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Canada Jul 26, 2017

Fountain Lake Pilgrimage must go on, say organizers

By Agnieszka Krawczynski

People gather around an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe during the annual Fountain Lake Pilgrimage in 2016. (BCC file photo)

VANCOUVER—An annual pilgrimage that was in danger of closing due to B.C. wildfires is back on.

Between 40-100 pilgrims camp at Fountain Lake, in the heart of B.C., every year for a weekend of prayer and socializing. Despite hurdles including what some are calling the worst wildfire season in the province’s history, they plan to do it again Aug. 11-13.

“It joins the people together, native and non-native,” said Debbie Mitchell, who hosts the pilgrimage with her husband, Cecil. The pilgrimage site, a meadow 15 kilometres north of Lillooet, has belonged to her ancestors for generations.

“Our goal” is to “bring people back to the faith.”

Pilgrims began making the trek to Fountain Lake in 1976. The event was paused in the 1980s but brought back by local priests like Father Robert Haggarty, OMI, and then-Bishop of Kamloops David Monroe.

Last year, the Mitchells told The B.C. Catholic the 2016 pilgrimage may be the last one because it’s been increasingly taxing for the elderly hosts. In July, when wildfires broke out and consumed thousands of hectares of the province, the Diocese of Kamloops called the pilgrimage off.

But conditions have since improved enough that organizers say the event is back on.

“The air here in Lillooet is smoke-free and the sky is blue,” said Father Haggarty. “Fountain Lake pilgrimage is on for sure,” he said, barring unforeseen new fires in the area.

Debbie said she looks forward to hosting the pilgrimage and meeting Bishop Joseph Nguyen, who was ordained in Kamloops in 2016 and is set to join the pilgrims in Fountain Lake for the first time this year.

From its inception in 1976, the pilgrimage has been an opportunity for First Nations people to gather, pray, and meet the local Catholic bishop in an informal setting, according to Father Haggarty.

Bishop Adam Exner (Kamloops shepherd from 1974-1982) launched the event. He and local people would “spend the whole weekend together, listening to the word of God, celebrating the sacraments, and having time for adoration." Father Haggarty said it was also time for the people to articulate about their life and talk about being First Nations and being Catholic.

There was an “ebb and flow” to the pilgrimage, but it made a comeback in the 1980s. At some point, the invitation was extended to missionaries and non-aboriginal people, and it was also the site of several significant moments, including the ordination of a First Nations deacon in 1981.

“It helps people with their journey of faith,” said Father Haggarty. “It’s a magnificent natural cathedral.”

The pilgrimage will begin with Mass at 5 p.m. Aug. 11. Pilgrims bring their own tents, camp stoves, and food for the weekend.

Debbie is still unsure about the future of the pilgrimage after 2017. “We’ll do it again and see what happens from here.”