SASKATOON — Archbishop Murray Chatlain of Keewatin-Le Pas returned to his home town for a visit recently, receiving a warm welcome at an information meeting about the church in the North, held Dec. 11 at St. Anne’s Parish in Saskatoon.
A crowd of some 80 interested and engaged listeners from across the city gathered for the evening presentation by Chatlain, who offered images, insights, and anecdotes about the people of his northern diocese, as well as some of the challenges facing their communities.
Chatlain’s archdiocese covers some 430,000 square kilometres across northern Saskatchewan, northern Manitoba, and a small corner of northwestern Ontario. The culture of this vast area includes First Nations — Cree, Oji-Cree, and Dene — as well as Métis and non-indigenous peoples. The archdiocese includes some 43 parishes and missions.
“There is hope for the faith in the North,” said Chatlain, sharing images of people at prayer, celebrating the sacraments, and participating in pilgrimages across the archdiocese.
His slide show also highlighted the work of missionary priests such as Rev. Guru Prasad Mendem, MSFS, of India who is serving at Holy Cross Parish at Cross Lake, Manitoba, the community that came to public attention after six people committed suicide there in one short period in 2016.
Rev. Messia Vallapadasu, SDM, also from India, was shown with a proud mother and her child (wrapped on a traditional cradle board) at St. Theresa Point, Man., an active and strong Catholic community.
Rev. Victor Savarimuthu, SDM, serves at St. Marguerite d’Youville Parish in Wasagamach, Man., where he lived for 18 months in the church sacristy before the community was able to build a small house for him. “He is now able to say mass and communicate in Oji/Cree or the local dialect, and has done very well in that community,” described Chatlain.
Other images Chatlain presented included a diocesan youth leader, local lay leaders, and volunteers (including the graduates of an Aboriginal Lay Formation Program) who are making a difference in the communities of their archdiocese.
The gifts of indigenous culture are incorporated into the practice of the Catholic faith, noted Chatlain, showing a picture of a teepee-style tabernacle next to a Divine Mercy image of Jesus. He also described the sacred drum: it “is used in every culture that we have,” he said, describing how drummers will make the sign of the cross before and after a drum prayer. “The drum is not just for games or music, but it is a way we pray.”
“My hope for tonight is to give an appreciation of the gifts of the Aboriginal people,” said Chatlain. Those gifts include a strong connection to the land, and an appreciation for how God speaks through creation, the animals, rocks, and water. Indigenous people model a dynamic and healthy relationship with creation, he said. “They are a gift to us in trying to adopt more humility in how we approach the land.”
The importance of elders is something we can also learn from Aboriginal people, he said. “One of the gifts of the North is forgiveness and acceptance: there is tolerance and acceptance of people as they are. There is a sense of openness — and they have to forgive some really tough stuff,” he added.
The archbishop shared a story of visiting families after the shooting in LaLoche, Sask., last year, in which four were killed and several others injured. Chatlain described how one bereaved family sent a message to the family of the youth who committed the shooting, saying, “We forgive you, we don’t hold it against you.”
Loss, grief, trauma, suicide, addictions, family dysfunction, unemployment, and poverty all take their toll in northern communities, and highlight the need for support and healing.
Chatlain shared a quote from Barbara Brown Taylor, author of Learning to Walk in the Dark, about the harm of running away from sadness and darkness: “In the North we are doing a lot of running.” Many northerners are struggling with alcohol, and family violence. “These are practical issues we are trying to wrestle with.”
The church tends to run away from its own darkness as well, he said, quoting the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung: “Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.”
Rather than coming in as if “we’ve got it altogether,” Chatlain said, there is a need for honesty and humility. Part of developing a healthy relationship with the North, he said, “is being aware of our own darknesses, our own places of blindness. When we are honest and open about that, we are much more healthy in our relationship with each other.”
The legacy of the residential schools is “one of the pieces of our darkness,” Chatlain said. “We went from saying, ‘Well, it was a good idea with some bad people,’ to actually listening to Aboriginal people describe how they experienced it. Now we realize that it was a bad idea, with some good people trying to make the best of it.”
Chatlain described how there had been seven residential schools in the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas, and seven in the nearby Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith. He acknowledged that the goal of the schools was assimilation, and that the resultant damage is not something that will be easily overcome. “This is a tension we will be working through for a lot of years yet.”
He described the comments of some of the elders — faithful and active Catholics — who, while acknowledging some good things about the schools, asked, “How come they had to be so mean?”
Chatlain shared the story of what was probably the best of the residential schools: Grandin College in Fort Smith, N.W.T., which was a high school for academically gifted students that operated from 1960 to 1985. Many of the current community leaders in the Northwest Territories attended Grandin College, Chatlain said, describing the vision of the principal, Rev. Jean Pochat-Cotillous, OMI, who “had a sense of the goodness of the people.”
Even so, the school undermined culture, Chatlain related. “The message was, ‘Your culture, your language, your heritage are not really important. You need to know how to live in the South.’ That message got passed on, even in our best school,” the archbishop said.
Chatlain offered five concrete suggestions about how to connect with the church in the North. First, “Educate yourself about our North,” he said. “Knowledge is medicine against prejudice.”
Second, he invited those who want to help to “come and see. Jesus used those words quite a bit.” Chatlain described examples of an individual, a family, and a retired couple who came to assist with ministry in the north in different ways. “The missionary role isn’t for everyone, but it could be a call that God puts on your heart.”
Third, Chatlain suggested developing a twinning relationship between parishes in the dioceses of Saskatoon and Keewatin-Le Pas. This has the potential for “building connections in different ways, but starting out by just getting to know each other.”
A fourth idea is to support or sponsor projects or parishes in the North. There are many needs, large and small, he said: “Sometimes helping with a project in the parish, or a renovation, can be a big boost.”
Finally, he suggested inviting people from a northern parish “to your home and your parish,” describing the sometimes painful experiences of isolation and rejection that northerners have when coming south for events or appointments.
Chatlain concluded his presentation with a series of images showing the many faces, young and old, of Keewatin-Le Pas parishioners, saying, “Here are the reasons we want to keep working and being in our communities.”
A question-and-answer period followed, with Chatlain answering questions about language, climate change, population, medical services, and the impact of technology.
Chatlain was born and raised in Saskatoon, and was serving at an inner-city parish when he began working with Aboriginal people. After taking a sabbatical to learn Dene, he eventually volunteered to serve as pastor at Fond du Lac and Black Lake in northern Saskatchewan. He was ordained Coadjutor Bishop of Mackenzie-Fort Smith in 2007, becoming bishop of that diocese in May 2008, before being appointed Archbishop of Keewatin-Le Pas in 2012.
In the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, a special collection Jan. 28 will go to the needs of the Canadian church and ministry in the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas. The Saskatoon diocese is also providing a priest — Rev. Lawrence DeMong, OSB — to serve in parishes at LaRonge and Southend in the Keewatin-Le Pas archdiocese.