Missionary work was evident at Lac St. Anne, the lake dedicated to this saint by the Oblates of Mary, who arrived there in the 19th century. The lake was revered by the indigenous peoples, who considered it sacred. The Nakota Sioux called it “Wakame” (Lake of God), while the Cree called it Lake of the Spirit. However, Father Jean-Baptiste Thibault, the first missionary to establish a permanent Catholic mission there, renamed it Lac Ste. Anne.
The mission of Sainte-Anne was founded in 1843 by Thibault and Father Joseph Bourassa, to which was added Father Albert Lacombe, who made his novitiate there between 1855 and 1856 under the direction of Father René Rémas, who arrived in 1855.
It was in those crucial years, between 1857 and 1865, that the chapel was enlarged and a convent and school were added to the complex, entrusted to the Sisters of Charity of Montreal in 1858–1859.
About 800 Native American Métis and Cree from the prairies attended school and learned from a missionary in Lac-la-Biche how to make lime and build houses.
By 1887, the mission of Sainte-Anne was in danger of closing. Another missionary, Father Joseph Lestanc, however, had a divine inspiration — and built a shrine in honor of Jesus’ grandmother, which was to be a place where pilgrims could come and receive spiritual help and guidance.
So he did. It was 1889. In that same year, some people obtained spiritual and physical healings, particularly in contact with Lac-Sainte-Anne. That year, pilgrimages began, attracting pilgrims from all over the Northwest, primarily indigenous.
The missionaries thus accompanied the indigenous traditions. The blessing of water, done with a cross in the Indian way that points toward the cardinal points, is the sign of that combination of cultures that brought the Gospel to the Native American populations.
A parish for everyone
Visiting the Sacred Heart parish in Edmonton on July 25, Pope Francis reiterated his “shame” and sorrow at the hurt caused by Catholics during the era of Canada’s residential school system.
Pope Francis said: “The indigenous peoples attribute a powerful cosmic significance to the cardinal points, seen not only as geographical reference points but also as dimensions that embrace all reality and indicate the way to heal it, as embodied by the so-called ‘medicine wheel.’ This church appropriates that symbolism of the cardinal points and gives it a Christological meaning. Jesus, through the four extremities of his cross, has embraced the four cardinal points and has brought together the most distant peoples; Jesus has brought healing and peace to all things. On the cross, he accomplished God’s plan: to reconcile all things.”
The Sacred Heart church today features a crucifix combined with the shape of a teepee, the typical Indian tent, as well as other typical elements.
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Founded in 1913, its origins date back to the arrival of many migrants in the Canadian West. It was initially designed according to the “French Gothic Revival” architectural style, and immediately became a spiritual home to Edmonton's immigrants. This was a place for everyone.
Over time, many migrants coming to the West founded their own parishes in Edmonton, including the Italian parish of Santa Maria Goretti, the Spanish parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Portuguese parish of Our Lady of Fatima, and the Croatian parish dedicated to the Nativity of Mary.
Sacred Heart parish remained a reception center for all immigrants and those in need of all faiths, providing food and practical help for new arrivals.
When a fire destroyed the original buildings in 1966, the parish was restored and found a new, additional purpose: providing pastoral care for indigenous peoples. On Oct. 27, 1991, Archbishop Joseph McNeil proclaimed it as the parish of the peoples of the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit.
The church’s interior was transformed to become, architecturally, the indigenous peoples’ parish home. Original works by Metis and indigenous artists decorate the walls. At the same time, the parish continues its tradition of welcoming new migrants. It currently hosts the recently arrived Ethiopian Orthodox community.
Indigenous Canadian symbols have become a living part and expression of the cultural tradition of the parish. Many celebrations in Canada include Native American languages, drums, and musical instruments. Some noted that this was missing at liturgical celebrations with Pope Francis.