For B.C. couple, mission begins at home

By  Chris Heffernan, Catholic Register Special
  • December 13, 2007

{mosimage}ONION LAKE, Sask. - While many Catholics do missionary work overseas, one couple is concentrating its efforts a little closer to home by working with native communities in northern Saskatchewan.

When Cynthia and Graham Dudfield’s parish priest moved from their small B.C. town to serve Onion Lake and Thunderchild First Nations in Saskatchewan, they never could have guessed they would soon be following him and beginning life anew as Catholic missionaries.

“Never had the thought occurred to me to move to the Prairies, but that’s how God works,” said Cynthia Dudfield.

That was in 1998. Today, Cynthia — commonly referred to as Mother Cynthia — and Brother Graham serve among a congregation that is growing both in numbers and enthusiasm. The married couple has taken vows of celibacy, obedience and poverty, now living as brother and sister, so they can better devote their time to the missionary work they have devoted the rest of their lives to.

“I look at my mission and my life as a window pane,” said Mother Cynthia. “I try to keep myself as a clear piece of glass so all people see and hear is Jesus, who is shining through me.”

While the church has maintained its physical presence in Onion Lake and Thunderchild with its parish churches, the Roman Catholic faith among the inhabitants has dwindled in recent decades. The Dudfields, along with parish priest Fr. Ron Dechant, set out to repair the connection between the church and its people, although this has proven to be a tall order.

While the presence of the Catholic Church among these First Nations goes back to the 1870s, the past 30 years has witnessed a significant decline of faith among the people. Statistics also show higher rates of crime, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide on Canada’s First Nations’ reserves. It is in this context that the Dudfields preach God’s word and display through their actions His unflinching love for each and every soul.

“It’s letting them know that no matter what their situation is around them, there is a God who loves them unconditionally and wants the best for them,” she said.

It is the message of God’s infinite love which Mother Cynthia believes has drawn more people back to the faith. She notes that the message seems to resonate most strongly among the children, with anywhere from 20 to 50 of them attending church on any given Sunday — many without their parents.

More adults have also been returning to church and, by doing so, are overcoming rifts some feel were created by residential schools decades ago. In a further effort to mend this old wound, Mother Cynthia participated in a community sponsored healing walk this past June.  

“The night before, there was talk of it being a violent time against the church and that I should not go, but I knew that I had to be there to pray and to take the place of all the dedicated Sisters that served here in the past,” she wrote in a newsletter recalling the event.

As the work of their mission continues to bear fruit, the Dudfields have learned more and more to put their trust in divine providence. This they did when Onion Lake’s Holy Rosary Church burned down two days before their first Christmas there, trusting God would find a means for them to rebuild it. That He did through the generosity of donations from right across Canada, said Mother Cynthia.

As money is often tight, and with the needs of their mission growing, this July the couple decided to forego buying groceries. While this would seem risky by most standards, they see it as an extension of their faith in Him to provide for their needs. 

This willingness to sacrifice earthly pleasures for the eternal benefit of others lies at the heart of their missionary life, she said. It is also a reality many potential recruits have found hard to cope with.

“Often times, after people have visited for a while and have shadowed us, they honestly say it’s too much of a sacrifice,” she said. “I wouldn’t want someone who couldn’t sacrifice and love with all their heart to force themselves to become missionaries.”

However, they do have space available at their mission house and welcome anyone who believes they have what it takes to devote their life entirely to God. 

“It’s so beautiful to see someone come back to the sacraments, come back to the faith, back to a prayer life after years,” she said. “To see the tears pouring down their face as they pray again. There’s nothing that measures up to that joy.”

For information see the web site www.stjosephmissionariesofsacrifice.com.

(Heffernan is a freelance writer in Saskatchewan.)

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