Drummers from the parish of St. Kateri Tekakwitha Aboriginal Church perform at St. Boniface Cathedral. Janelle Lafantaisie

World Day sets sights on reconciliation

By  Janelle Lafantaisie, Catholic Register Special
  • February 9, 2020

WINNIPEG -- The Paradis brothers —  Francois and Edmund — somehow knew they were destined for the life of an Oblate missionary.

Of course, having an uncle, Fr. Alphonse Paradis, in the order who would drop in to visit his nephews could have had some effect.

“I joined the Oblates in 1958 at the age of 20,” said Fr. Edmund. “I studied with them for a number of years, and (our uncle) would come home and visit with other Oblates so we got to see a lot of other Oblates, get to know them and we just grew up with it.”

As for Fr. Francois, he made his first vows in 1967 and was ordained five years later. “I knew I wanted to be in a community and part of community life,” said the 73-year-old priest who grew up with his brother in Dunrea, Man. “And, I asked right from the beginning to work with the First Nations people.” 

The history between the Oblates and Canada’s Indigenous people has been intertwined since the missionaries first arrived in the Red River settlement in what became Manitoba in 1845 and established the building blocks for the Church in western Canada.

The Oblates’ 175 years of work and worship in the region was celebrated Feb. 2 — the World Day for Consecrated Life — at the St. Boniface Cathedral in Winnipeg. The World Day was initiated by St. John Paul II in 1997 to “answer the intimate need to praise the Lord more solemnly and to thank Him for the great gift of consecrated life, which enriches and gladdens the Christian community by the multiplicity of its charisms.” 

The service celebrating Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) at the cathedral featured many varieties of praise. Entering the cathedral, the voices of the boys choir from St. Paul’s High School could be heard. The smells of tobacco and sage filled the back vestibule for guests to smudge themselves. The service itself was offered in Taizé prayer, named after the town and monastic community in France where it originated in the 1940s,  bringing together various Christian religions and cultures

“It’s a very prayerful way of singing and praying and it is really made for different languages and different nationalities — it’s ecumenical, so that’s why we chose this,” said Sr. Jeannine Vermette.

The service started with an Honour Song presented by drummers from the parish of St. Kateri Tekakwitha Aboriginal Church. Over the course of the afternoon, the Gospel was proclaimed in French, English, Ojibwe, Khasi, Igbo and Vietnamese as a way to include the many cultures of both the Winnipeg and St. Boniface archdioceses. The choir offered songs of praise in Latin, French and English. 

For Fr. Francois, a priest in the Archdiocese of Winnipeg alongside his brother, the day brought back both memories of his early missionary days and a recognition of today’s path to reconciliation through the Returning to Spirit program. The program is a workshop that deals with the trauma brought on by residential schools and other painful experiences. 

“From 1972 to 1974, there were a few young Oblates who wanted to learn Ojibwe, so we gathered for a few years because we thought it was important,” said Fr. Francois, who spent the first two years of his mission in Camperville, Man.

“Camperville used to be home of a residential school. So, from day one of my ministry, I came face to face with the impact of residential schools,” he said. 

He went on to spend 17 years as pastor in Sagkeeng First Nation in Fort Alexander and looked after the areas of Traverse Bay, Grand Marais, Bissett, Hollow Water and Manigotagan. “I did an average of 3,500 kilometres a month,” he remembered with a laugh.

Today, his work with Returning to Spirit takes him across the country, giving workshops. 

“Returning to Spirit helps its participants to recognize what is keeping them stuck in the past, be able to identify it and also be able to move on. It’s for everyone who are Indigenous and non-Indigenous. We’re really looking at the whole relationship and dealing with racism, discrimination and colonization.”

There are about 700 Oblates in Canada, and more than 4,400 worldwide. The worries do exist about a dwindling supply of priests, but the Paradis brothers still see much hope in the future.

“I visited the first place where the Oblates arrived in Canada a few years ago,” said Fr. Edmund. “It was a parish called Mont St. Hilaire, Quebec. They came in 1845 and I can remember celebrating 145 and now we’re at 175 years.

“Today, we’re all over the world. Not as much in North America but mostly in Africa, South America and Asia where there are numerous Oblates continuing the work of the foundations we laid down.

“When I entered we were 14 (Oblate) provinces and vice provinces in Canada and today we’re just three and one in the United States. It’s a time of diminishment, but we went as missionaries around the world and now it’s time for them to (start their mission as well).” 

(NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the name of the archdiocese to which the Paradis brothers belong.)

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