The group gathers for a photo at the Sandy Island pilgrimage courtesy/Danielle Rivest

Speaking Out: Pilgrimage is an expression of faith and culture

By  Danielle Rivest, Youth Speak News
  • August 20, 2019

This summer has been the most unique and beautiful season I have experienced. My colleague and I lived in Wollaston Lake, Sask., a Dene reserve in northern Saskatchewan, working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and groups, connecting partners to nurture healing, empower youth and foster leadership through the Northern Bridge Community Partnership for the past two months.

The memorable summer included  chaperoning a group of teens from the reserve for 10 days at IndigenEYEZ, a culture camp in Hedley, and participating in the annual Sandy Island pilgrimage from Aug. 7-12.

The Sandy Island pilgrimage has been a part of the Wollaston Lake community for about 20 years. It consists of a daily rosary and Mass, candlelight vigils around the bay, First Communions, Reconciliations, Confirmations and youth programming. With Fr. Joji Chandamala and Archbishop Murray Chatlain in attendance, the community was in the hands of two strong leaders in the Church.

In many ways, the Sandy Island pilgrimage is comparable to a waltz between Catholicism and Dene culture. With each song and sacrament, there is a gentle balance of tradition and culture that affirms their compatibility. The people praised God through Gospel songs in both Dene and English because the language is the method, but the lyrics are the message. They also celebrated Mass in an exchange of both Dene and English, as the archbishop is fluent in the Dene language. By making Mass accessible in both languages, Chatlain actively fosters the universality of the Catholic Church. 

Additionally, the First Communion and Confirmation candidates wear traditional white garments that are accented in Dene embroidery to receive their sacraments. In a simple yet intricate pattern of white material and thread, the Dene people have brought together Catholicism and Dene culture in perfect harmony.

As a Caucasian Catholic, I have been struggling with my role in an Indigenous community, given the history of the Catholic Church and residential schools. In Wollaston, I could see the intersection of faith and culture, but I wasn’t sure how I fit into this historically complicated puzzle. What I have learned from hearing these stories is that every experience was different, and in the aftermath of this horrific part of Canadian history, the people of Wollaston have remained resillient and fearless.

When the opportunity came to work with an Indigenous community, I realized that this was my chance to better understand the history and livelihood of it. I have spoken with survivors who have shared their experiences with residential schools. Some are grateful for being able to learn English; some are devastated by the abuse, mistreatment and pain; and some avoided the schools altogether by living in the bush. 

My time in Wollaston and Sandy Island was a personal pilgrimage. I have been met with many challenges and struggles. However, for each challenge, I was met with incredible joy and laughter. For each struggle, I was met with a lesson and comforting words. I have learned a great deal about myself, as well as the Dene people. I have never seen such a generous, loving, life-filled community as I have at Wollaston Lake. 

While I sat with frozen toes and goosebumps on Sandy Island, the archbishop’s words carried a deep truth for me: “Pilgrimage isn’t meant to be easy.” 

However it has been a bit challenging at times, this summer has been a beautiful testimony to the both faith and culture, to the resiliency of the Dene people and the unending love of God forever at work throughout the world. I will cherish this experience for a lifetime.

(Rivest, 23, is a second-year teacher candidate at Western’s Faculty of Education- Althouse in London, Ont.)

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