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Water to the fire

Peace River pastor saves local parish from arson attempt

Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

Fr. Nel Esguerra had to put his years of firefighter training to the test to protect his parish from an arson attempt last week. But, he believes the miraculous intervention of God is the real reason his church is still standing.

It was around 11 p.m. on Saturday, July 3rd, that Archbishop Gerard Pettipas and Fr. Nel awoke to the blaring ring of the Our Lady of Peace Church’s fire alarm. The archbishop happened to be spending the night in Peace River, as he had plans to install Fr. Chukwudi Jieme as the new pastor in Grimshaw the next morning.

As the alarm rang through the rectory, both the archbishop and Fr. Nel looked around the building to see any signs of a fire. Because there had been a funeral at the parish that morning, Fr. Nel initially expected that incense had been left burning in the sacristy and this had triggered the alarm.

But as soon as the priest opened the door leading from the rectory to the sacristy, large clouds of black smoke began billowing out of it.

“Then I said, ‘Oh… this is not good,’” Fr. Nel recalled.

Our Lady of Peace Church in Peace River

The priest rushed forward to find out where this long trail of smoke was coming from. He peeked through the door that leads into the parish hall, and there he saw two flames near the main entrance. One flame was just starting to develop, but the other flame was already taller than him, and swiftly growing.

Instantly, Esguerra put his nearly ten years of volunteer firefighting experience to work. He rushed back to the kitchen to fill a pail of water and then got a garden hose. As he rushed around to begin extinguishing the two flames, he noticed that the window to the main entrance had been smashed in. Not only that, a third flame was also rising from the church basement.

When Fr. Nel finally made his way downstairs to put out that third flame, he found at the bottom of the steps what appeared to be a bottle filled with gasoline and a burning rag at its end. This type of homemade bomb is commonly referred to as a “Molotov cocktail”.

Fr. Nel was able to extinguish the flame in time, preventing the bottle from exploding.

The fire damage at the top of the stairs.

“My theory is the bottle was thrown in, hard enough that it smashed through the window and landed first on the carpet, and then it eventually rolled down the stairs causing the flame in the basement,” said Esguerra.

“If it had landed directly into the basement I think it would have exploded on the spot. If it did, it would not have taken long for that fire to spread and do a lot of very serious damage to this church. It is a miracle that that Molotov cocktail never exploded. I consider it an act of God.”

By the time Fr. Nel got out of the church the fire department and RCMP were just showing up. While the flames were now extinguished, the church was still filled with smoke. The fire department proceeded to help clear the church of smoke and investigate the area for any other fires or hazards.

Further damage from the fire.

Thanks to Fr. Nel’s courageous efforts, the damage to the church was limited. A section of carpet and walls are burned and damaged, and the smell of smoke still lingers in the church. But the parish was spared the damage seen in many other churches across Canada recently. In the last week of June, six churches were burned down in British Columbia, and others were damaged by fires in the Northwest Territories and Nova Scotia. Each fire is being treated as suspicious.

In Alberta, the historic St. Jean Baptiste Church in Morinville was engulfed in flames and burned down on June 30. As the fire began to uncontrollably consume its walls and interiors, the 100-year old church with its towering bell tower crumbled to the ground.

As Fr. Nel valiantly put himself through billowing black smoke to extinguish the flames engulfing his parish, thoughts of the church in Morinville, and the ashes and rubble it was reduced to, were running through his mind.

St. Jean-Baptiste Church in Morinville was destroyed by a fire on June 30. The fire is being treated as suspicious.

“The one thing in my mind at that moment was Morinville. That church was a symbol of faith, a symbol of the community, and for that building to no longer be standing there is very demoralizing,” said Esguerra. “And as I was putting out the fires, that was the one thing I kept thinking – I’m not going to let this symbol of faith and hope be taken away.”

The fires come in the aftermath of news reports of unmarked graves found near former Indian Residential Schools across Canada, most of which were run by Catholic religious orders. The stories have sparked a tremendous backlash against the Church, including accusations of genocide. However, a full investigation on these graves has yet to be completed.

In 2015, Dr. Scott Hamilton from the Department of Anthropology at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, was asked by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to complete an in-depth study and report on the deaths of residential school students and of burials on school grounds. His 44-page report states that communicable diseases were a primary cause of death during the 19th and 20th centuries, such as tuberculosis and the Spanish Flu. The often poor, crowded and out-of-the-way conditions of the residential schools would have increased the spread of these diseases and the lack of resources to combat them.

The discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School was the first of many recent discoveries of unmarked graves.

The Department of Indian Affairs that established the Indian Residential School system had no formal or written policy on the burial of children, nor funding for it. With limited resources to send bodies to their home communities and to maintain graveyards at the school, Dr. Hamilton writes that typically cemeteries were established on school grounds and marked with wooden crosses. This was often the only way of burying those who died at the schools, including students, teachers and religious.

Documentation of the existence of these gravesites goes back to 1907, though Hamilton’s report states that by the 1940s deaths at the residential schools had become increasingly rare. While there was often little work done to maintain these cemeteries, and many went into total neglect after the closure of the schools, Hamilton’s report found no direct evidence of a deliberate attempt to hide graves.

Since 2014, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have called for efforts to identify the number of bodies buried at these gravesites, to restore them, and to work towards other efforts to honour the memory of those deceased there.

Fr. Nel Esguerra’s homily the day after the arson attempt on his church has generated a lot of positive reaction on social media.

In our age of rapid information and social media, this issue has sparked and renewed tensions across Canada, for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, and for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. When Fr. Nel prepared for his homily on Sunday, July 4, he debated whether he should bring up the suspected arson attack on the church at all.

“I was worried that maybe I’ll say something too political in the heat of the moment,” he said. “But I thought – parishioners need to know what happened. And it’s a teaching moment for me, to walk the talk and be an example of how we should react on such an occasion. So I just prayed to be guided by the Holy Spirit, to respond in a way that was not from a position of hatred or pointing fingers and making accusations, but in a way that stops this cycle of hatred and revenge. Because it needs to stop.”

In his homily, Fr. Nel urged faithful to respond to such attacks on the Church with love, understanding and forgiveness. When we are faced with a damaging fire, we seek to put it out, not to stoke the flames and help it grow.

St. Jean-Baptiste Church, which stood for over a century, has now been reduced to rubble.

“We don’t let the church be burnt with anger and revenge, but we heal it with compassion, kindness, forgiveness and reconciliation,” Esguerra said in his homily. “The grace of God is sufficient. Therefore when we are weak, we know that our wounds and Christ’s wounds are united. That those thorns within us and the thorns inflicted on Him are united.

“We always have the choice on how to react to these tragic events. Let us choose to be on the side of the grace of God, and the grace of God will always tell us to forgive, to love and to care. Let us remember there is a chance for us to be reconciled, to be healed. Let us move forward with the grace of God.”

