Polish Oblate becomes one with people of the north

By  Milena Cerin, Catholic Register Special
  • April 13, 2011
Fr. Daniel Szwarc with children who are preparing for First Communion. (Photo courtesy of Fr. Daniel Szwarc)Fr. Daniel Szwarc is a Polish Oblate priest who went to Nunavut in 2002 from his home town, Zlotniki Kujawskie. When he finished his studies, he asked for two years pastoral experience in a mission. Since he always preferred winter and cold weather, Nunavut was an easy choice. And knowing where missionaries are needed and where Oblate priests have their missions also influenced his final decision.   

Szwarc’s first mission was Igloolik where he arrived on Oct. 1, 2002. He was ordained there June 5, 2004. He stayed in Igloolik until October 2007, when he was transferred to Repulse Bay where he still is today.

I sat down with Szwarc and asked him about his transition from Poland to the extreme north of Canada.

Cerin: How did you learn the language?
Szwarc: When I arrived in Igloolik I didn’t speak any English or Inuktitut. I went to elementary school and sat there with the rest of the class learning English. Young people in Igloolik mostly spoke English, so I also spoke English. But in Repulse Bay, people still speak Inuktitut, so I had to learn it. All the prayers and Masses are said in Inuktitut as well. I learned how to read it although I can’t understand it all. I give sermons in English and somebody else translates them into Inuktitut.

M.C.: What are the biggest challenges for you?
Szwarc: Language is the biggest challenge. Next would be the different mentality and a different understanding of things. We have different backgrounds and different understandings of the Gospel. What is understandable to me is not always understandable to my parishioners. I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to open their hearts. This works.

Another challenge is living alone, not in a community. There are no other priests where I could go for Confession or just talk about things. I’m on my own. Usually I meet priests from other missions twice a year and that’s my chance for Confession. Because there are no roads and no cars, I have to fly to other missions. It’s quite isolating.

M.C.: What is your pastoral work like in Canada’s north?
Szwarc: There are no youth groups or Bible studies. We tried to form groups in different towns but it never worked. It’s very hard to gather people for meetings. There are also not enough priests so in some towns a priest comes only once in a while. There is a big difference in attendance and a unique understanding of the sacraments. People don’t feel like they would have a church; they rarely come to Sunday Mass. Every town has native leaders who lead communion services even when a priest is not there.

In my mission, we have Mass every day. And we have a lot of children at Mass every day, even when there’s a storm. They like coming to church because they get candies after Mass. But they also lead rosary....

We also have Sunday school which has three groups of children. I do home visits when they are needed. Besides pastoral work I have to take care of the buildings too: the church and the house.

M.C.: How about the community’s previous beliefs? Do those affect their faith and their understanding of sacraments?
Szwarc: Previous beliefs don’t have much influence on their current Catholic faith. They have a strong belief in Jesus; they don’t doubt God’s existence even if they don’t go to church. There are no atheists. Every house has holy pictures. But when it comes to practising faith is different.  Some go to Confession and Mass, but many don’t. Confession is every Saturday and some people come regularly. But mostly they come for Christmas. Even people who don’t come to church do so at Christmas.  

Believing in spirits is still present and very common. They believe in spirits of the dead. Children say they see them very often or are scared of them. At that time they ask me for a blessing of the house.

Funerals are big events for the whole town. On the day of the funeral, everything stops. Everybody is somehow related or knows the person. Church is full... Because of the cold they can’t dig ground for burial, so they just leave the coffin on the ground until summer when it’s warmer.

While in Nunavut, Szwarc has begun to live like the locals. He has taken to hunting, a key to survival for the people of Nunavut. (Photo courtesy of Fr. Daniel Szwarc)

M.C.: How has your life changed by living with Inuit people?

Szwarc: I have to live the same as the others. I travel by skidoo, because there are no roads; I go hunting and fishing and just do what everybody is doing. That’s very important for them and they appreciate and respect you more if you live the same way as they do.

But I have had to learn to be patient and be happy with anything. There are only two stores and I have to wait for the things that I order. I ordered kitchen cabinets in October and got them in July. People need to be creative.

Living alone is also a challenge. Its hard being alone all the time, but it also gives me more time for prayer. And because people here are very simple, most of them don’t even know how to read or write, I am called to be simple too.

M.C.: You said you travel by skidoo. Do you have a cellphone if your skidoo breaks down?
Szwarc: No, there are no cellphones. People always take more gas with them than they need to. And I always tell people when I am leaving and when I should arrive to a certain place so they know what time I should be expected. If the trip would take seven hours, they would give me 10 hours before they would start to worry about me, but if I don’t come in 11 hours they would start looking for me. And they look until they find you. Because something can happen on the way, like a blizzard or a skidoo might break down, people always travel with a sleeping bag, tent, knife to build an igloo and stove to cook some food. And if something goes wrong they just stop and wait until others find them.

M.C.: What is life like there and what do people do in their free time?
Szwarc: Towns are small. My town has between 900 and 1,000 people. In every town there is a health centre with nurses. Doctors only come to each town for a few days. Bigger towns have hospitals and when there’s an emergency, a plane would take patients to the south to bigger cities like Ottawa, Edmonton or Winnipeg. Every town has a school, at most two stores that sell everything: food, clothes, fabrics, parts for skidoos, tools… A ship comes in September and brings skidoos, trucks and vans. Food is delivered by plane, almost every day, or at least a few times a week. There are no restaurants or bakeries. Some people work in the offices, stores, schools and health centres. There are a few mines in Nunavut, but not in the towns. People who work in the mines are two weeks there and two weeks home. That is very hard for them, because they miss their home as soon as they leave it. That’s also why college for young people is very hard to finish. They just want to come home from the big cities.

People hunt a lot in the North, so we have no shortage of food. Summer is very busy because it is the only time when we can do something outside the house. That’s the time to hunt caribou since they migrate from north to south. If I have time, I go out to hunt; but if I’m really busy at the church, there are always some good people who give me a bit of meat. Summer is also time when people hunt whales. We have narwhales and balugas there.

In their free time, the Inuit like to visit each other. They don’t need to be invited, they just enter the house. If they want a tea, they make it themselves, or sometimes it’s already made. They are very happy people.

On Thanksgiving or Christmas, they invite me to their houses, but even if they don’t I can just go for a visit. For Christmas they play a lot of games in our community hall or gym. They play games until late at night. And they do that every day until New Year’s Eve.  

They also play games for Easter. Games are played on the sea. But Easter is not as important holiday for them as Christmas.

M.C.: What does Nunavut need regarding missionary work?
Szwarc: We need more priests and nuns. Many communities have no priests and we can only visit those communities once a month or even less. You can see a big difference in people’s faith in these towns. To travel there is also very expensive. To give these people proper spiritual and pastoral care we really need more missionaries.

Szwarc didn’t stay in Nunavut only for two years, as he initially planned. He knows priests are needed in the North and he enjoys working with Inuit. He is facing unpleasant weather, cold and dark winter months, with optimism. Many people that come to Nunavut can’t stay because of the long dark winter and they get depressed. But Szwarc has become like one of the Inuit.

The North has become his home.

(Cerin is a writer in Port Moody, B.C.)

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