Victoria Bishop Gary Gordon encourages priests to spend a couple years in Canada’s north before heading off to lotus land. Photo by Evan Boudreau.

You can’t take the mission priest out of Bishop Gordon

By 
  • October 11, 2014

New Victoria bishop encourages a stint in Canada’s north for priests before ministering on Vancouver Island 

For priests or aspiring clergy who may be looking to serve in the balmy climate of Canada’s southern Pacific coast, Victoria Bishop Gary Gordon has a deal for you: Give two years of missionary work in Canada’s north and then come join him in the country’s mildest city.

“Half of Canada is trying to retire in Vancouver,” said Gordon, 57, who was installed Aug. 28 as Victoria’s bishop after serving the Diocese of Whitehorse for about seven years. “I figure that attracting clergy to the Diocese of Victoria is not going to be quite the challenge of attracting them to the great white north. So if you want to come and be in lotus land, and live where the grass is green all year round, I have a deal for you — two years in the north before you land on Vancouver Island.”

Gordon has moved to Victoria but his heart hasn’t entirely left his former northern home. As Whitehorse bishop he ministered to a vast area with just six priests, one deacon, two semi-retired sisters and seven lay people to care for 22 parishes spread across more than 700,000 square kilometres in the Yukon and Northern B.C. — an area larger than France.

“At the very end of my installation (in Victoria) I said we need to reclaim the missionary dynamism that this diocese was known for,” Gordon said. “At one time the Diocese of Victoria was all of Vancouver Island and all of the B.C. coast and all of Alaska and all of the Yukon. So we have a missionary past and a missionary vocation.”

But he recognizes that finding priests suited for life in the far north is easier said than done. For starters, his former diocese is currently without a bishop and it could take more than a year for the Vatican to select and install Gordon’s replacement.

“Let’s just say the pool of possibilities is quite shallow,” said Gordon. “It is not quite the same as picking somebody for the south, where there are lots of people and lots of resources. You’ve got to find someone who can manage a pretty lean operation.”

Everyday chores such as repairing frozen pipes, chopping firewood and cooking, possibly even catching your own meals, are tasks many urban priests don’t have to worry about but are part of day-to-day life in the north.

“You can’t count on getting help in a parish like you can in Vancouver or even in a small town in the southern part of Canada,” said Fr. Kieran Kilcommons, a five-year Whitehorse veteran. “The resources are slim and then there are the distances that you have to drive, meaning that you are a little bit more isolated from peers and support.”

Kilcommons hopes Gordon’s recruitment idea takes off.

“We need some contracts of two or three years, at least, to get some people to continue some stability,” Kilcommons said.

“It won’t be a final, permanent solution but at least it will keep things moving.”

Gordon envisions many of those short-term contracts turning into extended stays when priests sample the lifestyle, the people and the picturesque landscape of the North.

“St. Paul said it right, we are just called to plant a few seeds and let the Holy Spirit and the good Lord bring them into germination and fruit,” said Gordon. “Once you’ve been a northerner there is always a big chunk of your heart that stays there. It is impossible for the north to leave you.”

Yet Kilcommons can’t help but worry about the future of his diocese.

“I do find myself concerned at times,” he said. “What is going to happen next year? What do you do, just close a bunch of places? Do we have Mass once every three months instead of once a month? Those are concerns I have and even when we do have a bishop here that is only one more person and he’ll have to face the same questions.

“I do hope Bishop Gary’s idea works out, it would be a great help to the diocese.” 

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