Northern bishop Chatlain takes time to learn aboriginal reality

  • April 29, 2010
Mackenzie-Fort Smith Bishop Murray ChatlainTORONTO - Serving in Canada’s northern mission dioceses requires a “call within a call,” says 47-year-old Mackenzie-Fort Smith Bishop Murray Chatlain.

Chatlain, who took charge of the diocese two years ago, was in Toronto April 21 to speak about its needs at the annual Tastes of Heaven gala dinner hosted by Catholic Missions In Canada.

Chatlain said the approach of the Church in the north has significantly changed. The Church promotes the use of aboriginal culture and language rather than trying to eradicate it like some priests and religious had done in the past. This requires clergy and lay missionaries to understand what they’re getting into.
“Anyone working in mission work now has to be a bit of an anthropologist,” he said. “You have to start by paying attention to and respecting the differences and cultural mores and cues. Rather than focusing on how we’re going to bring Jesus to the people, we try to help the people recognize that Jesus is already there.”

In Mackenzie-Fort Smith, many of the Catholics are Dene, although there are also Catholics among the Inuit.

Before he served for four years in the southern part of the mission diocese as a priest on loan from Saskatoon, Chatlain had taken a year-long sabbatical in La Loche, Sask., learning the Chipewyan language, one of several different Dene dialects. His interest stemmed from inner-city work.

“I realized that to be poor in Saskatoon, you were aboriginal or suffering from a mental illness. I realized I didn’t understand the aboriginal reality very well and where people were coming from.”

After spending four years in Mackenzie-Fort Smith, Chatlain was ordained co-adjutor bishop and then a year later, in 2008, became bishop.

Because of the sparse population and large distances between communities, the diocese depends on donations raised by Catholic Missions In Canada to serve its faithful.  

Proceeds from the $216,000 collected at this year’s gala will fund three major projects: rebuilding a church in Fort Simpson, renovating an old building in Tuktoyuktuk and building a church in Wekweti, a community of 125 Catholics that calls itself “the Catholic Bible belt of the north.”

Catholic Missions In Canada is also helping the northern diocese this coming year by supporting the cost of hosting a National Evangelization Team in Yellowknife. This will consist of a team of about half a dozen young people from across Canada who will reach out to youth from a parish in the city.

“We’re making a concerted effort to reach out to the youth.”

This is important since the communities are experiencing a rapid culture shift because of the prevalence of satellite television and movies, Chatlain said. Dene and Inuit parents are, more and more, seeing their kids become radically different people culturally.

“It’s just that all of a sudden their children are dressing like rappers from Brooklyn,” he said.

What youth know about the Church often comes from native studies in schools that focus on the abuse and the colonial arrogance of the past, he added.

“The young people are looking for things that are positive and there is a general openness to things of the faith”

At the gala, Catholic Missions In Canada awarded nurse Monica Loomis its St. Joseph Award, recognizing dedicated service in mission territories.

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