As Wood takes a break from worship and retreats to a picnic table, a procession of friends and acquaintances delight in complaining about the noise that went on last night. By dusk, the dirt road that winds from the campground to the nearby town of Alberta Beach is lined with pickup trucks in search of nightlife. A few hours later, there was a steady parade of carousers back from town, and then, well past midnight, the din of youths on the prowl, hooting and setting off cherry bombs.
The RCMP could not do much, Wood explains to a few older men - not when parents were allowing their children to stay out until all hours. He is not sure what he could do either. Within the shrine area and campgrounds, there is a ban on alcohol, drugs and gambling, but nothing to stop anyone of any age from slipping through a gully or across the road to a field of enterprising peddlers who have treated native spirituality to a different sort of onslaught.
"A lot of the spirituality and spiritual relevance is gone. People use it [the festival] as a big social gathering."
Even if they tried, the Oblates would not have been able to shelter a community from the likes of Arnie Strynadka. A mixed-race fiddler (he calls himself "Uke-Cree"), Strynadka is known as the Indian who sings Hank Williams and, along with his cassettes of hurtin' music, sells as many "Bless me, Jesus" buttons as he can.
Down the dirt path, others like him hawk dream catchers, plastic toys, fireworks and amusement rides to throngs of young people who have skipped the eucharist.
At 61, Strynadka says he has missed the pilgrimage only four times since his Cree father and Ukrainian mother first brought him here as an ailing infant in a cattle truck and watched his remarkable recovery after he was dipped in the lake.
Six decades on, he notices how hard it is to find the faith of his grandparents. "A lot of the spirituality and spiritual relevance is gone. People use it [the festival] as a big social gathering," he says. He adjusts his cowboy hat and big buckle belt while surveying the crowd of native kids, many of them sporting a hip-hop look. "I'll bet you half the people here are not Catholic," Strynadka says. "I see people from my reserve who are not Catholic."
Back at the picnic tables, where Crees and Blackfoot, Dene, Dogrib and Métis can be found drinking coffee and eating ice cream, Wood says he does not mind if natives have added some festivity, even a little noise, to their celebration. Why should Lac Ste. Anne be different, it could be asked, from Rio?
He does worry, though, about keeping the pilgrimage alive. Last year, he managed to persuade the leaders of every major aboriginal group in the Prairies and Northwest Territories to pledge their commitment to the event and its purpose, something the Oblates never man-aged to do. But now, he knows, a single lawsuit from any member of his own community could throw the order into bankruptcy, and place the Lac Ste. Anne site in receivership.
It would be an abrupt, and Wood thinks tragic, end to a relationship that has seen more good than bad, but is only now finding its peace. For the first time since the missionaries and natives encountered each other, they have a sense of equality, and a proportion of need for each other.
The Oblates, even in their dying years, now seem to understand the damage done by some of their members and much of their practice. They also have come to respect both the devotion and organizational skill of the aboriginal pilgrims.
While most natives still seem to struggle in their attempts to balance traditional beliefs with Catholicism, they at least see in both a deep spirituality, as well as an intimate connection with the lake. No legal challenge can change that.
Sitting serenely under a tree, Piché knows the buildings and site around him could be seized.
Sitting at a crowded picnic table across the way, Wood understands that his diocese - the one of his parents and grandparents - may be lost too.
But like most of the priests and pilgrims around them, both men know that whatever is lost - the shrine, the grounds, the event itself - would be temporal. They say the essence of Lac Ste. Anne, be it Christ's grandmother or an immortal grandmother spirit, would continue. And the shared journey of every pilgrim would go on.