That homily, shared first as a livestreamed Mass on the parish’s Facebook page, has now spread around social media, with many commenting on its power and emotional impact. Global News even contacted Esguerra and asked to use a part of the homily in their news broadcast.

Looking back, Fr. Nel says there is much more to be thankful for than upset about.

The day after the fire, Fr. Nel and a group of parishioners got together to bless their church and pray to St. Joseph.

“It’s very sad to see the damage to this property, damage which could have cost lives, but people have shown so much support, and they have shown that they value their faith and they value this church,” he said. “People are volunteering to patrol the church, and even people from other communities are calling and asking if they can do anything to help.

“Those gestures made me realize that there’s so much to be grateful for. It could have been so much worse. And we were still able to celebrate Mass the next day.”

After the morning Mass on Sunday, some parishioners came back to the church at 3 p.m. to offer a prayer to St. Joseph. The priest and parishioners then went around the church seven times, blessing it with holy water and salt.

It is certainly a moment that has deeply affected Fr. Nel and the Catholic community of Peace River. While inspecting the church a few days after the fire, the priest found a small fragment of the rag that was used as a wick in the Molotov cocktail. He has kept it as a memento from the experience.

A piece of the wick from the Molotov cocktail that was thrown into the church.

At a time when the world seems overwhelmed by negativity, by the wickedness of humanity, the sins of the Church and the divisions in society, the Peace River pastor hopes people will seek ways to heal pain, and not to inflict it further.

“There’s still a long way to go. It will be a long haul, but that’s the life of the Church. There’s up and downs, and this is one of those down moments,” said Fr. Nel. “We will always be imperfect people, and there will always be people in the Church who do imperfect things. But in moments like this we must learn above all to follow the golden rule. And that rule comes with a twist. It means not only to do unto others what we would like them to do to us. It also means when someone does something bad to you, you respond by doing the opposite.

“We must always be the people who put water on the fire, not those who want to see it burn further.”

Conversations with Bertha: Eastern Catholics

“Conversations with Bertha” is a new feature that will appear from time to time in Archbishop’s Pettipas’ letters. These tales are of a purely Catechetical nature, and any resemblance between Bertha and any person known to the reader is purely coincidental.

Conversations with Bertha – #2
by Archbishop Gerard Pettipas, C.Ss.R.

I love pancake breakfasts.  When I see the sandwich board out that announces the Knights are having one after the Masses, I whisper a “Great!” under my breath.  I look forward to such occasions not only to have an elaborate breakfast (at least more elaborate than I cook for myself), but also just to meet people.  So a few weeks ago, that’s just what happened.  After I had filled my plate with pancakes and sausages, butter and syrup, and scrambled eggs, I wandered between tables looking for one that had one too many chairs for the people seated.  Lo and behold, Bertha was sitting next to any empty chair.

After an exchange of niceties with everyone at the table, Bertha turned to me and began.  “Your Grace, you know the Boychuck’s that live across the street from us … they say they’re Catholics as well.  But they don’t come to our parish; they go to the Ukrainian Church across town.  What’s that all about?”  As usual, I felt I needed to give some historical background to this.  My high school English teacher had more than once drilled this thought in my head: “any text without a context is a pretext.”  So I tried my best.

This conversation begins at a parish pancake breakfast, hosted by the Knights of Columbus.

“Well, Bertha, we have to see this from the perspective of the world in the first centuries of the Christian Church.  The Roman Empire was the dominant force from before Christ’s birth until a few centuries after.  They had followed upon the Greek Empire, so even though the Romans ruled much of the world around the Mediterranean, most of these people still spoke Greek and followed Greek customs.  The Roman Empire, in effect, had two centers of power: Rome, and Constantinople.  These came to be understood as the western empire (Latin speaking) and the eastern empire (Greek-speaking).  The Catholic Church was being established throughout both parts of the empire, but because their language, customs and ways of thought were different, the local Churches (or dioceses) were gathered around different patriarchates within these two arms of the Roman Empire.

“As the early Churches developed, they formed around specific cultures and languages which gave shape and form to their liturgies and some other practices.  These we still have in the Catholic Church as “rites”.  Of the 24 or so different rites in the Church, the largest and most extensive is the “Roman Rite”, which is found in most of the world.  Other rites also known to us in Canada are the Ukrainian, Syro-Malabar (from Kerala in India), Maronite (from Lebanon), and Chaldean (from Iraq and Syria) Churches.  Because the Church embraces so many, it is appropriately called “catholic”, which means universal.  In this sense, the Catholic Church is both local (in its diocese and its parishes) and universal (throughout the world).

Divine Liturgy celebrated by Ukrainian Catholics. Photo by Lincoln Ho

“Pope John Paul II drew our attention to this variety of Churches within the one Catholic family by stating that, “The Church needs to learn to breathe again with its two lungs – its Eastern one and its Western one.”  In his effort to bring together the East and West, the Holy Father issued two distinct challenges. Because Eastern Catholics are a minority, they must faithfully preserve their tradition and not be tempted to “Latinize” their practices.  By the same token, Roman Catholics should become more familiar with the liturgical and theological expressions of the Christian East.”

Bertha jumped in.  “So what have you done, Your Grace, to become more familiar with the Eastern part of the Church?  Have you ever gone to those places … Lebanon and Kerala and Syria?”

“Not all of them”, I admitted.  “But these days, many communities of these people now live in Canada.  We have many Ukrainian Catholics in western Canada; in fact, in our diocese there are Ukrainian Catholic churches in Grande Prairie, Hines Creek and High Prairie.  I’ve been to several of their Divine Liturgies – they call it that, rather than ‘Mass’.  But I have also attended liturgies offered by these other Churches.  When all the bishops in Canada gather at the end of September each year for our plenary assembly, those bishops are also with us, and one of our Masses or other prayer periods at the plenary will be conducted by those bishops.  While we Roman bishops don’t understand everything they’re saying, which is often in their own language, we recognize one another as full members of the one Body of Christ.”

Divine Liturgy celebrated by Ukrainian Catholics. Photo by Lincoln Ho

“You know, Your Grace, this is all so very interesting.  You open up my mind to so many things when we have these talks like this.  I thought all along that all Catholics are the same.  But I guess this isn’t true.

“Exactly, Bertha.  It’s especially amazing to realize that we can be so different in the Catholic Church, yet still be bound together in Jesus Christ by our faith, hope and love.  Our different rituals and languages are not barriers, but actually call us to love one another because we are both different and united.”  “I wish the whole world that we could be more like that”, Bertha offered.  “So do I, Bertha.  So do I.”

That’s when the Knights got everyone’s attention, and asked those who could to help put away the tables and chairs.  It was obvious that our pancake breakfast was over.  Some of us had fed on pancakes and sausages; others were fed with words and images.

