First Phase of Missionary Activity
The history of the Mackenzie‐Fort Smith Diocese is intimately linked to the presence of the French Oblates who came to Canada in 1841 at the request of Bishop Bourget of Montreal. From Quebec and Ontario the Oblates soon moved West and North.
When Father Alexandre Taché, omi left Saint Boniface to travel to Fort Chipewyan, Alberta in 1847, he was far from thinking that he was staking out the existence of a mission territory that would come to be known as the Mackenzie‐Fort Smith Diocese, the size of the Province of Quebec. On September the second of that year he reached Fort Chipewyan.
Historically, the Indian people, as they were called then, were a very religious or spiritual people. Living on the land had made them discover the existence of the Great Spirit. They had developed a rich spirituality. This spirituality and our Catholic Faith shared much in common.
In their early writings to their homeland, the French Missionaries spoke of the deep faith and generosity of the people. This gave them hope of building a society and church that was closer to the Gospel than France itself.
Pope John Paul II recognized that reality when he came to America and said to the Aboriginal people:
“For untold generations, you the native peoples have lived in a relationship of trust with the Creator, seeking the beauty and the richness of the land as coming from his bountiful hand. In contact with the forces of nature, your ancestors learned the value of prayer, silence, fasting, patience and courage.
When the faith was first preached among the native inhabitants of this land, the worthy traditions of the Indian tribes were strengthened and enriched by the Gospel message. Your forebears knew by instinct that the Gospel, far from destroying their authentic values and customs, had the power to purify and uplift the cultural heritage which they had received.”
It is no wonder then that three weeks of intensive religious instruction in Fort Chipewyan produced 194 baptisms, the first fruits of a harvest that will see most native people of Northern Canada adopt the Catholic faith. Hundreds of missionaries, Fathers, Brothers, and Sisters would emulate Father Taché in crossing lakes and rivers, forests and prairies to reach the most remote camps and settlements of the North.
In spite of the almost insurmountable obstacles of land, climate, precarious living conditions,and thanks to the cooperation and in no small amount, help of the native people themselves, the Oblates in the person of Father Grollier, omi reached the Arctic Circle by the year 1857. He had as a companion, Brother Kearnie, omi, who remained, even without a holiday, in the mission of Good Hope for 57 years.
The apostolic work in those early days took many different forms from travelling by dog team to building and operating hospitals and school residences. Everywhere the conditions were extreme to the point where Pope Pius XI proclaimed the missionaries of the Canadian North as the specialists of the most difficult missions. In fact, more than 40 missionaries died in tragic circumstances (lost in storms, drowned, shot, frozen) since the early days of the Church in the North.
The pastoral principle that animated their apostolic action could be stated as follows:
“WHATEVER YOU DO TO THE LEAST OF MINE, YOU DO UNTO ME”
This principle animated the apostolic action of the Oblates and the Grey Nuns (who came to Fort Providence in 1867 to run the first mission school) for more than one hundred years. They preached and sacramentalized. They built hospitals and residential schools. They served as interpreters and even pulled teeth to be faithful to that principle.
Second Phase of Missionary Activity
From 1950 and on, the North was subjected to some radical changes that affected the presence and the action of the Catholic Church in the Western Arctic. The conditions of life have drastically changed.
Today, it is not a question of physical survival but rather psychological and moral survival due to the fact that the North has a new identity. The “old way of life” is a thing of the past. Now the First Nations and Inuit populations have to contend with money, radio, television, internal wage economy, etc… and not so much with “Where is my next meal to come from?”
Government Take‐Over of Institutions
One change that radically transformed the apostolate of the Oblates and the Grey Nuns was the fact that, in the fifties, the Canadian Government took away the health and education responsibilities from the Church. Thus the Church was eased out of the hospital and residential school systems. What had justified much of the labour of the missionaries was eliminated. The Church was somewhat forced to take a good and hard look at her presence and action and fall back more exclusively on her mandate of strict or pure evangelisation through preaching, administration of sacraments, etc.
