A missionary century CMIC

  • May 1, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - One hundred years ago, Catholic missionaries in Canada travelled by horse and buggy and dog team, from east to west and up through the territories to the Arctic. Although their methods of travel have changed, their work continues in all directions, funded by Catholic Missions In Canada.

“We started 100 years ago with a few thousand dollars raised and now we supply over $4 million a year to support 600 missions a year across Canada,” said Kathleen Ancker, national director of development at Catholic Missions In Canada which celebrates its centennial this year. “We’ve seen technology and transportation change, but the basic premises under which we were established are all things we did 100 years ago.”

Catholic Missions was founded by Fr. Fergus Patrick McEvay in 1908, as the Catholic Church Extension Society of Canada, modeled on a similar society in the United States. He started it as a means to “mobilize people and materials” with the goal “to better serve and administer the scattered faithful.” It developed into a central support base for missionaries, to have religious education programs for children and adults, to support the building and repair of churches, to build a seminary in Toronto and to support First Nations ministry.

{mosimage} Roughly a third of Canada’s dioceses, 27 to be exact, are supported by Catholic Missions, she said, meaning that the missionary need is still significant. Only six dioceses are fully supported by the missions, however.

“There just are financial inequalities across Canada and we have Third World living conditions, especially on the margins of our society,” Ancker said. “We make sure they actually are a diocese in need before we step in to assist them.”

Fifty per cent of all missions (parishes) exist in First Nations communities.

Catholic Missions hosts a yearly fund-raiser gala to raise extra money for a specific project in one diocese. This year, Keewatin-Le Pas diocese was chosen. It needs to raise $114,000 for award travel expenses alone. With 430,000 square kilometres, it’s no wonder. Sixteen times the geographical size of Toronto, Keewatin-Le Pas has only 18 priests divided between 48 mission parishes, and a population of 44,353 Catholics.

“It’s really amazing that they’ve got to travel to so many missions,” Ancker said. “And they travel for hours to get to each mission to celebrate Mass.”

These priests travel not only by car, but by truck, snowmobile, boat, plane, helicopter and sometimes dogsled. The diocese skirts across most of northern Saskatchewan, covers most of central and northern Manitoba and includes Sandy Lake, Ont.

The challenges of travelling great northern distances is all too familiar to retiring Bishop Denis Croteau, stationed in the diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories. His diocese, which is about 1.5-million square-kilometres, spans from part of Northern Saskatchewan to the Arctic coast. Croteau was honoured at the Tastes of Heaven gala April 23 with the St. Joseph’s Award for nearly 50 years of missionary service in Canada’s north. The award is given out each year to someone who “serves as a role model for today’s society.”

Croteau, like Ancker, would say that one of the challenges for missions today is the shortage of priests to minister in the parishes. However, the church has experienced a bit of a revival in lay ministry, which helps to supplement faith leadership in remote communities.

“Lay people are becoming more and more important because of the lack of vocations in our dioceses,” Ancker said. “So they’re carrying forth the work of keeping the Catholic Church alive in isolated communities that often have such a small Catholic population that they can’t support their church by themselves.”

{mosimage} Fr. Philip Kennedy, president of Catholic Missions, said this is especially true in the North, where sisters, deacons

or even lay people replace the priest in leading Communion services for their parish. When the priest knows he cannot return for several weeks or months, he will consecrate enough hosts to last the parish while he is away.

Kennedy says lay formation is becoming more common, especially in areas where the diocese has lost religious education in schools.

“It’s gone a step further in the West of Canada with faith adult education,” he said. “Even people who don’t have plans to become great leaders in the community, or missionaries, take courses just to educate themselves so they can educate their children.”

On education, Kennedy says the centennial is a good time to educate Catholics about Catholic Missions’ existence. Many Catholics are not aware that missions still exist in Canada, he said. Catholic Missions publishes and distributes a quarterly magazine to update its supporters. Catholic Missions began the magazine soon after giving up ownership of The Catholic Register in 1912. However, Kennedy said they wanted to take things a little more in-depth.

“When we started planning two years ago for the 100th anniversary, we thought it would be good to have a good published history,” Kennedy said.

So that is what was done. Kennedy put together a 52-page history booklet with photos and accounts from 1908 to today. Home Missions in Canada — The Beginnings covers Catholic Missions from its inception as the Catholic Church Extension Society of Canada when it established its headquarters in Toronto and helped found St. Augustine’s Seminary.

The booklet lays out the major historical developments that took place throughout the century, finishing with letters from former presidents who also worked as missionaries.

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