Alberta communities still planning for Pope Francis' visit, hope for healing

With plans for Pope Francis' visit to Canada still on, some Alberta communities are bracing for the massive event and what it could mean for Indigenous community members.

The Pope may visit Lac Ste. Anne, said county reeve

A cross in Lac Ste. Anne. The pope may visit the area, but that is yet to be confirmed. (CBC)

Plans for Pope Francis' upcoming Canadian visit are still on, even as the pontiff cancels a planned trip to Africa on doctors' orders.

The Vatican said the trip was postponed because of the pontiff's ongoing knee problems, but plans for the Pope's visit to Alberta, Quebec and Nunavut at the end of July are still going forward. 

Though not final, plans are being made for the pope to visit the Lac Ste. Anne area, about 65 km northwest of Edmonton.

Local pastor Les Kwiatkowski said he believes the Pope's visit could help many local Indigenous people, including the region's Métis residents, heal.

Les Kwiatkowski, pastor of the Lac Ste. Anne Parish, said he hopes the Pope's visit can lead to reconciliation and healing in the community. (CBC)

"This is kind of known as [an] Indigenous gathering, spiritual gathering place," he said, speaking to CBC inside the Lac Ste. Anne parish. 

"Where is [a] better place to have for healing than already spiritual ground? Holy ground, like many people call this place."

If confirmed, the Pope would attend Lac Ste. Anne's annual pilgrimage event July 26 to 29. 

Kim Zackodnik owns Mama's In the Kitchen, a restaurant in neighbouring Alberta Beach. She said the Pope's potential visit has been the talk of the town.

I hope that this will bring new life.- Pastor Les Kwiatkowski

She said the trip means a lot to her community. 

"We are very spiritual, our lake is very blessed and people flock from all over Canada to come to this lake to be here, so spiritually I think it's a great idea," she said. 

Along with the spiritual benefits, she also expects more business at the end of July.

"It's going to be crazy, and this year I think it's probably going to be our busiest yet for our community," Zackodnik said. 

Hopes for reconciliation, 'brighter future'

Community leaders anticipate that if the Pope visits, it'll bring in more business for restaurants, hotels, and other services in the area. 

Despite the anticipated excitement, Lac Ste. Anne's reeve warns it won't be as massive an event as some may be expecting. Alberta Beach Council had previously issued a statement saying upwards of 250,000 to 500,000 people could be coming to the Edmonton area for the visit.

Joe Blakeman, the reeve, said the site will only allow around 80,000 people.

"We know we're going to have a lot of people that are coming this way that just want to see him or hoping or thinking they can see him, but you're going to have to have a pass and it's going to be park and ride," Blakeman said.

"It's not like you can just drive up, get out of your car and see the Pope." 

Blakeman said it will likely be a one hour event blessing the lake and holding a small mass. 

"All of our neighbours have a very big Catholic and Indigenous population, and so it makes it important not just for Lac Ste. Anne County but it makes it important for all of northern Alberta, or the province as a whole," he said.

Kwiatkowski said he hopes this event to lead toward reconciliation and healing for community members.

"I hope that this will bring new life," he said. "I hope that it will bring some kind of brighter future."

The community is still waiting for confirmation on whether the Pope will be visiting the area or not.


Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi is a CBC reporter based in Edmonton. She worked in newsrooms in Toronto, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Yellowknife before joining CBC North in 2017.