Pope Francis’ First Nations Pilgrimage Begins and Ends with St. Anne, the Church’s Grandmother

Grandmothers are traditionally revered in Canada’s Indigenous culture, and St. Anne’s grandmotherly intercession is playing a significant role in this papal pilgrimage’s search for healing the Church and First Nations.

“St. Anne and Jesus”
“St. Anne and Jesus” (photo: Andre Prevost)

LAC ST. ANNE, Alberta — Among Indigenous Catholics of North America, St. Anne is greatly revered as the grandmother of Jesus. So Pope Francis’ July 24-30 “pilgrimage of penitence” to Canada’s First Nations, Meti, and Inuit peoples fittingly centers the beginning and ending around two shrines dedicated to St. Anne.

In North American Indigenous cultures, grandparents and elders are traditionally revered. But grandmothers have an especially honored status, since as women they are blessed with the Creator’s gift of nurturing life, and as grandmothers, they nurture their children’s children with their gifts of memory, wisdom and unconditional love.

Many of us can recognize their spiritual insight the Vatican affirmed as the “idea of the nonna” recalling memories of our own grandmothers’ role and influence in our own lives — and their love that could be our refuge in times of trouble. So St. Anne, as Jesus’ grandmother, is the perfect patron saint of this papal pilgrimage.

On July 26, the feast of Sts. Anne and Joachim, Pope Francis opens the week-long Lac St. Anne Pilgrimage, which is attended by tens of thousands of Indigenous Catholics every year. The waters of Lac St. Anne, located northwest of Edmonton, Alberta, are known as a place of healing. The Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation calls Lac St. Anne, “God’s lake” or Wakamne — and people have experienced healing here, both physical and spiritual, similar to those experienced at Lourdes. All are welcome to join this pilgrimage.

A grandmother wants to see her children and children’s children live in loving harmony, and certainly Jesus’ grandmother is working to bring that about in this pilgrimage. Pope Francis learned about the pilgrimage when the elders and representatives of Canada’s First Nations spoke with him about the pain of the Church’s involvement in colonialism, and most particularly the residential schools, which devastated their peoples as children were separated from their families. Children were robbed of their right to flourish with their parents and be raised in the love of their families. They were deprived of their language, their community and their very identity — often under extremely brutal circumstances. Many children lost their lives, and many children suffered horrific abuse of all kinds. First Nations people told him about their pain, but also about their enduring faith, and the St. Anne pilgrimage.

There’s a beautiful icon of Jesus and St. Anne featured in traditional regalia of the Plains First Nations with Lac St. Anne as the backdrop. (You can check out the profile I wrote on the artist, Canadian Andre Prevost, and his First Nations iconography series). Prevost completed the icon, commissioned by Metis elder and Catholic priest, Father Garry Laboucane, in time for the 2017 Lac St. Anne pilgrimage. Prevost’s description of the icon prophetically reinforces how vital Jesus and St. Anne are in leading Pope Francis and the whole Church’s next steps for healing and reconciliation:

St. Anne embodies the grandmother figure, having a respected place in Aboriginal societies, and pivotal within the preservation and teaching and formation within ‘the culture.’ This icon is set within the dance, a culmination of this teaching with her grandson, who in turn is so loving and honoring of his grandmother.
The dance is central to Indigenous culture, and based upon honor, respect, joy, and the ‘learning from the elders’.
This dance setting has Ste. Anne and Christ portrayed as the ‘Head Dancers.’ ‘Head Dancers are the designated female and male dancer, who are appointed to lead all the other dancers. This position is one of honor, with all other dancers offering the deserved respect. For any given set of songs, no other dancer will dance until the heads dancers commence.’ … This symbolism is central for the icon, both within the actual cultural setting, but also within the global community of Faith. 

Pope Francis’ pilgrimage next brings him to Quebec, Canada, where he will go to the Shrine of St. Anne de Beaupré before concluding his pilgrimage by visiting the Inuit city of Iqaluit. This basilica shrine is also known as a place of healing, and thousands of Indigenous people in Canada have visited it every year. From coast to coast, the Pope will be praying for true healing and reconciliation under the protection of St. Anne.

Hopefully with St. Anne and her grandson Jesus, our Creator and Redeemer, we are being led to a new era of reconciliation. The original missionaries in Canada dreamed of a Catholic Church native in its expression. If the Church walks with Indigenous communities, it can be that Church once again. The Mass is finally being translated into the Squamish language in Western Canada, for example. The Church can support language revitalization that is saving lives and restoring cultures, especially by making use of Magnum Principium to translate the Mass and liturgies into their languages upon request. The Church is long overdue to honor the request to translate the Mass into St. Kateri’s own Mohawk language. 

But the Church’s history in North America should also be revisited and retold. We all live in the shadow of 20th-century Catholic historians who could not reconcile colonialism with the truth of the Church’s early story found in original sources — and basically wrote Indigenous Catholics out of the story, or “rewrote” the facts to fit a colonizing narrative. But all Catholics deserve to know the real St. Kateri Tekakwitha as the Mohawk who flourished in a Garden of Haudenosaunee Saints who were all Catholics living their faith fully alive in their beautiful cultures. All Catholics deserve to know the men and women honored as martyrs, saints and evangelists, such as St. Jean de Brébeuf, St. Isaac Jogues and other Jesuit martyrs and priests in their own time. They deserve to know men and women like the Wendat (Huron) Catholic proto-martyr Joseph Chiwatenhwa, his wife Marie Aonetta and their family, for whom St. John Paul II was practically begging the Canadian Church to start a cause of canonization. He praised them for having “witnessed to their faith in an heroic manner” and stated they “provide even today eloquent models for lay ministry.” Catholics deserve to know about the incorruptible St. Kateri of the West, Rose Prince of the Dakelh, who nourished by the Eucharist, chose to stay and comfort other Dakelh children suffering in the residential school, teaching them prayers and songs in their language — an act forbidden by the government but enabled by the sisters. 

So much of the story of lay holiness in the Americas is Native holiness. With St. Anne’s intercession, Pope Francis’ pilgrimage will truly begin to brighten the chain of faith between the Church and First Nations. 

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