Stay tuned for future installments of “Conversations with Bertha”

If you build it, they will come

High Level has big dreams of new parish hall project

Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

Priest and parishioners alike have big hopes for a new parish hall at Our Lady of Good Counsel in High Level.

Since Fr. Henry Kiggundi, FMH, arrived in High Level as parish priest four years ago, he felt a hall was one thing the church desperately needed.

“When I first got here I told the bishop – the only problem with this place is we don’t have a hall, and we will miss out on a lot without one,” said Kiggundi. “The church is a community. It is fellowship. But without a hall we don’t have as easy an ability to get together. Instead, you see people come for Mass and then leave right after.”

Fr. Henry Kiggundi looks over the plot of land where he hopes Our Lady of Good Counsel’s parish hall will be built.

It was an idea of Father Kiggundi’s that slowly began percolating in 2018, but is now becoming a more tangible reality. Last autumn, the parish hall project took a major step forward when Our Lady of Good Counsel’s building committee hired an architect to make preliminary designs and a preliminary budget.

The project has now become much more than a hall, said Myles Bukowsky, chair of the parish’s finance committee and building committee. It would be an overall expansion of the church, including some much-needed storage space, offices, a kitchen, and an area for teaching catechism and sacramental preparation. The preliminary design shows the general layout of the kitchen, storage spaces, meeting rooms and the hall itself. Currently, the expected preliminary budget for the parish hall is $3.5 million.

Now with a visual design on hand, Bukowsky and Kiggundi hope interest in the project will increase.

Myles Bukowsky shows some of the preliminary architectural designs for the parish hall project.

“Without a direct focus on the project, people will worry about other things,” said Kiggundi. “That’s why we needed to have a plan in place for the design and fundraising. Otherwise, it will always feel like it’s too big of a project for us to do, and there’ll be no way to get it off the ground.”

The hall for Our Lady of Good Counsel would provide new meeting spaces for the parish’s Knights of Columbus, Catholic Women’s League and El Shaddai group. As well, receptions for funerals or weddings could be held there.

When the building of the current church in High Level was approved in 1998, a parish hall was a part of its original blueprints. However, due to financial constraints, the hall was removed from the design when construction began.

Preliminary designs

Bukowsky agrees with Father Kiggundi that a hall is an essential part of parish life.

“When I lived in Lloydminster I was on the building committee there and we did a similar project,” recalled Bukowsky. “When that church’s hall was finally completed, it made a huge difference for the parish community. All of a sudden, the church was always busy and bustling. Every weekend someone rented out the hall for weddings, baptisms, sometimes for a certain saints’ feast day – any excuse for a gathering.

“High Level is a centre of activity for this region. This is the largest parish in [Deanery 5]. Once the hall is there, people will find a reason to use it.”

The church has done some fundraising for the hall through their weekly bulletin, where all proceeds from local business ads go directly to the hall project. It generates $250 each week for the project. However, the parish is also focused on clearing up its debt, which must be done before any major fundraising on the hall can begin.

Myles Bukowsky, chair of the parish’s finance and building committees, has played a leading role in getting the hall project off the ground.

Along with the $10,000 that was spent to create the preliminary designs, the parish has more than $42,000 currently raised. The parish must have raised 60% of the project budget before construction can begin. While there is still a long way to go, the parish remains hopeful that the hall will one day be a reality. Though it may take some years and much perseverance.

“We’re just waiting for COVID to end and then we will be posting this two-page layout from the architect in the church and start using it for presentations,” said Bukowsky. “That’s the next phase. Once the COVID restrictions are fully lifted, we’re going to start looking towards events and fundraising.”

Conceptional art depicting what Our Lady of Good Counsel Church will look like after the parish hall is completed.

 

 

Standing the test of time

Historic church in Friedenstal commemorates its 100th anniversary this year

Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

The towering steeple of St. Boniface Church has stood high above the gravel roads and farmland of Friedenstal for over a century.

From its rugged exterior of deteriorating paint and wood, one may expect St. Boniface Church, which has been closed since the 1970s, to be worn out and decrepit. But stepping inside, its altars, statues, crosses, vestments and chandelier are well preserved and almost miraculously pristine – looking as if the church had only closed its doors that previous Sunday.

St. Boniface Church in Friedenstal.

The church not only celebrates its centennial anniversary this year, this month honours the church’s patron saint – St. Boniface. His feast day was June 5.

Living just up the road from the historic church is Ed and Elizabeth Dechant. The couple have spent much of their life in Friedenstal. Ed’s ancestors first settled there from Germany in 1916. His mother’s side of the family fled to Canada from Russia in the 1920s, to escape communist persecution.

Even by the time his father arrived in 1916, Ed says Friedenstal was already well established. The area was settled by more than 50 different families, who were nearly all German Catholics.

Ed and Elizabeth Dechant inside St. Boniface Church, where its statues and altars are still in near-pristine condition.

“Pretty much every corner of the land somebody had taken,” he said. “People started coming here and surveying the land around 1909, and after that it just exploded. And the families didn’t travel much in those days; they pretty much stayed, hunted moose and were self-sufficient.”

Like much of the early Church in western Canada, the first priests to come to Friedenstal were Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The majority of St. Boniface’s priests came from Germany, and the parishioners were very insistent on having a German priest for their area.

The original log church in Friedenstal from 1913-1920.

They set up a small log church around 1913, with the permission of Bishop Emile Grouard, OMI. In 1920 construction began on their current St. Boniface Church. It was designed and built by Brother Eisemon, OMI. The first Mass was celebrated on Christmas Eve, 1921 with its first pastor Fr. Wilhelm Ebert. Ed says every Mass was around 2 and half hours, as the sermon was preached in both English and German.

The church was blessed by Bishop Grouard on August 15, 1922.

Shortly afterward, the Sisters of Providence established a convent and boarding school that was attended by children from Friedenstal and outlying areas. Ed had never learned to speak any English until he began attending that school.

“When the nuns came, a new rectory was built and the nuns took over the old one as a convent,” said Ed. “When I was a kid, the church was pretty active. They had a resident priest, and a younger priest that helped him. It’s the place where people would met. I went to school right next door, and got to know the kids who came that would stay at the dorms.”

A group of Sister of Providence nuns in Friedenstal get ready to travel by horse.

Elizabeth’s most cherished memory of St. Boniface is the church choir. With a parish priest that was fond of the traditional music of the Church, there was great efforts to ensure the 30-person choir was up to the highest standard.

“One of our priests Father [Anthony] Herter just loved classical music,” Elizabeth recalled. “They would sing all in Latin, and they arranged the singing in four different parts. It was quite a commotion. The choir had to be as good as possible.”

The Corpus Christi feast was one of the parish’s biggest celebrations.  Parishioners would plant trees in honour of the feast day, and hold a procession through the whole community, with altars set up throughout the area.

The high altar at St. Boniface Church, as it stands today.

