Pilgrims at Lac Ste. Anne. Photo by Steve Simon

Annual Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage dates back to 1889

By 
  • June 2, 2022

The legacy of the Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage stretches back a lot longer than the Church remembers. Lac Ste. Anne was a sacred pilgrimage site for centuries before French Oblate missionaries arrived at Fort des Prairies (later known as Edmonton) in 1843.

Cree, Dené, Blackfoot and Metis people still share stories of the singing drums and “little people” who guard the lake. From a rock island in the middle of Manito Sakahigan (“Lake of Spirits”) or Wakāmne (“Sacred Lake”) people could hear drums and singing, but mysterious forces kept anybody from ever reaching the island.

Summer pilgrimages to the lake were for a long time tied to the hunt for bison. The sun dance and other ceremonies associated with the hunt were performed there until they were outlawed by Canada, starting in 1885, for fear of Indigenous rebellions after Louis Riel’s failed bid for Métis independence.

St. Boniface Bishop Norbert Provencher sent missionaries out to the North Saskatchewan River territory after the Hudson’s Bay Company invited Wesleyan missionaries to Fort des Prairies in 1839. Fr. Jean-Baptiste Thibault was the first Catholic missionary to reach the shores of Lac Ste. Anne in 1843.

The temporary mission quickly became permanent and by the 1850s Metis leader Gabriel Dumont — uncle of Riel’s military chief of the same name — had established a village of more than 200 inhabitants.

By then the buffalo herds were already diminishing and summer gatherings shrank along with the buffalo hunt. Still three Sisters of Charity opened a clinic and a school there in 1859. In 1860 St. Boniface Bishop Alexandre Taché celebrated Christmas Mass.

Taché decided the mission was in the wrong place — it was poor farm land — and in 1862 moved it to St. Albert. But in 1887 Ste. Anne herself intervened. After 30 years in mission country, Oblate Fr. Jean-Marie Lestanc had a vision of St. Anne, who asked him not to abandon the mission in Western Canada. Lestanc convinced St. Boniface Bishop Vital Grandin to post him to Lac Ste. Anne and led the first Catholic pilgrimage there in June of 1889, with a second one a month later for the feast of St. Anne.Rather than the mother of Mary, Indigenous Catholics always referred to St. Anne as the grandmother (N’okkuminân in Cree) of Jesus.

The pilgrimage became more popular after Canada imposed a pass system on people living on reserves, intended to keep Indigenous from gathering and plotting rebellions. The pilgrimage became one of the few legitimate occasions for families to reunite.

In 1991, Lac Ste. Anne was the place chosen by Oblate Provincial Superior Fr. Doug Crosby (now bishop of Hamilton) to begin a process of healing. Crosby issued an apology on behalf of the Oblates for the dozens of residential schools his order ran on behalf of the Government of Canada. This was the first apology issued.

In 2007 Parks Canada and the Historical Sites and Monuments Board of Canada placed a plaque at the lake.

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