By Andrew Ehrkamp
News Editor

Under a steady stream of rain, Russell Evans’ wife, children and relatives each held on to his makeshift stretcher.

Paralyzed from the neck down, and covered in blankets to keep him warm against the cold, he was gently lowered into Lac Ste. Anne. As the water covered him, Evans looked up and smiled.

“I’m very, very happy,” he said. “They said the lake is cold, but it’s not cold.”

Evans was among the hundreds of people who came to the lake for the annual Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage, hoping for spiritual renewal and healing  ̶  from their past, from addiction, and in Evans’ case, from a physical injury.

On July 23, priests celebrated Mass and waded into the water, blessing pilgrims and the lake that’s been a sacred gathering place for First Nations for thousands of years, well before Catholic missionaries arrived.

“I came all the way with my family. My children wanted me to come over here. We’re not expecting very much,” said Evans, who traveled nearly 1,800 kilometres from his home in St. Theresa Point, Man., with his wife and four children.

“They wanted me to come try it. I’m glad I made it here, and I’m hoping that I can make it back home. What the doctors told me is that I will be like this for the rest of my life. I have been on this bed for four years now with a spinal cord injury. A log fell on me when I was cutting a tree down.”

An estimated 30,000 people were expected to attend the pilgrimage over six days, pitching tents, parking motorhomes or just coming out for the day.

First Nations people have been coming to Lac Ste. Anne for thousands of years, not only for physical healing but spiritual renewal as well, said Chief Tony Alexis of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation.

“When you look at the entire purpose of what is here, what is a common thread in everyone is the belief in God,” Alexis said. “They see people expressing their faith without fear. They express it without judgment. And that awakens people who may not believe. They didn’t come here by accident.”

Pilgrims include not only Catholics but people of other faiths, or none at all.

The Lac Ste. Anne site grows into a small city, with families visiting with each other, teens playing football and kids playing in the water. Pilgrims swim, pray, and fill dozens of plastic bottles with lake water they believe will heal them.

“We all know it brings our Creator, our God, and grace to our lives to help us to restore our spiritual lives,” added Rev. Les Kwiatkowski, the pastor of Lac Ste. Anne Parish. “When we bless this lake it becomes even more holy for the people, and the healing power is more visible.”

It worked for Senait Tazaz of Calgary.

“Eleven years ago I had Crohn’s, and then I had a lot of pain in my legs. I couldn’t walk for seven, eight years. So this is the place I was blessed and I believe it,” said Tazaz, whose family come from Eritrea and sat drinking traditional coffee and eating dates prior to the blessing.

Tazaz has been attending the pilgrimage ever since. She’s still on medication, but she says her condition has improved dramatically.

“I don’t even remember that day  ̶  I was really in pain  ̶  but they put me in the water, and every year I come and I see the healing. If you believe in something, anything is possible. There’s some kind of power. I believe.”

The lake was called Wakamne or God’s Lake by the Nakota First Nations who live on the west end of the lake and Manito Sahkahigan or Spirit Lake by the Cree. It was renamed Lac Ste. Anne by Rev. Jean-Baptiste Thibault in honour of St. Anne, the mother of Mary and Jesus’ grandmother.

Alexis said that faith can’t be underestimated, especially in the First Nations tradition.

“The spirit is becoming stronger, in spite of some of the storms that we have gone through. They are sharing their culture and their language, and the children are even singing, hitting drums before they can walk or talk,” he said.

“That is the prophecy. That faith in the lake, that is the significance of it.”

The pilgrimage continues until July 27, with Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith celebrating Mass on Wednesday, July 26.