In the winter time, a fire had to be started in the furnace of the church every Saturday evening to prepare for Sunday Mass and “get the chill out” of the building. Ed says that sometimes, depending on who started the fire, it would be pretty smoky in the church and you would be tempted to go outside during Mass to try and cool down.

In the 1950s some refurbishments were done on the church, replacing some of the original woodwork and repainting it. But no serious restoration work has been done on the church since that time. Fr. Martin Doll, OMI, was ordained a priest at the church on June 30, 1952.

When the railway was established along Fairview in the late 1920s, gradually all major resources began to centralize in that area. By the mid-1960s Fridenstal’s school shut down, and then in 1969, St. Boniface Church’s doors were closed. Locals then had to make the trip to Fairview for school and Sunday Mass.

Elizabeth Dechant holds up a German-English Bible, one of many unique items still preserved at St. Boniface Church.

At the time, Ed says opinion was split. The church was still very active, but with the closure of the school many expected that the church would be next.

Today there are only about 25 families in the Friedenstal area. As Elizabeth says, now the farms are getting bigger, but the people are getting less.

Even if it has been closed for more than 50 years, St. Boniface Church is one part of Friedenstal that still remains.

“For a 100-year-old church it’s in pretty good shape, but it needs some work,” said Ed.

Ed and Elizabeth outside of St. Boniface, where a new paint job is certainly needed.

One major issue is that the church was built without a solid foundation. When it was constructed in 1920, they used only big rocks and put timbers over them. Now that the church has been designated as a historical site by the province, Ed and Elizabeth hope in the future it can get some needed restoration work on its foundation and exterior.

In May 1982, the Friedenstal Historical Society was established. They own and look after the property today.

“Any government funding we would get for it we would have to match it locally,” said Ed. “With COVID a lot of fundraising we would normally do has been put on hold.

“The funding we need could get pretty major considering it needs a new foundation.”

The high altar at St. Boniface before its closure in 1969.

Restored and renewed

With his parish now repaired from major flood damage, Kenyan priest reflects on his tumultuous first months in Canada

By Kyle Greenham
ArchGM News

As Fr. Charles Mungai, FMH, looks over the newly renovated and restored parish hall at St. Henri’s Church, the vivid and chaotic memories of the priest’s initial months in Canada run through his mind.

The Franciscan Missionary of Hope arrived in Fort Vermillion from the Diocese of Nairobi, Kenya on January 29, 2020. He was about to begin a new chapter as the parish priest in Alberta’s oldest settlement. But little did he know, a world-shattering pandemic and a once-in-a-century flood were also on the horizon.

Fr. Charles Mungai had to face many challenges when he moved from Kenya to northern Alberta – from -50 degree weather, a pandemic that shut down the world, and a cataclysmic flood.

Coming to Canada in the midst of -50 degree weather, Mungai was sure his biggest challenge would be surviving these bitter cold temperatures. Then, just one month into his time as pastor, the initial COVID-19 lockdowns were ordered across Alberta and the world – closing churches, schools and businesses everywhere.

Mungai was no longer able to publicly celebrate Mass or share the Gospel with the students of St. Mary’s Elementary School. In fact, nearly every aspect of daily life was brought to a halt.

It was not the expected beginning to Father Charles’ ministry in Canada.

If that wasn’t enough, only a few weeks later Mungai received a bright red piece of paper on his doorstep. It was a mandatory evacuation notice for all residents in the low-lying areas of Fort Vermillion. It ordered them to immediately pack what they could and leave their homes, as the Peace River was now projected to flood the entire area.

On Sunday, April 26, the river began to do just that.

The flood damage to St. Henri’s parish hall is assessed in May, as the flooding waters from the Peace River were beginning to recede.

The mighty Peace River is only a stone’s throw from the doorsteps of St. Henri’s Church. As large ice jams caused the water levels to rise, the Church’s basement hall, as well as the cemetery and the basement of the neighbouring rectory, were quickly flooded.

“I was in a state of just total confusion,” Mungai recalled. “I just couldn’t understand these events playing out. As soon as I thought that I was about to settle down – something else came up.

“It’s an experience I will never forget in my life time.”

Mungai stayed at a variety of places as he waited for the flood to recede, including the rectory in High Prairie and Archbishop Pettipas’ home in Grande Prairie.

The Fort Vermillion flood of April 2020 brought major damage to the low-level areas of the community. It was the largest flood in nearly a century.

When Mungai finally returned to Fort Vermillion on May 12 to assess the damage, he discovered more than $400,000 in damage to the church and rectory. As well, chunks of ice and driftwood floated into the town’s Catholic cemetery, nearly flooding and covering the entire area. The church still had electricity, but its water lines and plumping all had to be replaced.

St. Mary’s Elementary School, situated not far from the school, was also heavily damaged by the flood, and was subsequently demolished.

“By the time we came back the water had receded, but you could see the signs that the water had just wrecked total havoc,” Mungai said. “The whole basement was full of water, nearly to the roof. Books, sacramental items, chairs, furniture, the kitchen appliances, everything was ruined.”

The rectory beside St. Henri’s Church was also flooded. Water reached to nearly the roof of the rectory basement.

By the beginning of July 2020, Mungai returned to Fort Vermillion to stay. Shortly after, St. Henri’s celebrated its first public Mass since the flooding. The bathrooms and waterlines remained out of use, but parishioners were eager to return to the church.

Nearly 30 people showed up to that first public Mass, with COVID-19 restrictions still in place.

“Those who were around were very hungry for the Mass,” said Mungai. “Although Fort Vermillion was still very much deserted at that time. Many had gone to High Level and elsewhere due to flood damage.”

Restoration work on the rectory and church began that July. Entirely new flooring, tiling, insulation, drywall and panelling were installed at both the rectory and parish hall. Many new appliances, toilets and other essentials were brought in. Heating and electrical units were all replaced.

Fr. Charles looks over the newly restored parish hall at St. Henri’s. All that’s needed now is the tables, chairs and other items.

As of this summer, the parish hall has never looked cleaner and more up-to-date – a far cry from when it was full of nothing but river water and floating chairs, textbooks and silt.

Now that the parish hall and rectory have been repaired, restored and recovered, some sense of normalcy has returned to Mungai’s life. Like all of us, he is still reeling with the pandemic and its restrictions, and the hall still needs new chairs, tables and other items.

“After all of the chaos of the flood and the pandemic, now there’s hope. There’s calmness. It is good,” he said.

The Catholic cemetery of Fort Vermillion was also flooded. Volunteers helped plant new soil and grass and remove the driftwood that the Peace River brought with it.

Mungai has kept some written notes from this experience, so that one day he can write his memoir and detail this most tumultuous of adventures – his first three months in Canada, and the global pandemic and the cataclysmic flood that greeted him upon arrival.

“One day I look forward to retelling this story of what happened to me when I came to Canada. When I was posted in St. Henri’s in Fort Vermilion and all these crazy events that came with it.

