A look Beyond Headlines: Pope Francis Encounters Catholic, Life History on Canada Journey

Indigenous drummers welcome Pope Francis to Lac Ste. Anne. Vatican Media

The images of Pope Francis receiving a feathered headdress by indigenous Canadians as well as the many moving moments and significant gestures on this papal trip have made headlines around the world.

This “penitential pilgrimage,” dedicated to a real path of reconciliation with the Native American populations, is also an apostolic journey to a country with a rich and varied Catholic history.

The closeness of the Catholic Church to the indigenous peoples of Canada has been visually captured by two encounters for Pope Francis: The visit to Lac Ste. Anne and to the parish of the Sacred Heart in Edmonton.

A moment that moved many to tears 

The historical wound is real and deep: Many indigenous Canadians wept when Pope Francis issued his apology in Maskwacis on July 25, a public expression aimed at helping to help heal the damaging legacy of the Catholic Church’s involvement in the Canadian residential schools system. 


“Indian residential schools” were Canadian government boarding schools to which children of indigenous peoples were forcibly sent, separated from their families and traditions, for the purpose of being assimilated into the language and culture of the modern nation being built on their own ancient homelands.

These schools were also entrusted to Christian institutions, some of them Catholic. The health situation in many schools was terrible. Epidemics spread, and children were mistreated, some even abused.

According to government estimates, at least 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children were taken away from their families and communities and forced to attend school between 1870 and 1997. At least 4,120 children died at the schools.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which ran from 2008–2015, concluded that thousands of children died while attending “Indian Residential Schools” and called for action on 94 points

Of these, four were directed at the Church and one included the call for an apology

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The call may have been now. What Pope Francis is doing now is not new, however — he is continuing what Benedict XVI did before him and John Paul II undertook in 1987. 

The apology has an important historical context, and it cannot deny the great missionary work that has also taken place in Canada. This is what Pope Francis, in his homily at Edmonton Stadium, wanted to emphasize when speaking about the work of the missionaries.

The Shrine of Lac Ste. Anne

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.

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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. 

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.

A Moccasin Gesture

Canada’s contemporary Catholic life — and its rich history at Sacred Heart — was a powerful backdrop to the visit of Pope Francis in Edmonton. 

The Argentinian pope, son of Italian migrants, encountered a parish reflecting the culture of reception and inculturation of the Gospel he so often speaks about.

Equally, by going to the shrine of Lac Ste. Anne, Pope Francis highlighted how the Christian tradition can enhance local practice and custom instead of erasing it: The cult of St. Anne fits perfectly with the particular veneration that the indigenous people have for their Kokum, their grandmothers.

“Significantly, two of the most important events of this trip were focused on the figure of the grandmother,” said Bishop David Motiuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Edmonton.

Every detail of the pope’s journey has been carefully chosen. To this symbolism, which can also be found explained in the speeches of these days, Francis added one pertinent gesture at Maskwacis, the return of a special pair of moccasins. 

The moccasins were given to the pope during the April 1 meeting in the Vatican by Chief Marie-Anne Day Walker-Pelletier of the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan with the promise that he would have to bring him back when he went to Canada. Pope Francis did so.

The production of the moccasins is part of a campaign launched to raise awareness about child apprehension impacting indigenous children in Canada.

Andrea Gagliarducci is an Italian journalist for Catholic News Agency and Vatican analyst for ACI Stampa. He is a contributor to the National Catholic Register.