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Archbishop Murray Chatlain describes Catholic ministry in northern diocese of Keewatin-Le Pas

Warm welcome for Archbishop Chatlain at information evening providing Information and suggestions for a closer relationship with Catholics in the North

By Kiply Lukan Yaworski

Archbishop Murray Chatlain returned to his hometown 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.

ARchbishop ChatlainA crowd of some 80 interested and engaged listeners from parishes across the city gathered for the evening presentation by the Archbishop of Keewatin-Le Pas, who offered images, insights and anecdotes about the gifts and faith of the people of his northern diocese, as well as describing 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,” Archbishop Chatlain said, as he shared images of people of all ages in prayer, celebrating sacraments, and participating in pilgrimages across the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas.

His slide show also highlighted missionary priests such as Fr. Guru Prasad Mendem, MSFS, of India who is serving at Holy Cross Parish at Cross Lake Manitoba, the community brought to public attention after six people committed suicide in one short period in 2016. Fr. Messia Vallapadasu, SDM, also from India, was shown pictured with a proud mom and her child (wrapped on a traditional cradleboard) at St Theresa Point, MB, a very active and strong Catholic community. 

Fr. Victor Savarimuthu, SDM, serves at Saint Marguerite d’Youville Parish in Wasagamach, MB, where he lived for some 18 months in the church sacristy, before the community pulled together 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 Archbishop Chatlain. 

Other images presented and explained by Chatlain included a diocesan youth leader, local lay leaders and volunteers, (including graduates of an Aboriginal Catholic Lay Formation Program ) who are making a difference in the communities of the northern archdiocese. 

The gifts of indigenous culture are incorporated into the practice of Catholic faith, noted Archbishop Chatlain, showing a picture of a teepee-styled tabernacle next to a Divine Mercy image of Jesus in one northern community. 

The archbishop also described the gift of the sacred drum. “The sacred drum 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.” 

“Part of my hope for tonight is to give a bit of an appreciation for the gifts of the Aboriginal people,” said Archbishop Chatlain. 

Those gifts include a strong connection and respect for the land, and for how God speaks through creation, the animals, rocks and water, the archbishop described. 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 a lot of tolerance and acceptance of people, as they are,” Archbishop Chatlain added. “There is a sense of openness, and they have to forgive some really tough stuff.” 

Visibly moved, the archbishop shared a story of visiting families after the shooting in LaLoche, SK, 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 did the shooting, saying: “we forgive you, we don’t hold it against you.” 

Loss, grieving, trauma, suicide, addictions, family dysfunction, unemployment and poverty take their toll in northern communities, and highlight the need for support and healing. 

Archbishop 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. There is still a lot of struggle with alcohol, and amongst families, violence, those are practical issues that we are trying to wrestle with.” 

At the same time, the Church also often tends to run away from its own darkness, he said, sharing another quote from 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,” Archbishop Chatlain said there is a need for great honesty and humility. “I think for a healthy relationship with the North, part of it is being aware of our own darknesses, our own places of blindness … when we are honest and open about that, I think we are so much more healthy in our relationship with each other.” 

The legacy of residential schools is “one of the pieces of our darkness,” Archbishop Chatlain said. “We went from the point of saying, well it was a good idea with some bad people, to now, through the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission), and listening to our Aboriginal Peoples and how they experienced it, we realize that basically it was a bad idea, with some good people trying to make the best of it.” 

Archbishop Chatlain described how there were seven residential schools in the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas, and seven in the nearby Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith. He acknowledged that the ultimate goal of these schools was assimilation, and that the damage caused is not something that will be easily overcome. “So it is part of our place… this is a tension we will be working through for a lot of years yet.” 

He described the comments of elders at a northern residential school gathering – faithful and active Catholics – who even while acknowledging some good things about the schools, asked: “how come they had to be so mean?” 

Chatlain also shared the story of what was probably the best residential school: Grandin College in Fort Smith, NWT, which was a high school for the most academically gifted students that operated from 1960 to 1985. Many community leaders in the Northwest Territories attended Grandin College, Archbishop Chatlain said, describing the vision of principal Rev. Jean Pochat-Cotillous, OMI, who “had a sense of the goodness of the people, and (who was) cheerleading for them.” 

Even so, one of the Dene graduates of Grandin College — who is now studying to be a Catholic deacon — recently explained how the school undermined culture, Archbishop Chatlain related. “The message was: ‘Your culture, your language, your heritage is not really that important. You need to know how to live in the South’. And so that message got passed on, even in our best school,” the archbishop said. 

“It is just part of that complexity of living with our history,” said Chatlain, expressing hope for moving forward together in humility and healing. 

Archbishop Murray Chatlain also had five concrete suggestions for his listeners about how to connect with the Church in the North.

1. “Educate yourself about our North – knowledge is medicine against prejudice,” he said. 

2. Secondly, 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. “That missionary role is not for everyone… but it could be a call that God puts on your heart.” 

3. Chatlain also suggested developing a twinning relationship between parishes in the dioceses of Saskatoon and Keewatin-Le Pas. This has potential for “building connections in different ways, but starting out by just getting to know each other,” he said. 

4. 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 bit of project in the parish, or a renovation, can be a big boost.” 

5. Finally, he suggested: “Invite people from a (northern) parish to your home and parish,” describing the sometimes painful experiences of isolation and rejection that northerners have when coming south for events or appointments. 

keewatin confirmation group

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Archbishop Chatlain concluded his presentation with a series of images showing beautiful 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 Archbishop Chatlain answering questions about language, climate change, population, medical services, and the impact of technology. 

Archbishop Murray Chatlain was born and raised in Saskatoon, and was serving as a priest 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 diocesan collection Jan. 28 will go to the Needs of the Canadian Church and to ministry in the Diocese of Keewatin-Le Pas. The diocese of Saskatoon is also presently providing a priest – Fr. Lawrence DeMong, OSB - to serve in the parishes at LaRonge and Southend in the Keewatin-Le Pas diocese. (To donate online go to: http://www.dscatholicfoundation.ca/special-appeals/needs-canadian-church)

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