Papal apology expected at former residential school July 25

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  • June 24, 2022

If Pope Francis is going to broaden or deepen the apology he offered April 1 in Rome, then it’s going to happen at Maskwacis, 70 kilometres south of Edmonton, site of one of the largest Indian residential schools in Canada.

“His principle statement would take place at Maskwacis,” Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith told media on a Zoom call June 23, after the Vatican had released the official itinerary for the Papal Visit. Pope Francis is scheduled to meet Indigenous people at Maskwacis July 25 — his first full day in Canada. The meeting will be followed by a formal address.

Gilda Soosay, chair of the Our Lady of Seven Sorrows parish council in Maskwacis and a member of the Samson Cree Nation, has no doubt the Pope’s apology will be deep, broad and historic.

“It’s a step forward on the path of healing for the Indigenous people,” she said. “For myself as an intergenerational survivor, it’s hopeful. We have to look forward to what’s coming for our future, for our grandchildren and the children coming after that.”

The Ermineskin Indian Residential School was begun as early as 1877 by Oblate missionaries. It didn’t become a full-fledged, government-funded residential school until 1911. According to National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation records, the Oblates turned over ownership of the school to the government in 1955, but continued to teach at and manage the school until 1969. The school closed in 1973. The NCTR records show the high water mark for registration was 263 students in 1956.

National Indigenous organizations and a consensus among Indigenous people from coast to coast have all called on Pope Francis to address the Doctrine of Discovery while in Canada and to apologize on behalf of the whole Church, and not just individual members of the Church.

Smith has no doubt that Pope Francis is speaking for the whole Church when he apologizes to Indigenous peoples.

“He always speaks on behalf of the Church. He is the head of the Church, after all,” Smith told media.

But further details about the content of Pope Francis' three major addresses and four homilies scheduled over the five-day trip, July 24 to 29, will have to wait for the actual event, Smith said.

“What his final words will be — we all have to wait to hear what those words are,” he said.

The most important thing to remember about the Pope’s journey is that he comes as a pilgrim Pope leading a pilgrim Church, said Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage spiritual director, Fr. Garry LaBoucane. LaBoucane is Metis and grew up near Lac Ste. Anne. He begins a new appointment as pastor at Seven Sorrows in Maskwacis July 1.

“The Holy Father leads us in healing and reconciliation,” LaBoucane said. “That’s really an image and a model for all of us to undertake and follow.”

In Edmonton, where Pope Francis will visit and bless Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, he’s going to see a parish that does the sort of field hospital ministry he has advocated from the beginning of his pontificate.

“We serve not only the Indigenous people, but the people who are downtrodden, don’t have no homes, live on the streets. We serve them on a daily basis here,” said Sacred Heart elder Fernie Marty.

Marty said he was “excited and nervous” about the prospect of meeting Pope Francis.

“We have a unique history happening here. It’s important to myself, for my own personal healing to continue,” he said. “I’m grateful that the Pope has chosen Sacred Heart to come and visit.”

The visit to Sacred Heart will also be a visit to a church just rebuilt after a devastating fire in 2020. The church council is working with contractors to have the church repaired and ready before the Pope arrives.

While speculation about just what will happen while Pope Francis is in Canada is inevitable, the most important thing may be that it will happen.

“We are glad to see the Vatican and the CCCB reaffirm their commitments,” the Metis National Council told The Catholic Register in an email.

That the Pope’s public commitment to visit Indigenous people in Canada has been confirmed with an hour-by-hour itinerary is a measure of how important this trip is to Pope Francis, Smith said.

“This is clearly something he wants to do. He’s determined to do it,” Smith said.

The pain in his knees is not going to stop him, the archbishop said.

“His mind, his spirit, everything else is strong, obviously,” Smith said. “But there are some serious mobility issues and that has given rise to questions among people as to whether or not the Pope is coming. So, now we have that assurance, which is wonderful in itself.”

But Smith cautioned that nothing that happens on the Papal Visit will instantly, automatically or finally resolve Canada’s troubled history of colonization.

“The Pope’s visit to Canada will be an important step, although one step among many in this ongoing journey of healing and reconciliation between the Church and Indigenous peoples,” he said. “It’s also one moment… in the broader context of the entire desire of the Canadian population to move this forward, to move ahead in healing and reconciliation among all of us.”

Soosay anticipates “a miraculous event.”

“The theme is truth. The truth is healing,” she said. “Once the people, our Indigenous people here in Maskwacis, start speaking their stories and the truth will come out, healing will begin.”

The Pope’s schedule includes as many small and private events as it does large-scale public appearances. On the public side will be the July 25 visit to Maskwacis, followed by meetings and an address at Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples. The biggest public event of the tour will be Mass at Commonwealth Stadium, which seats 56,000 but can accommodate more when the field is opened up.

In Quebec he will make another public address July 27 to diplomats, politicians and Indigenous people at the Quebec Citadel. A July 28 Mass at the National Shrine of St. Anne de Beaupré will see the Pope preach to a full house.

In Iqaluit on July 29 Pope Francis will publicly meet with young people and elders in the square in front of Nakasuk Primary School school before a farewell ceremony at Iqaluit Airport.

But the small scale and private meetings that have been released to the media are also significant. He will meet with Governor General Mary Simon, the first Indigenous representative of the crown in Canada, and with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Quebec July 28. He starts off the day July 29 meeting in private with his Canadian Jesuit brothers. He will greet Indigenous delegates at the Archbishop of Quebec’s residence. He will privately meet with residential school survivors in Iqaluit.

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