Annual Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage held virtually for second year

Tens of thousands of people from across the country are gathering virtually this week in search of healing and spiritual renewal.

In any normal year up to 40,000 Catholics would descend on the shores of Lac Ste. Anne, west of Edmonton, to bathe in the water that many believe has the power to heal.

The tradition of the Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage began more than 100 years ago and has developed into one of the largest gatherings of Indigenous Catholics in Canada. 

The decision to hold the event virtually for the second year in a row was made months ago, before the province announced it would be relaxing COVID-19 health restrictions.

‘We do not want any outbreaks’

Father Susai Jesu has taken part in the pilgrimage for more than a decade and is on the organizing committee. 

Father Susai Jesu is part of the organizing committee and will offer a Cree blessing for the faithful on Wednesday. (Supplied: Susai Jesu)

He said they felt it was important to be as cautious as possible with the pandemic still lingering.

“Children are vulnerable, lots of elders will be coming,” he said. “We do not want any outbreaks.”

Jesu will be onsite offering a final blessing in Cree and English later this week.

He said while there’s no programming at the lake this year and pilgrims aren’t able to drive in, no one will be turned away if they do make the journey.

“People come with a faith. A deeper faith that is being honoured. So you walk in, you’ll have your time to pray, go to the lake, take the water. Those people, we are letting them do that because it matters a lot,” he said.

For the thousands expected to take in online programming, there will be a variety of prayer sessions and masses as well as musical performances daily until Wednesday. 

Despite the recent discoveries of unmarked graves at several former residential school sites across western Canada, one thing Jesu said won’t be on the agenda is any dedicated discussion on the issue.

“At this time we don’t want to divert anything from the heart to the mind,” he said.

Some pilgrims were permitted to enter Lac Ste. Anne on Saturday morning after priests blessed the water. (Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton/YouTube)

Jesu said religious leaders are just content to listen and offer support if needed.

“People are really looking for solidarity and nothing else. We are with you at this time.

“We are here in person for anyone who came here with their questions so definitely it’s a humbling experience for me, personally.”

Jesu said plans are in the works to address the legacy of residential schools next year, when pilgrims are once again expected to gather at the lake in person.

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