Algae problem at annual Catholic pilgrimage angers priest

Some people attending an annual pilgrimage at Alberta’s Lac Ste. Anne say they’re upset at how they were told a blue-green algae warning had been issued for the water.

LAC STE. ANNE — Some people attending an annual pilgrimage at Alberta’s Lac Ste. Anne say they’re upset at how they were told a blue-green algae warning had been issued for the water.

Father Garry Laboucane, chairman of the board of directors that oversees the pilgrimage, says he heard about the health alert through the media.

He says Alberta Health Services should have been more proactive in contacting police or coming down to the site itself.

Dr. Gerry Predy of AHS admits that when the growth was first discovered, officials weren’t aware the pilgrimage was doing on.

He says as soon as they realized what was happening, his staff did contact organizers.

Last Sunday, many of those attending the pilgrimage waded into the water to pray and take part in a ritual blessing.

“This water is supposed to be healing. I guess it isn’t now,” said attendee Teresa Peyachew. “Kind of disappointing. It’s nice and warm out. It would’ve been nice to go out and swim.”

Peyachew is one of 10,000 people who came out for the 123-year-old event, which ends Thursday.

“I thought I’d just come here in the water,” said Leona Morin. “A lot of people come here for the healing. That’s why I came.”

Organizers of the pilgrimage have been trying to spread the word that the water isn’t safe.

“We’ve taken precautions to advise all the pilgrims that they’re not supposed to go in the water,” said spokesman Clay LeBlanc.

Organizers have also come up with a backup plan. Instead of going into the lake, pilgrims are bringing tap water to a priest, who is blessing the water which is when considered to have the same healing properties as the lake water.

AHS said in a news release that visitors to the lake and residents on the shores should not drink from the lake or swim or wade in it.

The AHS advisory also recommends people not allow their pets or livestock to drink water from the lake, and says people may wish to limit their consumption of fish caught in the lake.

The advisory says blue-green algae produces a toxin that can cause serious illness to animals or humans who drink or have skin contact with infected water.

It says weather and wind conditions can cause algae blooms to move from one location in the lake to another, and the toxin can stay in the water even after algae have moved or disappeared.

People who come in contact with or ingest water containing toxic blue-green algae may experience skin irritation, rash, sore throat, sore red eyes, swollen lips, fever, nausea and vomiting and/or diarrhea.

Symptoms usually appear within one to three hours and resolve in one to two days. Symptoms in children are often more pronounced because they spend more time in the water and are more likely to accidentally ingest contaminated water.