he old Holy Name of Mary Mission in Tsiigehtchic, N.W.T., is bathed in the northern lights. The church is side by side with the new church. Photo by Bishop Jon Hansen

Capturing the northern spirit

  • December 11, 2020

Situated in one of Canada’s coldest and most geographically isolated regions, the area encompassed by the Diocese of MacKenzie-Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories is a nature lover’s dream.

Bishop Jon Hansen has been capturing that beauty with his photographic lens for the past five years he’s been living in the territory. A selection of those images has been curated into Missions in this Northern Land, a 2021 calendar raising funds for Catholic Missions In Canada (CMIC) and helping to engender hope in this winter season where many find themselves in isolation.

“I think pictures that are beautiful and that show our serene landscapes and beautiful wildlife stir our imaginations and help us to daydream,” said Hansen. “They keep in our minds these places that maybe we would like to be but are not able to be there right now (due to COVID-19).

“Keeping that imagination alive, at the heart of it, that’s what hope is all about. We have a promise of something beautiful. We just have to cling to the good memories that we’ve had before and know that we will share those memories with loved ones again.”

The MacKenzie-Fort Smith diocese is home to an estimated 36,000 Catholics and covers over one million square kilometres across the Northwest Territories. Unassuming when it comes to his artistic abilities, Hansen, who says he doesn’t consider himself a photographer, was inspired by other priests such as Bern Will Brown and René Fumoleau who are well known for their images of the region.

“Their paintings and photographs were always inspirations for me when I thought about being a missionary in the North,” said Hansen, who was pastor of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Inuvik for two-and-a-half years before being appointed bishop in 2018. “I knew I had to have a camera for my travels and started taking pictures and some of them turned out pretty good.”

The town of TuktoyaktukThe town of Tuktoyaktuk.

Among the many featured images, the calendar includes an image of an igloo Catholic church along the McKenzie River and a photograph of the Holy Name of Mary mission in Tsiigehtchic captured amid the northern lights. Hansen says though it’s hard to choose, a photo he took of a curled-up fox taken outside a retreat house on Trappers Lake in Yellowknife might be his personal favourite.

“It was a warm March day, and he was just basking in the sun, soaking in the heat,” recalled Hansen of the day he captured the fox. “He wasn’t too disturbed by me. As long as I didn’t get too close, he let me take pictures of him. He looked back at me once in a while. Other than that, he was just snoozing away.”

Hansen began the calendar project when he first moved to the territory in 2015 in order to raise funds for his parish which was struggling to make ends meet. Working with CMIC for the calendar project for the first time this year, 100 per cent of the proceeds will be going towards efforts to help the churches and missions across the diocese.

a red foxA red fox (a favourite of Bishop Hansen).

Fr. David Reilander, president of CMIC, says many Catholics in the more densely populated Canadian regions might be surprised to learn there are still missions in a developed nation as this one. Primarily inhabited by Indigenous peoples, Reilander says the small population covering a large expanse of land in the Northwest Territories has been challenged by high unemployment rates due to limited opportunities and unfarmable land, making it difficult to generate funds for the missions.

“Recently, you’ve been hearing about water problems among the Indigenous who live in extreme climates where unemployment is high,” said Reilander. “They need help because they can’t generate funds necessary to send a priest in because the priest may be having to fly in or travel very long distances and maybe is only there once a month. The calendar is helping to show (these challenges) and raise support.”

With a shortage of clergy due to COVID-19 regulations which mandate a two-week quarantine for anyone entering into the Northwest Territories from any other province or territory in the country, the Christmas season is projected to be a challenge for staffing. This Christmas Eve, Hansen will have his hands full ministering at St. Patrick’s Cathedral where they will be holding a half dozen or more services to make up for the limited capacity due to social distancing requirements. For Christmas day he will make his way to one of the remote missions to offer support.

Ice iglooAn ice igloo.

Despite the challenges, Hansen says there’s no place he would rather be and hopes that through the calendar, many Canadians who haven’t had the advantage of visiting the region will get a taste of it.

“It’s great people, beautiful cultures with lots of hunting, fishing and trapping, and many of the communities are still able to speak their first language, which are various dialects of the Dene language,” said Hansen.

“It’s an exotic wonderland of people. Down in the south I think most Canadians don’t realize what a beautiful gift we have in the First Nations people up here in the North. It’s just a beautiful peaceful place to live and work.”

For more info on how to support the calendar initiative visit cmic.info/product/2021-calendar, e-mail info@cmic.info or call (866) 937-2642.

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