the only time they can see their friends and loved ones.
“He’s a beautiful spirit,” Kwiatkowski said.
He heard stories about family traditions and about miracles.
“Every day on the pilgrimage someone will come to you and say, ‘It helped me forgive, it helped me heal from the past, it helped me understand things better,'” said Kwiatkowski.
“Healing is more than physical healing. It is all of being. For people who come – sometimes very far, they have to travel to get here – it is a privileged moment of healing, of finding themselves .”
LaBoucane said it was also known as a place for physical healing – even with places where people left their crutches.
His parents had a similar experience when he was a child.
“I had really, really bad eczema,” said LaBoucane, who hasn’t had any issues since that visit.
Kwiatkowski agreed that it’s a special place, especially the lake water.
“It has enormous significance for indigenous peoples,” he said. “People take gallons of this water, they take it home. They use this water for many different reasons – for strength and for healing.
“It has huge significance.”
At a news conference Thursday alongside the Archbishop of Edmonton, LaBoucane said he welcomed the news of the Pope’s upcoming visit with great joy.
“People are looking forward to being with him, to praying with him at Lac Sainte-Anne.”