Category Archives: Faith

Facilitating an encounter with Christ

Peace Retreats continue a growing legacy of spiritual direction in the Peace Country

Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

For more than 16 years, Peace Retreats has provided a space for encountering God.

In all their years of offering retreats, spiritual direction and exercises, the essence of Peace Retreats has remained the same. Whether they are hosting from a church, a community centre or even their own homes, the members try to create an environment where the Holy Spirit can enter and touch the hearts of all present.

“I often say I am the facilitator, but the Holy Spirit is the director,” said spiritual director Denise Laverdure-Sych. She has been a part of Peace Retreats for the past few years, and also offers French retreats through the group. “I’m just facilitating that encounter with God. The Holy Spirit is the one in charge.”

It’s a perspective all members agree on.

Peace Retreats members: (Top row, left to right) Denise Laverdure-Sych, Harold Imes, Cathy Morin, Louise Lee. (Bottom row, left to right) Larry Shepherd, Sheila Shepherd and Allan Forsberg

“I just call myself God’s servant,” Larry Shepherd, treasurer of Peace Retreats, added. “Throughout each session I’m raising my eyes, calling for the Holy Spirit to speak through me. ‘What is it you want me to say now?’”

Since its inception in early 2006, Peace Retreats have conducted retreats and spiritual exercises across the region – from Peace River, Fairview, High Prairie, High Level, Grande Prairie, Beaverlodge and even Dawson Creek. Their programs come about through a combination of spiritual directors developing their own retreats and offering them to parishes, and through church groups themselves requesting retreats.

Their programs vary, not only in location, but in style, theme and in the tools they use. Working within the skills and interests of both the director and the participants, the retreats often incorporate a diversity of elements. That can be audio and music, artwork, physical exercises, various forms of prayer and much more. All of these are incorporated into fulfilling one and the same mission – to provide a place for people to encounter God and to deepen their relationship with Him.

“We evoke presence – to create a place where God can come. That’s what we try to do,” said spiritual director and chair of Peace Retreats Allan Forsberg. “We ask, ‘Where has God shown up in your life and what is He trying to do in your life through that?’”

The Peace Retreats logo was designed during their first meetings in 2006.

Peace Retreats traces its beginning to a retreat on women’s spirituality given in Grande Prairie in April, 2005. It was a well received retreat, hosted by Sr. Louise Vanderploeg, SSND and spiritual director Arlene Logan, with 40 women in attendance. It confirmed the thought of Sr. Louise and Arlene that there was a clear desire for more retreats in the Peace Country, and work soon began to create a group that would help make that desire a reality.

“When Sr. Louise started the lay formation program in Peace River, she knew people in the area were thirsting for the Lord and wanting to experience something more – a time to be together in a sacred space, in community and in silence. That’s really what started this,” said long-time Peace Retreats member Sheila Shepherd.

Over the following months the pair began developing a “retreat team” with other locals who had training in spiritual direction or were involved with the archdiocese’s Cursillo Movement. Peace Retreats was officially formed in February of 2006. They were encouraged by Fr. Gerard Pettipas, who at the time was the pastor in Grande Prairie, to apply for a grant from the Redemptorist Growth Society, and that yearly grant has helped sustain Peace Retreats ever since.

From this foundation the group grew organically each year, with more people coming to retreats or feeling a calling to be spiritual directors themselves.

Peace Retreats hosts the St. Ignatian Spiritual Exercises every month at St. Joseph’s Church in Grande Prairie.

Through the years the members have helped others, and themselves, experience life-changing moments of faith, hope and forgiveness. Harold Imes once hosted a “Seventy Times Seven” retreat in Fairview, focusing on the theme of forgiveness. Only a handful of people were able to come to the retreat, but the impact it left on them was enormous.

“I had a member of my congregation who attended,” Imes recalled, who is also a pastor with the United Church in Fairview. He is currently the only Protestant member of Peace Retreats. “She had a son who was paralyzed in an accident when he was 21 and she had never forgiven the driver. But that retreat just changed her life.”

Louise Lee can fondly remember one powerful event she helped organize at a prison during Lent. Within the prison chapel she planned to gather the prisoners, read a Scripture passage and reflection, and then have the prisoners walk one by one up to a person dressed as Jesus and dip their fingers in holy water.

This is only an excerpt. Read the full story in the April 2022 edition of Northern Light

The Beauty of Consecrated Life

School Sisters of Notre Dame reflect on their lives of sisterhood

Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

At one time there were more than two hundred nuns across our region, running schools, hospitals and convents, and filling other essential roles in our church communities. Now, speaking from their quaint hilltop home in Peace River, Sr. Mary Jeanne Davidson and Sr. Connie Harkin are two of the only sisters still working in our archdiocese.

Their order, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, was founded by Blessed Mary Theresa of Jesus in 1833. While their charism focused mainly on Catholic education, today Sr. Mary Jeanne and Sr. Connie fill a variety of other roles.

Sister Connie came to the archdiocese in 2018. Her work consists mainly in being the spiritual chair of the local Catholic Women’s League, accompanying the sick and elderly, working with the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, and helping out with sacramental preparation. It’s a much different life than the 40 years she spent as a teacher, teaching children as young as four and as old as 11.

