Croteau's 50-year challenge

  • May 2, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - When he first started working as an Oblate missionary priest in the diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith, retiring Bishop Denis Croteau went head-to-head with the elements.

He recalls the Dene people’s traditional life cycle, which required him to travel across expanses of land by dogsled or on foot, sleeping outside or in a tent at temperatures often as cold as -55 degrees Celsius, so that he could visit their camps along the winter trap line more than 100 kms away.  

“It could be dangerous and as a rule we paid attention,” he said. “But in those days you had no radio or telephone.”

Croteau was in Toronto April 23 to accept an honorary award for his work with Catholic Missions In Canada at its yearly fund-raising gala, Tastes of Heaven.

Croteau explained that the families either sent their kids to residential schools for a formal education or took them to “bush camps” to hunt during the winter. So when he arrived in 1960, there was hardly anyone in the main village “all year round,” except for a handful of times surrounding key holidays like Christmas, Easter and “Treaty Day” in July.

Croteau, who grew up in Thetford Mines, Que., became the bishop of the North in the 1980s and officially retired on May 10 after nearly 50 years spent in the Northwest Territories and northern Saskatchewan. He said the religious devotion of the Dene people initially surprised him.

“When I arrived, I thought I would do conversions, but no, they were all Catholics,” he said. “Ninety-five per cent of the Dene people are Catholic.”

Croteau points out that many oblate missionaries came before him, with much less financial support, if any, carrying the church teachings to the North since the mid 1800s. Since then, lots of things have changed, he said, including transportation, food, and way of life. 

Although most of his aboriginal Catholics are First Nations people, the there are some Inuit faithful. The Inuit did not hear from the French Catholic missionaries until the early 1900s, because they lived much farther north where early Oblate missionaries and pioneering Grey Nuns were unable to go because of the difficult terrain.

“It’s a very extensive piece of land and it’s still very undeveloped,” Croteau said of his diocese, geographically the largest diocese in the world. “Most of the diocese is still without roads, so it means we have to fly.”

Besides flying priests between the mission parishes, Croteau also uses mission funds to fly lay people to a spiritual centre he created to provide leadership faith formation.

After an extensive synod, he helped pinpoint the diocese’s two greatest religious needs: formation and healing.

Lay ministry formation is one of the few means of instructing Catholics, he said, since the government took over hospitals and schools in the 1950s. With fewer than 10 priests serving the diocese, lay people in the church are essential.

Croteau said he is concerned the Catholics of the North will dwindle in practising numbers as other denominations establish themselves. Without proper formation and understanding of their faith, he adds, they may easily abandon the Catholic tradition for something different. In many cases, alcohol and gambling addictions have already alienated people from the church and ruptured family life.

“In 1960, people were very religious, very devotional and you never heard of divorce, common-law unions, you never heard of all those moral problems you have today.”

Croteau is looking forward to serving the diocese as a priest thanks to his retirement. His replacement, who started serving the diocese as coadjutor bishop in September, is Bishop Murray Chatlain.

“I’ll be like a free agent, available to visit the missions, perform Baptisms, marriages, funerals, whatever the new bishop will call me to do,” Croteau said. 

Sr. Dora Durand, a Grey Nun from the diocese, accompanied Croteau to Toronto and received the Light of Christ Award on behalf of her order. Durand said Croteau made a significant contribution as a bishop by starting many resourceful programs in the diocese.

“That bishop has done a fantastic job,” she said. “I think we do see people who are changing their lives, and it’s really the lay people who are there, those people who flew to Trapper’s Lake for formation.”

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