Praying for a miracle
Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by Patti Gower.
The Globe and Mail, November 10, 2001
Part 4 of 8: The healing waters
The waters of Lac Ste. Anne are said to perform miracles, which may explain why so many natives like Pat Batoche come, bearing the scars of drugs, illness or violence.
Batoche is preparing to carry a cross into one service, hoping it will help her 29-year-old son, who was bludgeoned in the head by a hammer-wielding gang in Edmonton. Another native woman, Gladys Malcolm, comes every year from Manitoba to beg Jesus to save the soul of her daughter, who committed suicide in 1989. A priest told her that, because the girl took her own life, her spirit will never rest.
But in the crowded campground that stretches from the shrine across a farm field, there is also much to sing about, at nightly reunions and community feasts where the music and food seem unending.
"I feel the power here. I feel the spirituality. You can't deny something that has helped people find goodness."
Cynthia Desjarlais, a 24-year-old Ojibwa woman from Sandy Bay, Man., compares the pilgrimage to her preferred summertime ritual, the "Classic Rock Weekend" in Minnedosa. The self-styled "party baby" who grew up on alcohol, drugs, men and violence has come to Lac Ste. Anne for the first time with her parents, both graduates of residential schools, because she has seen how it touched their souls and hopes it can reach hers.
Active in native politics, Desjarlais grew up to distrust the church and says she can't explain the power her parents discovered here. She can't deny it either. "It's one thing I'm very, very confused about, is why I am here," she says. "But I feel the power here. I feel the spirituality. You can't deny something that has helped people find goodness."
The struggle for goodness has defined the Oblates' work ever since they came to North America in 1841.
The early missionaries believed they had been called to help aboriginal people prepare for the coming onslaught of Western culture. They had seen colonial powers sweep through other lands, and knew that neither the Crees nor Ojibwa, Dene nor Dogrib, could stop it. But the missionaries felt they could soften the blow, particularly through education, and by bearing witness to the deluge.
Today, many pilgrims like Gladys Whitford prefer to see themselves as the bridge between alien cultures, between Christianity, for instance, and their own traditional spirituality.
Whitford is from Ebb and Flow, Man., and believes in miracles - in fact, she says she has seen them here. She claims to know a man who regained his eyesight by splashing Ste. Anne's water on his eyes, and she says she regained her own fingernails, which had been withering from a calcium deficiency, after dipping them in the lake.
Last year, she brought her husband in a wheelchair, hoping the lake would ease his vascular troubles. It didn't. He died not long after they returned to central Manitoba, but his mind was at peace, she says. "Before we get physical healing, we need spiritual healing," she tells the congregation during one of the thrice-daily eucharists.
Later, sitting alone on an air mattress in her tent, Whitford lunches on a hot dog and cheese, and explains her message. She says the pilgrimage must return to its spiritual roots, to a mysticism that predates the Oblates. Nothing else, she fears, can stop the Christian-dominated West and its notions of progress from inflicting itself with the sorts of abuse it has brought to others.
"It's not only the native people who have lost their culture," she says. "It's the white people too."