“Hopefully I will age gracefully so I can tell the story.”

The renewed and restored parish hall at St. Henri’s Church.

 

Pilgrimage for St. Joseph

St. Joseph pastors hope Catholics across archdiocese will take part in once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage

By Kyle Greenham
ArchGM News

A unique spiritual adventure is underway for the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan.

As pandemic restrictions are expected to lessen this summer, a special pilgrimage to all three St. Joseph parishes in our archdiocese may soon begin.

This spiritual excursion, from the northern reaches of John D’or Prairie to the western plains of Spirit River and Grande Prairie, is in celebration of the Year of St. Joseph. This year marks the centennial anniversary of St. Joseph being named patron saint of the Catholic Church.

Your “pilgrim’s passport” must be stamped at every St. Joseph parish you visit on the pilgrimage.

The St. Joseph pilgrimage is the brainchild of His Grace Archbishop Gerard Pettipas, CSsR. When Pope Francis announced 2021 as the Year of St. Joseph, Pettipas wanted to find a way to uniquely commemorate this year. With three parishes in the archdiocese honoured with the name St. Joseph, a pilgrimage seemed like the most fitting form of celebration.

“Like any spiritual exercise, a pilgrimage is about strengthening our spiritual life,” Pettipas said. “In the spirituality of the pilgrimage, the journey is as significant as the destination. The journey is a time of reflection, and hopefully just making the journey to each of these churches will feel like a spiritual experience for our people.”

Archbishop Gerard Pettipas holds up the olive-wood cross, made by Catholics in the Holy Land, that will be gifted to pilgrims who visit all three St. Joseph churches.

The pilgrimage protocol is quite simple. Pilgrims must travel to all three St. Joseph churches in the archdiocese – St. Joseph’s Church in Grande Prairie, Spirit River and John D’or Prairie. At each parish, the prayer of the seven sorrows and seven joys of St. Joseph are prayed. These prayers are contained in a “pilgrim’s passport” that can be picked up at any of the three churches.

After you recite the prayers, your passport is stamped, and you can move on to the next destination.

When all three parishes are “stamped”, the pilgrimage ends at the chancery office in Grande Prairie – where you must get your passport signed by Archbishop Pettipas, and then you will receive a blessed olive-wood cross from the Holy Land. Each cross is made by Catholics in Palestine.

“These poor Palestinians, because of the pandemic and the lack of pilgrims to the Holy Land, have made next to nothing this past year,” said Pettipas. “So we purchased some of these crosses and will offer them as a gift and memento to those who take part in the pilgrimage.

“But the real focus here is the spiritual life – to reflect on St. Joseph and his life as a father and protector of the family.”

The unique “teepee” church in John D’or Prairie is the most northern stop on the St. Joseph Pilgrimage.

Rev. Andrew Simiiyu, FMH, has been encouraging his parishioners in John D’or Prairie to pray the seven sorrows and joys of St. Joseph at home. It has already created a major impact in his parish community.

Fr. Andrew K. Simiiyu

“People have phoned me and said, since they’ve started saying this prayer, their family’s faith and devotion has increased. They are getting much spiritual nourishment from these prayers,” he said. “It shows devotion to St. Joseph is not only important in the church, but in the home.”

If covid restrictions ease over the summer, Simiiyu hopes Catholics throughout our vast archdiocese will venture out for this once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. It is important, however, that pilgrims call ahead to this parish to ensure the John D’or Prairie reserve is not on lockdown due to the pandemic.

“My message to the people of this archdiocese is to come out in a very special way for this pilgrimage, to honour and be blessed by the Year of St Joseph,” Simiiyu said. “Our ‘teepee’ church is a great thing to come and see. It’s not like any other church. We have a very unique parish with a very unique culture.”

Rev. Remi Hebert, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Grande Prairie, plans to do the pilgrimage himself this summer.

Father Remi Hebert, CSsR, also hopes people will take up the opportunity. The Grande Prairie pastor has already begun planning his own pilgrimage.

“As things open up this summer we can plan to do more, and a family pilgrimage is a great idea,” Hebert said. “The more we can do, especially as families, to honour this year will be a blessing for our spiritual lives.”

Rev. Arockiam Savarimuthu has already received one family of pilgrims to his parish – St. Joseph Church in Spirit River. He hopes to see many more pilgrims throughout the summer.

Father Arockiam is particularly inspired by St. Joseph’s immense respect and love for the Virgin Mary.

Rev. Arockiam Savarimuthu at St. Joseph’s Church in Spirit River hopes to see many pilgrims this summer.

“St. Joseph is an outstanding, exemplary person in the respect he showed to our Blessed Mother,” he said. “He handled the situation around Mary’s pregnancy with so much dignity and respect. It’s something I admire much and would like to learn from him. He respected everyone extremely well, even if it offended his personal feelings.”

Father Remi is also inspired by St. Joseph’s role as a dedicated family man.

“We don’t know a whole lot about St. Joseph. But it’s clear in the Gospels that it was important for St. Joseph to always do what was best for his family.”

The St. Joseph pilgrimage continues until March 19, 2022. More information can be found at archgm.ca/pilgrimage-year-of-st-joseph/.

 

 

Remembering Hotel-Dieu in Whitelaw

The legacy of early Catholic health care centre in Northern Alberta continues today

By Kyle Greenham
ArchGM News

While it has now been closed for many decades, Marie Davies life remains closely tied to Whitelaw’s historic Hotel-Dieu nursing home.

The Hotel-Dieu of St. Joseph opened in the northern Alberta hamlet in 1952. More than just a nursing home for the area’s seniors, it was a centre of faith, community and employment for all of Whitelaw.

Marie Davies has many fond memories of the Hotel-Dieu of St. Joseph in Whitelaw. Here, she holds up a newspaper article about some of the last nuns to be a part of the Hotel-Dieu in the late 1970s.

For Davies, many of her most intimate childhood memories are intertwined with the Hotel-Dieu. As a girl she would spend her afternoons walking there to chat with seniors and visit her father, who worked there as an orderly and maintenance worker. When in school, she and her fellow classmates would go to the nursing home to sing carols and deliver Christmas cards to the seniors. On weekends, she would help the nuns clean and attend Mass at the Hotel-Dieu chapel.

“It was just a big gathering station for everybody,” Davies recalled. “People got together there to visit their family, for Mass, for Christmas parties, to visit their solarium. One of the Hotel-Dieu nuns would come to the school and teach us catechism. There was a dugout behind the convent and all the kids in Whitelaw would go skating there in the winter time. It was intermingled with the community quite a bit.”

This May the feast day of the founder of the Hotel-Dieu de Quebec, Blessed Catherine of St. Augustine, is celebrated. Whitelaw’s Hotel-Dieu was the only one ever established in the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan.

