Bishop Douglas Crosby of Hamilton says it's important for young priests, as he did when he was younger, to go serve in Canada's north. Photo by Evan Boudreau

Canada's north is a challenge and a blessing, says Bishop Crosby

  • June 1, 2017

Bishop Douglas Crosby has some travel advice for newly-ordained priests: Go north, young man.

“As a priest and a bishop, I served in the northeastern part of Canada for 18 years,” said Crosby, an Oblate who was assigned to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Labrador City, N.L., following his ordination on Sept. 27, 1975. “Now that I’m a bishop I know how important is the placement of young priests. It is really when you learn what it is to be a priest and how to be a priest.” 

Crosby told the tale of his time in the north during the recent St. Philip Neri Legacy Circle luncheon, hosted by Catholic Missions In Canada. 

During his 30-minute speech, Crosby thanked Catholic Missions and its donors for supporting missionary priests. 

“And you make it possible not only there, but throughout the country,” he said. “Catholic Missions In Canada has been doing just that for years and years and because you are the benefactors you make that possible. I firmly believe that you share in the spiritual benefits that come from such missionary work.” 

That’s not to say that Crosby, the Bishop of Hamilton and president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, discredits the education one receives in seminary. 

“The theological and the scripture studies are all very important as well,” he said. “(But) those first five years are really essential and the treasure. It is kind of on the job training that you get.” 

Crosby learned while serving in Newfoundland and Labrador that remote does not mean isolated. 

“I didn’t go to live in isolation, I was there in a community and we supported one another. We prayed together, we celebrated together … (and) we served happily together in this community.” 

Crosby would go on to hold the bishop’s chair for both the Diocese of St. George and the former Diocese of Labrador City-Schefferville. He served alongside fellow Oblates Fr. Chris Rushton and Fr. Lawrence Conlon. 

“They were years that I can say every one of us remembers with profound gratitude,” said Crosby. “I have often said that I am a bishop today because Fr. ‘Lawre’ taught me to be a priest. He taught me everything about being a good priest and I can only hope that I am half as good as he was.” 

Crosby said he also learned of “the importance of community, religious community as a support community, and the greater community that we served.” 

But Canadian missionary life is not without challenges. 

“I learned in the far north (of) the overpowering effect of the northern climate,” he said. “The winter weather can be daunting. When you go out sometimes the wind is so strong it takes your breath away but ... in order to live in the north and to thrive in the north you must get out into the weather.” 

Crosby said one needs only a hearty collection of winter wear and a little time to adjust. 

“You really have to dress for the weather,” he said. “You can’t try to look natty, dressed in vogue, you just have to dress to be warm.” 

For Crosby, who became used to Canadian winters while growing up in Marathon, Ont., the bigger obstacle was is the high cost of goods and services in the north. 

“Transportation costs are huge and postal costs are huge,” he said. “Bringing good in, just basic goods stuff, it costs so much money. (And) costs are only going up.” 

Keeping the missions’ aging churches open and operation is also a challenge, one which is accentuated by the declining number of available clergy. 

“Maintaining church buildings is a really expensive thing because it is not like it was in the past where you could build cheaply,” said Crosby. “Now there are standards that you have to adhere to and the Church buildings are old and need to be maintained. There are always challenges and always things that cost a lot of money.” 

And with the people of the community faced with the same high cost of living the Church has to look elsewhere for funding. 

“Catholic Missions in Canada has been a wonderful support for the proclaiming the gospel in the north,” he said. 

The missions’ reliance on support from Canadians is now greater than ever following changes last year that moved the funding of missions from the Vatican to Canada.

“The whole Church in southern Canada has to take more seriously supporting the mission dioceses,” said Crosby. “We’ve decided to change things up so that a diocese in the south will take a specific interest in a diocese in the north.” 

For example Crosby’s diocese, Hamilton, has been paired with the Diocese of Churchill Hudson Bay to supply both financial support as well as clergy to the mission diocese. 

Phyllis Rodina, an 82-year-old legacy member of Catholic Missions, said any priest who serves in the northern missions has gained her admiration. 

“I give them a lot of credit,” she said. “I admire them for their courage in helping other people. They have to go where they are placed and I give them credit, a lot of credit.” 

Although Crosby’s time in the north, like most missionaries, was one of obedience, the experience provided him with friends, formation and unforgettable memories. And for that he will forever be grateful. 

“I am grateful for the Oblates who sent me to the north,” he said. “It was a wonderful place to begin ministry.”

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