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Pilgrimage to the mission

Rae-Edzo, Deline residents flock to Lac Ste. Anne

Kevin Wilson
Special to Northern News Services

Lac Ste. Anne, Alta. (Aug 05/02) - By the thousands, they came to the Lac Ste. Anne mission to meet, bathe in waters reputed to have miraculous healing properties, and to pray.

For more than three decades, pilgrims, mostly aboriginal, have come to the mission for the feast of Ste. Anne, patron saint of mothers in labour and believed by Catholics to be the maternal grandmother of Jesus.

"I tell people who are here for the first time that they're stuck now, because you keep on coming back," said Father Paul Hernou, a diocesan priest whose ministry takes him through several northern Albertan communities.

"As a priest, it's life-giving to me."

The licence plates around the massive tent city tell a story by themselves.

About half are from Alberta, but many are also from British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, a few from the United States. One tent near the lake is from Deline.

Communities like Janvier are virtually empty during the five-day pilgrimage. Rae-Edzo's Gary Lafferty estimates that, "there's maybe a few hundred who are left in town," out of the 1,200 or so residents.

In some ways, the overt displays of faith are relatively low-key. Mass is regularly celebrated in the large shrine to the saint, which seats about 2,000.

A few pilgrims make their way through the stations of the cross, reflecting on Christ's suffering and death. Nearby, a group of teenagers take part in an impromptu session of hackey sack.

Hernou said the pilgrims are showing their faith by example. "Instead of talking about the community of saints, they are living it," he said.

Gesturing to the teens, he said, "Look at the connection they are making to that hackey sack. You have to see the joy and the smiles on their faces."

Hernou's ministry has taken him across the northern prairies. "In a little while, I'm going to go across the camp, and stuff myself with dry moose meat, and see old friends," he said.

Saturday's mass is sponsored by the Hobbema First Nation. Other masses during the five-day pilgrimage will take place under the auspices of the Dogrib First Nations, the Metis Nations of Alberta, the Blackfoot Confederacy, and other parishes and first nations.

Within the shrine are dozens of crutches and canes hanging on the walls, mute testament to pilgrims' faith in Lac Ste. Anne's healing waters.

At the same time, this is as much an opportunity to commune with neighbours as it is to renew faith.

For 34 years, Gary Lafferty's mother and father have been coming to the pilgrimage.

"It's a tradition," according to Margaret Lafferty. "It's important to be around other native people, wherever they come from," she added.

Margaret and her husband Gabe have several children and grandchildren who have made the 14-hour trip from Rae with them.

"I've been making bannocks and washing diapers every minute," she laughed.

Mere metres from the pilgrimage site, hucksters are flogging everything from drinking water to hot showers to dubious-quality paintings of Christ.

While the mission strictly enforces rules against alcohol, partying and peddling on their property, there is little they can do to stop people from making a fast buck off site.

Inside, however, Hernou said the pilgrimage enriches the spirits of the

clergy here.

"As a priest, you can sometimes be the most lonely person, but if you are, it's your own fault."

He won't speak of how it affects the pilgrims.

"Go and ask them if you want to know," he said, laughing.

"It feels good," said Julianne Michel of Lutsel K'e.

It's her first time back to Lac Ste. Anne in several years. She's come this time to escort youth and elders.

"It feels home-like to me," she said.