Canada's mission territory a beacon of hope

  • May 1, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - His diocese is bigger than France and it has more moose and caribou than people. Yet Whitehorse Bishop Gary Gordon will drive his pickup truck thousands of kilometres to visit more than 20 parishes and mission churches that dot northern British Columbia and the Yukon with enthusiasm.

He says the faithful congregations, some as small as four people, are worth the effort, but without question need the financial help given to them every year by Catholic Missions In Canada .

“They are like lighthouses in the vast wilderness,” Gordon said. “And in the midst of this vastness, in the northwest of Canada, these lighthouses are beacons of hope.”

His diocese depends on the pastoral services of four sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame, four full-time priests, a few lay missionaries and other temporary visiting priests.

Gordon was in Toronto to speak at the Tastes of Heaven dinner April 22, a gala held every year in support of the Canadian missions. Since 1908, Catholic Missions In Canada (formerly the Catholic Church Extension Society) has contributed financial help for the support of missionaries, building and repair of churches, religious education, formation of lay leaders and education of seminarians across Canada. Last year alone, it needed more than $4 million for its 600 missions.

But the reality of missions in Canada — especially in the Yukon — has changed drastically in the past 15 years, Gordon told The Catholic Register. Catholics in Canada will have to become aware of the need for missionaries and priests in their own homeland and get down on their knees to pray for vocations.

“I don’t think people have had a sense of the missions in Canada and that’s because up until recently there were only Oblates, Sisters of St. Anne and Grey Nuns and a few other missionaries (in the north), but that’s completely changed,” he said.

The Whitehorse diocese, for example, now only has one Oblate missionary priest. Gordon, who took over the diocese in 2006, was its first bishop appointed from the diocesan priesthood. At Rome’s request, he packed his bags and left his pastoral role in Chilliwack, B.C., to act as a shepherd of the north and minister to the approximately 7,500 Catholics who were without a bishop for six years. He has since watched his team of 10 priests dwindle as they retired due to sickness or old age. He has had to tell three missions they would no longer have a priest to celebrate Mass. But he said the response from faithful Catholics was very heartening: “We’re Catholic, bishop. We gather on Sunday so we’re going to keep gathering on Sunday and we’re going to sing our hymns and read our Scriptures.”

He encourages them to place a stole on the altar until a priest returned, and does his best to ensure  that they receive the sacraments every two to three months.

The growing lack of personnel makes a deep impact in the small communities, because each church plays an important role for both Catholics and non-Catholics as a presence of comfort in times of grief, trauma and suffering, he said.

“I was talking to an elder in Dease Lake and she told me that when she sees Sr. Elizabeth’s truck out front of her little trailer, they know everything is going to be OK in their community,” he said.

To make the complete tour of the churches in the diocese it would take about 6,000 km of driving — the equivalent of driving from Vancouver to Charlottetown. For the Easter Triduum this year, Gordon  travelled a third of that distance, and with the help of three visiting priests, every mission church had Mass.

Gordon is glad for four-wheel drive and studded snow tires during the winter. But when it comes to the landscape, he really can’t complain.

“One of the great riches of the vastness of the diocese is the beauty — the valley, the lakes, the mountains,” he said. An avid outdoorsman, whose hobbies are fishing, hiking and cross-country skiing, Gordon and his dog Celty have adapted quite well.

“Going to the Yukon was like going to Heaven for me and getting away from the traffic of the lower mainland. It has just been fantastic.”

For more information about Catholic Missions In Canada, visit .

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