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Introduction to the Catholic missions of the western Canadian Arctic

 

By Rev. Jon Hansen, CSsR

05/10/2017

I am a missionary priest. My mission territory is not in Africa or Asia but right here in Canada, north of the Arctic Circle. The diocese in which I work is Mackenzie-Ft. Smith, the second largest diocese in the world geographically speaking.

Over 1.5 million square kilometres, the diocese ranges from the Alberta border in the south (with parts of northern Saskatchewan), Nunavut in the east, the Yukon to the west and then north as far as you can go. To give you an idea of how large that is, it takes a two-hour flight in a jet to go south to north from Yellowknife to Inuvik. If you want to drive you can count on about three-and-a-half days. It’s pretty big.
 
In the northwestern corner is the area of the diocese where I live. It is the land of the midnight sun, gateway to the Beaufort Delta and western Canadian Arctic. This mission territory was pioneered and nurtured by the priests and brothers of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the Sisters of Charity of Montreal (Grey Nuns) and most recently tended by missionary priests, brothers and sisters from across Canada and around the world.

I have some big shoes to fill and I am grateful to be here now with the support of my Redemptorist brothers of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer and my Bishop, Mark Hagemoen.

Inuvik is the commercial and government centre of the communities in the Beaufort Delta. It is a town of about 3,500 people and is a mixed community of Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and people from the south of Canada and around the world. The parish in Inuvik is called Our Lady of Victory but the church is most often referred to as the “Igloo Church” according to its architectural similarity with the traditional winter shelter of the northern nomadic peoples. From the parish in Inuvik the Redemptorists serve three other missions.
 
Tsiigehtchic sits high on prominent bluff overlooking the confluence of the Arctic Red River with the mighty Mackenzie. It is a Gwich’in community, the home of fishermen and fur trappers as well as teachers and government workers. There are very few services here; the nearest police detachment is an hour away. Connection to the highway relies on a short ferry ride or the use of the ice road across the river once winter arrives which is usually in early October. The church here, Holy Name of Mary, is served by Grace Blake. Grace presides at Sunday service when the priest is not around. In Grace’s words, “not too many attend church anymore but it is important that we pray and lift up the community.”
 
Tuktoyaktuk is an Inuvialuit community located on a peninsula jutting into the Beaufort Sea. Barren describes the land’s lack of trees but it does not do justice to the beauty that is present here. As one flies into the community your senses are overwhelmed as the sun sparkles off the thousands of tiny lakes glistening like diamonds highlighting a mossy green and crimson canvas.

Sister Fay Trombley, SCIC, has been serving the mission of Our Lady of Grace for the past 12 years along with local elders Jean Gruben and Dorothy Loreen. Together they foster the faith of the small Catholic community as well as serve the needs of the larger community through the St. Vincent de Paul outreach
 
Paulatuk, also an Inuvialuit community, lies at the head of Darnley Bay on the Arctic coast 300 km to the east of Inuvik. Marlene Wolki is the lay leader of the parish community of Our Lady of Lourdes serving this primarily Catholic community of 350 people. Services take place in a little Quonset Hut that was built next to the old Oblate mission house which still stands strong, even if a little weather beaten after many Arctic winters.

Paulatuk is accessible only by air or sea. The sense of isolation is palpable. To imagine the conditions the early missionaries must have endured, not to mention the people who have thrived on this land for 5,000 years, is both daunting and inspiring.
 
What these communities share is the friendliness and welcoming attitude of the people. While there is a real sense of independence and self-reliance, it does not hinder the desire for relationship and community-building. Perhaps it even serves as a catalyst because even the most self-reliant person understands that they can’t do everything on their own. Some things take the work of a community.
 
There is also pain here. Social issues and addiction are evident. The legacy of the residential school system is a memory that is not very distant and although there is a deep spirituality among the people, resistance and a cautious attitude toward the church is sometimes apparent.

Therefore, ministry here requires more listening and less talking, more time spent being present with and less presiding over, more consoling and less cajoling, taking the time to first listen, learn and discern what the Spirit is asking while I am in this magnificent land among these wonderful people.

Hansen will be writing regularly for the PM about life in the North. See his website: www.jonhansencssr.com