Reaching out to urban aboriginals

  • January 16, 2009
{mosimage}OTTAWA - Like incense, the white smoke of smouldering sweetgrass, cedar, sage and tobacco rises from a seashell as a small group of church-goers pray in the four cardinal directions, giving thanks to the Creator. As Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, S.J. , celebrates Mass, he does so in front of a wall papered with the view of a forest. 

This scene — where aboriginal Catholics in Ottawa welcomed Prendergast to celebrate Mass at the Kateri Native Ministry office — was certainly not the first time Catholicism and native spirituality have intertwined. But it is a growing reality in cities like Ottawa and Toronto where the population of First Nations, Metis and Inuit people is growing.

The city of Toronto reports a 33.2-per-cent increase in its aboriginal population from 2001 to 2006, bringing the official population of aboriginals living in the Greater Toronto Area to 31,910. But aboriginal agencies estimate the total count was more likely 70,000 because studies did not account for the homeless and those living in collective residences. In Ottawa, a more staggering increase was reported in the 2006 census. The aboriginal population grew by 53 per cent since 2001, to 20,590 people, although there are another estimated 30,000 unaccounted for.

The November Mass in Ottawa was Prendergast’s first visit with the native Catholic community in Ottawa, which comes together for Mass once a month, although it wasn’t his first interaction with native people. As the archbishop of Halifax, he had interacted with Catholics from some of the Mik’maq reserves whose historic Grand Chief Membertou became Catholic in colonial times, he said.

But in cities, where no one aboriginal nation forms a majority, the dynamic is a bit different.

“One of the fundamental problems in the city, when we try to have a native ministry, is there is no community between them. They are a very scattered group that is hard to assemble,” former Ottawa Archbishop Marcel Gervais told The Catholic Register. “Trying to unite (the various nations) is a huge job and trying to find native rituals that we can do together is difficult because they are different.”

When he was bishop of the Sault Ste. Marie diocese, the involvement of First Nations Catholics was so great that Gervais established a third sector, apart from the English and French ones, that catered specifically to the Anishinabe people.

The prominence of practising aboriginal Catholics was more evident in Sault Ste. Marie than in Ottawa, although that seems to be slowly changing — and if there is a demand for services by the aboriginal Catholics, the church should provide it, he said.

“I think what we should generally be doing is be supportive of what they are doing (but) we should not be in a leadership position,” Gervais added.

At Kateri Native Ministry, aboriginal leadership is clear in the efforts of John Corston, an Ojibway man who founded the office in 1998. Already supported by several religious orders, Corston is looking for ways to expand as the office in the Bronson Centre is a tiny place to hold a monthly Mass.

“More and more (aboriginal) people are coming forward,” Corston said.

Corston said he felt called to minister as a Catholic, with the help of clergy, by providing reconciliation through Christ as the ultimate healer after having spent many years on the streets himself.

“People are looking for healing — the focus on healing, meaning the residential schools of the past.”

The Kateri Native Ministry held its first mini-conference for healing and prayer in Ottawa last year, drawing about 30 people. Every year it hosts a much larger conference in Pembroke, Ont., which has grown in the past 10 years from hosting 30 people to more than 200 people, drawing people not only from Ontario but also from New Brunswick and Saskatchewan. At the larger gatherings, they incorporate many well-known native traditions like sweat lodges, sacred fires and sweetgrass ceremonies.  

When it comes to incorporating native spirituality into Catholicism, one finds a perhaps unexpected outcome — many native people are introduced to ancestral traditions for the first time.

Bob White, a co-creator of the Toronto Area Interfaith Council, said he discovered native spiritual traditions when he went looking for an aboriginal person to act as a representative of the First Nations community in Toronto. Of Newfoundland Mi’kmaq background, White said he grew up away from traditional ways because his parents moved to Cape Breton when he was young.

Through his new contact, he was introduced to the native Mass at St. Ann’s parish on Gerrard Street in Toronto.

“I found (the aboriginal Mass) absolutely moving,” he said. “The Spirit touches me every time.”

White said that since he started attending the Mass about five years ago, the numbers have slowly increased to more than 30 regular attendees who come from as far away as Oshawa on the eastern edge of the archdiocese of Toronto. The parish has also done some outreach to the native poor, most recently with a food and clothing drive.

John Robinson, formerly from an Ojibway reserve near Toronto, leads the native ceremonies such as “smudging” at the penitential rite (where parishioners “brush” the smoke of sage, sweetgrass, tobacco and cedar over their senses to cleanse the spirit of all evil). A Catholic since birth, he discovered the native traditions after attending his first Toronto aboriginal Mass more than 10 years ago.

“A lot of the native traditions are done more in the city than on the reserves,” he said. “I think it’s very important to have, not just to let people know, (but) so that it’s not lost. A lot of people who come to the city forget about their native traditions.”

Incorporating native traditions with Catholicism doesn’t come without its critics from within the First Nations communities themselves. Where his home reserve is considered a “rich” reserve and many older residents reject native traditions, Robinson said younger generations tend to reject the church and gravitate towards native spirituality exclusively. There is a divide, even among his own family, he said. 

“I find in Toronto or Ottawa, native spirituality is more welcome in the church than if you go north. I find that a lot of older people on my reserve and others don’t want the traditions done in the church, but most of the people won’t stop you from doing the ceremony.”

Robinson learned how to perform native spiritual traditions from an Odawa woman and has since taken over as the leader of native ceremonies at St. Ann’s. In 2002, he had the opportunity to open the World Youth Day 2002 celebrations with a smudging ceremony for Pope John Paul II and pilgrims at WYD 2002. Robinson said that the Pope verbally affirmed his efforts to continue native traditions, while giving him a personal blessing at the WYD events. 

See also Native parish honours past

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