A French-speaking Oblate in the mid-1900s and Fr. Raymond de Coccola with sled dogs (left). Photos courtesy of RCAV Archives

Vancouver archdiocese archives share photos of intrepid French-speaking Oblate

By  Agnieszka Ruck, Canadian Catholic News
  • December 10, 2018

VANCOUVER – Fr. Raymond de Coccola, OMI had no idea how to ice fish, fire a gun or ride a dogsled when he arrived in a 1930s Inuit community in present-day Nunavut.

The French-speaking Oblate carried only a sense of adventure, a desire to evangelize distant lands and his camera. Yet, the intrepid missionary established Burnside Mission (his first) in 1937, and for 12 years travelled thousands of kilometres by dogsled, charting the land, establishing several more missions and documenting the lives and languages of the people who lived there. 

He also published books about his adventures. Now, thanks to those efforts, the Archdiocese of Vancouver has a rare archive of more than 400 photographs and other materials immortalizing the lives of the Inuit people in the mid-1900s.

“We don’t have anything else like this in our collection,” said Jennifer Sargent, archivist for the Archdiocese of Vancouver. “His photographs are beautiful. He had an artistic eye.”

Due to illness, the Oblate priest left missionary work in 1949 and served as a priest in Vancouver for 28 years. He died in 1985.

De Coccola’s captivating photographs came to the surface just in time for the archdiocese’s annual Archives Week, observed this year Nov. 18-24. It shines a little light on the work being done to preserve local histories. 

“It’s a good way to highlight collections people might not otherwise know about,” Sargent said. “People can get more involved in their local history.”

In addition to hundreds of photographs, the de Coccola collection includes various artifacts: two of his compasses, maps he’d drawn or written on, letters, documents, Inuit art and even a New Testament written in Inuktitut.

The Vancouver archdiocese’s archives also include a huge collection from Pope John Paul II’s 1984 trip to B.C., yearbooks and parish directories spanning decades, and childhood photos of past archbishops of Vancouver.

Normally, the archive is available for researchers but closed to the public. So Sargent said it was important to have an opportunity to share the de Coccola materials, which provide a glimpse into the Catholic experience in Canada’s north and into the life of the mission-driven de Coccola.

(The B.C. Catholic)

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