Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta -- "Make sure you get lots of photos of people praying to the God who destroyed their culture," a friend said, smirking at me as I prepared to head to Lac Ste. Anne last weekend. The lake, about a half-hour's drive northeast of Edmonton, takes its name from Jesus' maternal grandmother, patron saint of mothers in labour. Thousands of people, mostly of aboriginal descent, have converged here in a massive annual Catholic pilgrimage.
Just metres from the site, hucksters are flogging everything from bottled water to hot showers to really bad pictures of Christ. I suspect Jesus would have cast them all out like he did the money-changers and the shills at the Temple in Jerusalem during his mission on this earth.
Given that I'm here to make a little extra coin of my own, he would probably have given me the boot, too.
Still, once inside the mission, I find that the Catholicism to which I was born resides close to my mind's surface. Mass is underway in the shrine to Ste. Anne, and I silently recite the liturgy, drilled into my head by years of schooling plus a decade of serving mass as an altar boy.
A tenor voice from inside the shrine sings out, "Glory to God in the highest." I silently continue the melody: "And peace to His people on earth...' It comes so naturally, yet feels so weird, after struggling for so many years with my Catholicism.
I once gave up the one holy, Catholic and apostolic church after I found out the Pope owned a Rolex. It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. I had enough trouble dealing with the usual doctrinal stumbling blocks, like the refusal to ordain women, the celibate priesthood, the condemnation of birth control and the church's increasingly out-of-touch stand on homosexuality.
Mind you, the fact that I liked touching myself (and others) in as many immoral manners as I could devise already meant a lengthy stretch in Purgatory. Still, Lac Ste. Anne left me with the impression that someone was onto something. Despite the incredibly shabby treatment First Nations have suffered at the hands of my and other missionary churches, faith resides among the pilgrims here.
The waters of the lake are said to have miraculous healing powers, and the collection of crutches and canes hung up on the walls of the shrine bear witness to the pilgrims' deep beliefs.
Despite my skepticism, I walk to the shore and rub some of the water on my right ear, left useless more than 20 years ago when I got the mumps. There's an old cliché that there's no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole.
A priest who has spent the better part of his life ministering in the north tells me this tent city demonstrates the purest kind of faith. "Instead of talking about the community of saints, they're living it here," he says.
The priest looks like any number of people who have made the North their home, bedecked as he is in casual threads, an ever-present Number 7 dangling from his lips. Around his neck is a beadwork medallion surrounded on either side by four bear claws. Sometimes he refers to God the same way native elders do, as the Creator. He tells me a story about seeking an elder's advice after a death. "It's up to us who are still living," the elder told the priest. "Everything depends on our prayer." The deceased have a long voyage ahead of them, so "we ask the Creator to shorten the walk."
It's not just the overt displays of faith, like the numerous masses and the prayers at the shrine of Ste. Anne. It's in the socializing and restoring ties with old friends from all over. There are people here who have driven more than 14 hours across terrible roads.
Speaking in Dogrib, an elderly woman named Margaret says she's been coming to Lac Ste. Anne for 34 years. Her children and grandchildren are with her, and granny has been cooking bannock non-stop since she arrived. "It's important to be around other native people,' she says. Her son Gary says that in their hometown of Rae-Edzo, "Just about the whole town comes." He estimates that only a few hundred people stayed behind out of a population of about 1,200.
I suspect I've envied the simplicity of my own granny's faith. Every morning, she went to mass in the morning. Ditto my father. Occasionally, I would wake up early and find him praying in the living room. I'd always make myself scarce, feeling like an interloper.
Still, a few hours later, leaving the gathering, I give myself over to an incredible vibe via radio, courtesy of a UK DJ in an Edmonton club. For about 90 minutes there's nothing but music and community amongst people I've never met before.
How different was that, I wonder?