Sister Marie Roy, Sister Marie de La Ferse and Sister Blanche Garceau established the Hotel-Dieu in Whitelaw, arriving in September, 1949. Images via the book “Where the Cold Spring Flows.”

The story began in the 1940s, with a search for a religious congregation who would be willing to bring their members to northern Alberta – where health care was desperately and urgently needed.

It was not until 1949 that the Alberta government finally approved the Diocese of Grouard’s proposal. In the early spring of 1950, a group of Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph Sisters arrived in Whitelaw from Ontario to establish the nursing home. It was opened and operational by the summer of 1952.

Over the following decades the nursing home cared for generations of seniors in Whitelaw and surrounding communities. It’s 35 beds were always full, and 23 nuns made up its staff of nurses and administrators.

Portraits of seniors at the Hotel-Dieu of St. Joseph are still archived at the convent.

Some of Davies’ fondest memories of the Hotel-Dieu are her dad’s stories of the many seniors he met there.

“I just remember Dad was so good with the seniors,” said Davies. “Those who had dementia or Alzheimer’s, he was always good with. He would tell us stories about how he would go to the room of Mrs. So-and-so in the morning and she’d say ‘Can you light the oven? My bread is rising, I got to put it in the oven soon.’

“My dad was a smoker so he would go to her nightstand, open the door, flick his lighter and say ‘There you go, I lit it for you. Now give it time to warm up.’ And she was so thankful,” Davies recalled with a laugh.

Whitelaw local Marie Davies stands next to the former convent for the Hotel-Dieu sisters who ran the nursing home for many decades. Today the building is used as a drop-in centre for seniors.

But by the 1970s, major changes were on the way for the region and for Whitelaw’s Hotel-Dieu. After 1977, there were not enough nuns to fill the vacancies. The decision was then made by the sisters’ Provincial Superior to sell the Hotel Dieu and neighbouring convent. It was purchased by the town of Fairview in early 1979, and new management took over.

By the early 1990s, the decision was made to sell the building and move the remaining seniors to neighbouring nursing homes in Fairview, Berwyn and Peace River.

Davies says the decision was not welcome amongst much of Whitelaw’s community.

Sisters Helen Gouin, Marie Roy and Rose Prieur stand next to the statue of St. Joseph shortly after the new Hotel-Dieu nursing home was opened. Images via the book “Where the Cold Spring Flows.”

“Everybody was so sad when that happened. It wouldn’t have taken much to fix it up to where it needed to be,” she said. “It was one of Whitelaw’s main employers. It was always full and it was a nice quiet and remote place for seniors. It was much more than just a nursing home.”

But the Hotel-Dieu lives on in other ways. While the nursing home itself has been taken down, the neighbouring convent remains today as a seniors’ drop-in centre. Much of the furniture and religious art inside is the same from the days it housed the Hotel-Dieu nuns. As well, Davies still has a set of cabinets from the Hotel-Dieu’s sowing room.

“We’re just repainting those cabinets now,” she said. “So we still have a piece of Hotel Dieu history in our shop.”

The Hotel-Dieu of St. Joseph in Whitelaw. The building was torn down after the Hotel-Dieu closed in 1992. Image via Marie Davies.

The convent of the Hotel-Dieu still stands today. The neighbouring open field was once filled by the nursing home.

The story was edited for correction. 

 

‘It’s apocalyptic right now’

Local priest personally affected by India’s pandemic crisis hopes people will pray for recovery

By Kyle Greenham
ArchGM News

Each day Father Michael Dias scrolls through his phone to see the latest devastating news from his home country of India, a nation brought to the brink by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is one harrowing story after another. His two nieces are front-line workers at the Manipal Hospital, working 24 hours a day with no opportunities to return home. The hospital’s 5000 beds are now all filled with COVID patients.

Caritas India has several initiatives in place to help people through the COVID-19 pandemic. Images provided via Caritas India.

Dias’ home province of Karnataka in southern India is now reporting more than 500 deaths every 24 hours. Dias’ brother contracted the virus and has been hospitalized and on a ventilator for the past two weeks.

Catholic churches Dias visited as a boy have now been turned into isolation centres for COVID patients who have been turned away from the hospitals. Most recently, Dias heard from a family member that 71 bodies were found dumped and floating in a river in eastern India.

It’s these stories that have kept Dias’ prayers with constant thoughts of India, his family and the thousands of COVID victims there.

Many of Fr. Michael Dias’s family in India have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. He has served the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan for nearly three years.

“The situation is not good. It’s very scary. In my home province there were 39,000 cases and 517 deaths just in the past 24 hours,” Dias said in a May 12th interview. Dias has been a pastor with the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan for nearly three years, serving the parishes in Beaverlodge, Hythe and Rio Grande.

“My nieces working the frontlines seem very distressed,” the priest added. “They are working 24/7; they won’t even let them go home for a day to recuperate. Death rates are rising. People are suffocating. Many sick people are being turned away.”

Rev. Michael Dias celebrating Mass in his home country of India. As the country is faced with a devastating COVID-19 outbreak, his thoughts and prayers are often of home at this time.

As for what parishioners in the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan can do to help in this difficult and historic situation, Dias offers three words of advice.

“Pray, pray, pray,” he said. “Pray for the victims. Pray for the Indian government that their [leaders] will have the knowledge and wisdom to do what is right. And whatever people can contribute to Caritias India through Development and Peace, they should.”

The Catholic charity Development and Peace-Caritas Canada launched their appeal to combat the pandemic crisis in India on May 6. All donations go to Caritas India, and other Church-supported charities, who have launched several initiatives to help the Indian people get through this crisis, particularly in poorer regions of the country.

Mia Klein-Gebbinck, a representative with Development and Peace-Caritas Canada for the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan, says the help is desperately needed.

With the help of donations from Development and Peace-Caritas Canada, Caritas India provides food, medical supplies and hygiene materials to poorer regions of India. Images provided via Caritas India

“The need is so great. We all have to do whatever we’re able to do,” said Klein-Gebbinck, who is a parishioner of St. Mary’s Church in Beaverlodge and has worked with Development and Peace-Caritas Canada for more than 25 years.

“It’s a reliable avenue for the donations to go. Development and Peace is a Catholic charity supported by our bishops, and the Caritas network has been tried and tested for a long time. Donations are just drops in the bucket according to the great need that is there, but every drop in the bucket is helpful.”

Klein-Gebbinck has a sister who is a nun with the Medical Mission Sisters, a religious congregation dedicated to providing health care in poorer regions of the world. The Medical Mission Sisters established several hospitals in the New Delhi area of India, which is currently heavily affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.  Klein-Gebbinck’s sister has told her that many of the nuns offering health care in that region are being worked to capacity, and some have fallen gravely ill with the virus themselves.