Another factor that had serious consequences on the “identity” and modus operandi of the missionaries was the fact that in the late sixties and early seventies, Aboriginal People experienced a “cultural revival”. They discovered for themselves a new identity, a new self‐respect. The awareness of this dignity is well expressed by Pope John Paul II when he came to Canada and said to the Aboriginal People,
“You native peoples have a civilisation handed down from your ancestors. Over thousands of years, you have developed traditions, a way of life, a culture, and religious values and manifestations. It would be a big mistake on your part to forget those values and traditions for the sake of making money and getting more material things. What would the life of native peoples be worth if you forget who you have been and who you are? … if you forget how you have survived for thousands of years … if you forget for example that the land was given to you by the Creator and that you have to respect it and look after it carefully.”
A third factor that influenced even more directly the action of the missionaries on the Native People has been the holding of the Vatican II Council. A new awareness of who Catholics were was given to the whole Church membership. If the “whatever you do to the least of mine” was the motto of the apostolic action of the first phase, one has to say that the “you are a priestly nation” of Vatican II became the leitmotif of the Post‐Vatican II Church.
With Vatican II, lay people were encouraged to live their baptism in becoming “missionaries”. They were told that the preaching of the Gospel was also their mission. It was an offshoot of their baptism. More and more lay people do now in the North, what priests used to do.
They involve themselves in sacrament preparation, in Christian education, in financial administration, in leading prayer services in the absence of a priest, in giving communion and receiving the promises of marriage of Catholic couples as well as in conducting Christian funeral services.
Diocesan Synod – 1991
The challenge facing the Church in the late 1980’s was to develop a new identity or new way of being Church. The historical circumstances were a blessing in disguise as they forced the Church of the North to take a good look at itself to see how that challenge could be met.
When the Pope came to Fort Simpson in 1987, he had this message for the Native People:
“The challenge is for you to become active in the life of the Church. I understand that Bishop Croteau and the other bishops of the North are seeking ways of revitalizing the local churches so that you may become ever more effective witnesses of God’s Kingdom of love, justice, peace, forgiveness and human solidarity.
My dear Indian, Inuit and Metis friends, I appeal to all of you, especially the young people, to accept roles of responsibility and to contribute your talents to building up the church among your peoples.
I ask all the elders, leaders and parents to encourage and support vocations to the priesthood and religious life. In this way, the church will become ever more at home in your cultures, evangelizing and strengthening your traditional values and customs.”
Encouraged by that message the leadership of the Church organized a Diocesan Synod. After two years of serious preparation, the Synod was held in the summer of 1991. Like the Council of Vatican II, it gave the members of the Mackenzie‐Fort Smith Diocese a renewed identity and a new lease on life. The solution promoted by the Diocesan Synod was to involve the lay people themselves into the building of a Native Church.
The Synod also voted eighteen resolutions. Among them, two stood out as top priorities: LAY MINISTRY FORMATION (accent on native leadership and enculturation) and HEALING.
Ever since 1991, the diocese has laboured hard to make these two priorities the beacons guiding the passage of the diocesan church through the tumultuous waters of adaptation and evangelization. Many difficulties had to be faced in the years following our Diocesan Synod. One of them was the fact that the lay people feel unworthy and incapable of picking up the challenges thrown at them. It soon appeared that Native Leadership had to be developed through serious adult education to the faith. To facilitate that leadership formation, the Diocese built a Spirituality Centre at Trapper’s Lake, where possible leaders could come to train (See section on Trapper’s Lake Spirituality Centre).
The greatest difficulty encountered was the fact that most people carry with them a heavy load of sufferings, hurts and addictions. Spiritual formation cannot take place till the ground is clear of much that is negative. Therefore healing had to be an integral part of spiritual formation.
That is why the Mackenzie-Fort Smith Diocese, in the last few years, has invested heavily in such programs as Returning to Spirit, Building Love for Life, Core Couples, Marriage Preparation Course, as well as Biblical Studies.