Sisters with seminarian Thomas Wollis outside Our Lady of Peace Parish in Peace River.

“I’ve enjoyed it. Some people call it retirement; I like to call it ‘refirement’,” said Harkin. “It’s new fire that comes in and makes me excited about what I’m doing. I’m learning lots, it stirs up my faith, and I feel like I never stop learning. And I pray to God I don’t stop learning.”

Sister Mary Jeanne helped open the school sisters’ house in Peace River, coming with two other sisters in 2002. She’s the only one of those three nuns still working in the archdiocese.

When she first arrived 20 years ago, the two roles that the sisters were asked to fill were in adult lay formation and pastoral assistance. Given Mary Jeanne’s experience working on the missions in Peru, her heart was seeking something else. She longed to be on the periphery, with the poor and the disenfranchised.

Four of the School Sisters of Notre Dame who served our archdiocese. From left to right, Sr. Eileen Pautler, Sr. Louise Vanderploeg, Sr. Mary Jeanne & Sr. Connie.

After speaking to her Mother Superior about where she felt the Spirit was calling her, Mary Jeanne was informed that she would be sent to Peace River to be a presence of Church amongst the Indigenous communities of Grouard-McLennan.

It is a great joy for Davidson to fulfill such a mission, and she hopes to carry the many lessons she learned through working with the poor of Peru into her work here.

“What I learned through those years in Peru is to take off my shoes and listen – the people will show what is needed,” said Mary Jeanne. “When I first went to the missions I was fired up. I couldn’t wait to bring Jesus to the poor. But you know what? He is already there. If you could know how present Jesus is among the poor, how they know Him. They were the ones teaching me who Jesus is.”

Sister Mary Jeanne Davidson has worked intimately with the Indigenous communities of our archdiocese over the past few years.

For both Sr. Mary Jeanne and Sr. Connie, their journey into sisterhood began in their earliest days of childhood.

Sister Mary Jeanne recalls her first day at school, where she was taught by the Holy Sisters of Mary in Kenora, Ontario. She returned home that day to tell her mom that she will one day be “a sister or a mommy”.

But as a teenager, thoughts of religious life fell to the back of her mind. Then in Grade 12, at a time when she had not thought about becoming a sister in many years, Davidson decided to attend a retreat for all graduating students. At that time Davidson was already making plans to go to college in Thunder Bay. She and her boyfriend were discussing future plans for marriage. But then came a moment that would change the direction of her life forever.

Sister Mary Jeanne shortly after her first profession of vows.

“I was at prayer, it was quiet in the chapel. Then inside of me something came like a little nudging invitation – ‘Come, follow me’.”

In the depths of her heart Mary Jeanne began addressing Jesus, telling Him of all the plans she had laid out for her life, but still the invitation kept coming into her heart – “Come. Follow me.”

Over the next nine days, late at night, Sister Mary Jeanne would return to that chapel and pray a novena to the Holy Spirit, hoping certainty over this invitation would come her way. After much prayer and deliberation, Sister Mary Jeanne heard the voice of Jesus answering within her heart.

“Jesus said, ‘My love for you is leaving you free. If you were to feel called to marriage, with a husband and family, you know I would love you. I’m inviting you to follow me’,” Mary Jeanne recalled. “And in the end, I finally let go. I said, ‘God, I’m coming. I want to follow you. I desire to give you my life’. And in that journey – there was lots of letting go.”

Sr. Connie Harkin, left, Fr. Nel Esguerra and Sr. Mary Jeanne Davidson gather for a photo outside Our Lady of Peace Church in Peace River, to commemorate Sr. Mary Jeanne’s 60th anniversary of professed vows.

This is only an excerpt. Read the full story in the March 2022 edition of Northern Light
Learn more about Sister Connie and Sister Mary Jeanne’s vocation stories in this video:

Uniting in ministry

Pastoral Ministry Month provides opportunity for growth and collaboration in archdiocese

Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

On the morning of Nov. 20, the heavy overnight snowfall did not stop faithful from across McLennan, Falher, Girouxville, Tangent, Guy and St. Isidore from gathering at the St. John the Baptist Cathedral.

Thirty-two Catholics were there for the final event of the Pastoral Ministry Month – four weeks of conferences and retreats to encourage a sense of community, dialogue and inspiration for those who work in various ministries in our churches.

This closing retreat showed that, in an archdiocese that covers such a broad region and where winter weather can often be a major obstacle, the people still came together to share and be connected. And this, says Fr. Emmanuel Ekanem, was precisely the mission of these ministry retreats.

Fr. Emmanuel Ekanem speaks at the Deanery 1 retreat for the first “Pastoral Ministry Month”

“We decided to create a ‘Pastoral Ministry Month’ to bring people together – to talk about what we do, to reflect, to pray together and to build each other up,” said Fr. Ekanem, who is director of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis for the archdiocese.

“We need to reignite the spirit of ministry in these very challenging times we are in now. The biggest part of this program is being in touch with people in ministry and to see how we can support, strengthen and encourage them.”

