Bishop Mark Hagemoen with his crew of helpers, including his OCY visitors from the south. Photo by Stephanie Divekar

Mission North

By  Stephanie Divekar and Michael Romen, Catholic Register Special
  • September 10, 2017

As our small group of travel-weary, would-be missionaries stood during Mass in the small church 4,500 km from our homes in Toronto, the ritual words we heard all of a sudden were reborn.

“Let us offer each other a sign of peace.”

We had heard them countless times at Mass through the years, but in the tiny hamlet of Fort Providence, N.W.T., population 797, the ritual greeting became much more than we were used to. Bishop Mark Hagemoen led the way, walking down from the altar, through the long aisle and into the pews, shaking hands with each and every parishioner. In turn, each individual did the same, extending their hands in welcome to 11 strangers from Toronto. The church became the scene of an intricate dance as we weaved through the aisles, joining in the sharing of smiles, good wishes and offerings of peace.

It was quite a start to an eight-day mission in early August to Canada’s northern diocese, MacKenzie-Fort Smith, and just a taste of the community’s immense hospitality.

Our group was the first to venture here as part of a mission program organized by the Archdiocese of Toronto’s Office of Catholic Youth (OCY). The nine young men and women were accompanied by OCY director Fr. Frank Portelli and young adult ministry coordinator Sarah Rodrigues. It was a chance to help the mission churches, but it became just as much an opportunity for us to learn from the Indigenous communities.

The mission, which started in Yellowknife, included three memorable days in Fort Providence, restoring the small, weathered mission church.

Mackenzie-Fort Smith is one of the world’s largest dioceses in geographical area. The diocese serves about 28,000 Catholics across the Northwest Territories, northern Saskatchewan and west of Nunavut.

Distances are great and resources are few. A large majority of this population is comprised of Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit peoples.

Every day, they surprised us with their generosity. On our first day, after making sure we were fed, they gave us the keys to their homes. Two homes, in fact — one for the men, another for the women.

One day, community members *took us on a boat ride. Speeding along the waters of the Great Mackenzie River, the tall red beams of Deh Cho Bridge shone under the evening sun. As we drove under the bridge’s 1.1-km span, its magnitude and impact on the community became clear. As a community member explained, completion of the bridge the year before opened the Fort Providence community to the Yellowknife Highway.

It suddenly brought a renewed perspective of all we take for granted. In Fort Providence, reduced water usage, high prices for groceries, sparsely populated buildings and rocky dirty roads were the reality.

What characterized the town of Fort Providence, however, was not the small challenges of daily life but the prominence of tradition and culture in the community. The Dene people were generous — eager to share their stories — allowing us the opportunity to better understand their history, traditions and how the Church had become part of their community. One community elder recounted the generations who were baptized, confirmed and married in the very church we had entered our first day.

In recognizing the impact of the Church in the North, the influence of the residential school system cannot be ignored. With a residential school in Fort Providence dating back to 1867, its 86-year history is remembered through the pain of those whose lives it changed. And yet, their openness to share their stories showed that there is a process of healing.

Our final night of the mission was especially memorable.

We had asked our hosts about the Northern Lights, but they said it was too early in the year to see them and the sun never really set.

But on our last night, the night sky roared. The lights grew brighter, filling the sky with greens and blues. The silence was striking.

We will not forget that night that shouldn’t have happened, nor the distant mission church that brought a group of strangers together and closer to understanding our northern neighbours.

(Divekar, 25, is an Outreach Assistant with the Office for Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto. Romen, 23, is a second year English student at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.)

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