In Michael Dias’ home province of Karnataka in southern India is now reporting more than 500 COVID deaths every 24 hours. Images provided via Caritas India

“It’s a desperate situation,” said Klein-Gebbinck. “In this over-crowded, dense populations the virus spreads like wildfire. It overwhelms you thinking of the number of things to be done. So we need to work with organizations like Caritas India who are on the ground and know where the needs are greatest.”

Some of Caritas India’s efforts include bringing food to distribution centres and to impoverished communities, as well as sanitizer and hygiene materials. They also donate equipment and resources to Church-run clinics and hospitals in India. As well, they fund and organize public education campaigns to help people know where they can get vaccinated or access other health care resources.

Development and Peace-Caritas Canada says all donations to their appeal in India are desperately needed at this time. Images provided via Caritas India

“There’s shortages everywhere. Whether it’s medical supplies, oxygen, medications, beds – they’re all desperately needed. It’s apocalyptic right now,” said Klein-Gebbinck. “Even though it’s a hard time for us here in Canada, with the scope of the situation in India, the needs there are so great. We have no idea what it’s like.

“Whatever we can do to help, we need to do.”

Donations to Development and Peace-Caritas Canada’s efforts in India can be made here. Father Dias also proposed that parishes offer a Mass with intercessory prayers for the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic – not just in India, but around the world.

Prayer by Pope Francis for protection during the COVID-19 pandemic

O Mary, you shine continuously on our journey as a sign
of salvation and hope.
We entrust ourselves to you, Health of the Sick.
At the foot of the Cross you participated in Jesus’ pain,
with steadfast faith.
You, Salvation of the Roman People, know what we need.
We are certain that you will provide, so that,
as you did at Cana of Galilee,
joy and feasting might return after this moment of trial.
Help us, Mother of Divine Love,
to conform ourselves to the Father’s will
and to do what Jesus tells us:
He who took our sufferings upon Himself,
and bore our sorrows to bring us,
through the Cross, to the joy of the Resurrection.
Amen.
We seek refuge under your protection, O Holy Mother of God.
Do not despise our pleas – we who are put to the test
– and deliver us from every danger, O glorious and blessed Virgin.

Editor’s reflection: St. Joseph the Worker

St. Joseph the Worker, and how Christianity transformed the meaning of work

By Kyle Greenham
ArchGM News

The Book of Proverbs states, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

One of the greatest threats to a healthy spiritual life is simply a lack of things to do. With it comes laziness, boredom, temptations and the slow ease into sin. Fr. Don Calloway says in his book Consecration to St. Joseph, “The devil hates an honest and diligent worker.” If that’s the case, then the devil must adore a lazy and inactive idler.

Work is a most practical remedy to the many sins that easily follow from idleness. Before you can let sinful thoughts take hold, quickly shift into some activity – whether it be physical exercise, practicing a skill, finally cleaning out that closet or storage space. Work is a spiritual antidote to this most prominent sin of the modern world – call it sloth, boredom, acedia, or a number of other names. In an age of TVs, smart phones, and a pandemic that has cancelled countless activities and kept many people shuttered within their homes, there’s no doubt that modern life directs us to be passively entertained, not actively working.

Work is a most practical remedy to the many sins that easily follow from idleness. It is a spiritual antidote to this most prominent sin of the modern world.

May 1, the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker, offers us a chance to meditate on the spiritual nature of work, something that I think our Christian faith is uniquely capable of understanding and expressing.

At the beginning of time God commanded Adam to work, specifically, to toil and cultivate the earth. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Gen 2:15) …Fill the earth and govern it (1:28).” Thus, all of our daily labours have a spiritual character, because we are fulfilling this most primordial of commandments – to work upon God’s creation and care for it. “Our daily work is a continuation in creation, consequently it has its archetype in God… All functions and occupations can and should be seen as reflections of His Divine Activity.” (Jean Hani, Divine Craftsmanship)

This sanctification of work reaches an entirely new depth through the Incarnation. When Christ enters the world, He spend His early years not as a royal prince or philosopher, but as a labourer. “Our Lord desired to do manual labour for many years before initiating his public ministry. Why did he do it? He did it because he wanted to sanctify work and teach us that work is honourable and pleasing to God.” (Calloway, Consecration to St. Joseph) Christ fulfilled that early commandment in Genesis as a carpenter – a man who takes the wood created by God and through his labour shapes it into something new and useful.

In [Jesus’] humanity, he learned how to work as a man by imitating the example of his earthly father, St. Joseph.” (Calloway, Consecration to St. Joseph)

St. Joseph is the model for Christian work because “he taught the God-man how to work.”

“When he became flesh, Jesus sanctified human work and elevated it to a level of greatness that did not exist prior to his Incarnation. Though divine, God humbled himself, became a man, and worked like a man. In his humanity, he learned how to work as a man by imitating the example of his earthly father, St. Joseph.” (Calloway, Consecration to St. Joseph)

Pope Pius XII noted this too when he declared the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1, 1955, seeing in St. Joseph the exemplar for all working class people: “The humble workman of Nazareth personifies before God and the Church the dignity of the man who works with his hands, and is always the provident guardian of you and your families.”

But this “dignity of the man who works with his hands” was not the attitude of the pre-Christian world. The ancient philosopher Aristotle famously defended slavery as something necessary in society, because physical labour was undignified for the upper classes and gifted intellectuals. Without slaves to do all the physically demanding toil of life, Aristotle argued, philosophers would not have the necessary time to contemplate. The Jesuit priest and economist Heinrich Pesch noted that, in the pagan world which preceded Christianity, “All work which did not have a predominantly intellectual character was looked on with disdain and as unworthy of a man’s respect. It was done by slaves and burdened with the stigma of bondage.” (Pesch, Liberalism, Socialism and the Christian Social Order)

Christianity ushered in a new dignity to work through St. Benedict’s motto “Ora et Labora” – work and prayer.

However, the Catholic “Middle Ages brought work to its proper status… There was the Christian principle that the natural goods of this earth are destined by God to provide for the needs of all, and not for satisfying the fantasies, or merely enriching, certain individuals.” This Christian principle of work also meant that “Man ought to work for the sake of the glory of God who commanded work, and to have the blessing for his industry which lies in the soul; and what is conducive to Christian joy and happiness, and no less in order to share the fruits of our work with the poor and the sick.” (Pesch, Liberalism, Socialism and the Christian Social Order)

How did the Middle Ages bring about this transformation? With the collapse of the Roman Empire, around 4th century AD, came the collapse of this pagan attitude towards work; namely that physical labour was nothing more than an unfortunate burden only fit for lowly slaves. Christianity demolished this worldview and brought a new dignity to work largely through the Benedictine monks and their motto – Ora et Labora – work and prayer.

After Rome’s collapse, it was the Benedictine monasteries that restored order and rebuilt much of Europe. Through their motto of Ora et Labora, Benedictine monks lived lives of strenuous farm work and agricultural development, but also devoted many hours each day to prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours and the reading of Scripture. These Christian monks exemplified lives of both rigorous physical labour and the meditative contemplation of prayer. They proved the Aristotelian view wrong, showing that a man’s daily life could consist of both intellectual, spiritual and physical pursuits. By the Benedictines example, a new dignity and honour was placed on work that the world had not seen until that time.

The Benedictine monks exemplified lives of both rigorous physical labour and the meditative contemplation of prayer.

This new Christian attitude towards work also cultivated the virtue of humility. Work can not only cure us of the idleness that leads us into temptation, it can also heal us of our pride. Nothing chips away at a man’s selfishness or his delusions of grandeur more than submitting to the (often humiliating) task of learning a new skill. Whether that be learning how to change the oil in your car or trying your hand at a home plumbing issue, these tasks begin with a humble admittance that we still have things to learn. As John Waters put it in his book Give Us Back the Bad Roads, “Making things, fixing things… takes a man out of his self-absorption and renders him answerable to the logic of the world and the rest of its inhabitants. It is the enemy of narcissism and self-will.” Work answers our inner insistence to know and understand things, it saves us from “the devil’s workshop” of idleness, and by work we learn how important it is to cooperate with the world, with each other and fulfill God’s commandment to be the caretakers of His creation. “We must recognize God as the sole source and energy in all we do and in all the gifts we receive… By returning our action to God, we avoid returning to our own ego.” (Hani, Divine Craftsmanship)

By work we learn how important it is to cooperate with the world, with each other and fulfill God’s commandment to be the caretakers of His creation.

In our time, when it often seems like selfish pride and ego reigns supreme in society, where looking good on your social media profile is more important than doing good works in the world, the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker is needed now more than ever. It gives us the chance to acknowledge the dignity of work, the great humility it can teach us, and the way it can bring us closer to God. This is embodied in no one as much as St. Joseph, the man who taught Christ how to work.

I hope this feast of St. Joseph the Worker aids you in meditating on the importance of work, and why all Christians should remember and live by that Benedictine motto – Ora et Labora – for this is key to a healthy and upright life. Both in our spirit and in our day-to-day living, we need to make time for prayer and time for work to embody the complete human person God intends us all to be.

St. Joseph the Worker, pray for us.

Conversations with Bertha: Apostolic Succession

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“Conversations with Bertha” is a new feature that will appear from time to time in Archbishop’s Pettipas’ letters. These tales are of a purely Catechetical nature, and any resemblance between Bertha and any person known to the reader is purely coincidental.

Conversations with Bertha – 1
by Archbishop Gerard Pettipas

Let me tell you a little bit about Bertha.

Bertha is a convert to the Catholic Church.  She was raised in a Protestant Church of some sort – one of the many small evangelical churches that these days dot any city or small town.  One of her best childhood friends was a Catholic, and Bertha admired lots of what she heard about the Catholic Church, and especially the Sacraments.  She loved joining her friend for Mass.  It didn’t all make sense to her, but she liked it.  She became a Catholic when she married her husband, who was a Catholic but a reluctant one at times.  Bertha felt it was important for her small family to pray in the same church.

This story begins with a swimming trip to Eastlink Centre in Grande Praire.

She still had lots of questions about the Catholic Church, though, and she was not shy to ask me these, even if she sensed her question might force me into a corner.  Some Catholics would be shy to ask such things, even of a priest, let alone a bishop.  I think there’s still a Protestant streak in Bertha.

I like to go swimming at the Eastlink Centre.  Not often, but every so often I’ll run into parishioners there.  The other evening, as I came out of the men’s changeroom, I bumped into Bertha as she exited the women’s change room.  “Good evening, Bertha”, I greeted her.  “Oh, Your Grace.  So nice to see you.  Are you off somewhere right now?  Or could I treat you to an ice cream at this fancy parlour nearby?”  “That’d be nice, thank you”, I replied.  We got in our respective vehicles and met up at Menchies.

As we each made our way into our custom-made cups of frozen yogurt, Bertha began.  “Your Grace, in RCIA they told us about the Catholic Church going back to Jesus’ twelve apostles.  The Church that I grew up with didn’t make those sorts of claims, in the sense of a line of succession like a family tree.  We took the Bible very seriously, and so I believed firmly that we go back to Jesus Christ Himself, and his teachings.  We would turn to the Bible when we wanted to know God’s Word about any teaching.  But the Catholic Church makes stronger claims than that.  Can you tell me more what that’s all about?”

“That’s a good question, Bertha.  And to answer it fully, our ice cream would be either devoured or long melted.  Let me try to put this as simply as possible.

Archbishop Gerard Pettipas celebrates the 2021 Chrism Mass with the priests of the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan.

“As Jesus came to earth to do the Father’s Will, that is to save us from eternal death and establish the Kingdom of God, he gathered twelve apostles from among his many followers, to be especially close to Him and leaders with him.  This corresponds to the twelve tribes of Israel, who were the “Kingdom of Israel”, grown out of the twelve sons of Jacob.  At the Pentecost event told by Luke early in the book of Acts, we see the Holy Spirit coming upon them, giving them the spiritual gifts that they needed to become confident and bold evangelizers, who would go forth from Jerusalem and bring Jesus’ message to the then-known world … which in those days was basically around the Mediterranean.  The twelve apostles had become 11, of course, with Judas Iscariot’s suicide, but the 11 corrected that by selecting Matthias as a replacement for Judas.  And you had St. Paul, after his conversion on the road to Damascus, also becoming what he called himself — an apostle.

“Many people who heard the apostles and others preach about Jesus came to believe and accept the Christian message, and ask to be baptized.  The Christian community spread very quickly during the first decades and centuries, even in the face of persecution by Roman emperors and other leaders who were suspicious of what they saw as a new movement or sect.  In each place, the apostle who founded a Church in that area might ‘lay hands on’ and thus ordain a successor to lead that community, while he himself went on to other cities and towns.  These leaders of Christian communities were called by the Greek word, episcopoi, which means ‘overseers’.  We translate that word into English as bishop.  So, each bishop in the Catholic Church at least is the leader of a local Church, or what we call a diocese.  His spiritual lineage, like a family tree, goes all the way back to the apostles.  This is what we mean when we say in the Creed at Mass every Sunday, ‘I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.’  It’s apostolic because it goes back to the apostles.”

Archbishop Gerard Pettipas offers a blessing to Father Feroz Fernandes.

Bertha looked down at her empty ice cream cup.  She looked over and saw that mine was empty as well.  “Thank you for this, Your Grace.  But what you just said about one, holy and catholic raises other questions for me.”  “Another time”, I said.  “I should get back home.  But thank you for the ice cream.  And for this conversation.”

As I was driving home, I had the thought that the RCIA should last a lifetime.  As this thought developed, I said to myself, “Of course.  It does.”

Stay tuned for future installments of “Conversations with Bertha”.