Pastoral Ministry Month is the first initiative of its kind in recent years for the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan. Beginning in mid-October, a retreat was held with each of the five deaneries in our archdiocese, as well as retreats with the Holy Family and Grande Prairie Catholic school boards. A Diocesan Ministry Conference with guest speakers Bishop Stephen Hero of the Diocese of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and Sister Angela Marie Castellani, FSE of the Archdiocese of Vancouver was also held. The Deanery 1 retreat brought 32 people, 40 people attended the Deanery 2 retreat, 46 attended the Deanery 3 and 4 retreat, and 26 attended the Deanery 5 retreat. The conference, hosted via Zoom, was attended by more than 100 people across the archdiocese.

Parishioners involved with ministry from across the archdiocese came together at each deanery retreat.

Just being able to bring people of the archdiocese together was the highlight for Fr. Emmanuel.

“We want people to know they are not alone in what they are going through,” he said. “Having our speakers like Fr. Leo [English], Sister Connie [Harkin], the Archbishop, Msgr. Charles [Lavoie] and myself, and hearing so many stories of ministry and how ministry has impacted them – it was all very beautiful and very enlightening.”

This sense of unity and inspiration was felt amongst attendees. Monica Bisley has helped McLennan’s parish priest, Father Eucharius Ndzefemiti, SDV, for several years with his ministry at Manoir du Lac – the long-term care home in McLennan. Twice a week she helps him prepare Mass for the residents.

Monica Bisley takes notes during Fr. Emmanuel Ekanem’s presentation.

“I find it is uniting – each of us gathered here with a common interest, a common vital interest,” Bisley said of the Nov. 20th retreat and the Nov. 15th conference she attended. “I found what Sister Angela [Marie Castellani] had to say very relevant – that we have to look at the Church in a different way. We’ve been doing the same thing for so long, but this situation has shaken us up to branch out, to reach out and be more inclusive.

“Given the isolation of the past two years, this has been very beneficial.”

This is only an excerpt. The full story will be in the December edition of Northern Light

A pilgrimage of healing

As she prepares for the Indigenous delegation to Rome, Angie Crerar hopes to find forgiveness and reconciliation for her people

Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

Angie Crerar has lived a life inspiring the hearts of many. Through the years, she has been a part of various coalitions, councils and efforts advocating for Indigenous peoples and encouraging truth and reconciliation across the country.

This December, Crerar is making another milestone on this lifelong pilgrimage of hers, as she travels to Rome with the Indigenous delegation of Elders, youth, knowledge keepers and Indian Residential School survivors to meet with Pope Francis.

For the Grande Prairie resident, this delegation of Indigenous peoples to Rome is both an important mission for truth and reconciliation, and an important moment in her own personal journey of healing and finding peace. Both of these have been lifelong and essential missions in the life of the Metis Elder and Indian Residential Schools survivor. Crerar knows her time in Rome will be far from a mere political gesture, it is fundamentally a spiritual mission – for herself, for the Indigenous people, and for the whole nation of Canada.

“We’ve got a job to do,” Crerar said with a deep sigh. “We have an obligation to these kids, not just in my time but over the past one hundred years. They have got to have an identity. Those children need an identity. That’s a birthright.

Angie Crerar stands between two close friends and supporters – Marge Mueller, left, and Father Remi Hebert, right.

“I hope the pope will hear us and I hope and pray those children are identified. It just shows that the past is still here today, that we are not just numbers. We have names; we are human beings. Like everybody else we are children of God – that’s what my parents taught us.”

Crerar has lived in Grande Prairie since 1966, moving to the Peace Country from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. She was raised in a strong Catholic household, though her traumatic and difficult experiences in the Indian Residential School system left her with many mixed feelings towards the Church – feelings she still struggles with today.

“We were taught the Church was universal. My parents taught us to love, to be united as a family, that the family that prays together stays together,” Angie recalled. “And the people who taught that same religion also changed my life forever – so it’s hard for me. But what’s most important is not what happened back then, it’s where we are today.

“To learn to forgive, it’s been a real challenge. But the love of my children, my husband and my friends is what has guided me… I know now it’s time for me to heal. I have to cross that line.”

As she steps into this most pivotal task, Crerar still struggles to come to terms with the reality that she is a part of this important delegation to Rome.

“It is just beyond me, I can’t imagine it – me there, speaking to the pope.”

It was Audrey Poitras, the President of the Metis Nation of Alberta, who first called Angie and asked her to represent the Metis people of Alberta as part of this delegation. It was a moment that brought Angie equal jolts of shock and happiness.

Angie Crerar is part of the Indigenous delegation meeting with Pope Francis later this December.

While she immediately said ‘Yes’ due to the excitement of the moment, Crerar said as soon as she hung up the phone she immediately went into a state of disbelief – not only because of the magnitude of things like meeting the pope and going to the Vatican, but the weight of the historic mission she is now playing a central role in.

Alongside the need to give an identity to the unmarked graves recently located near residential schools across Canada, in her many years working with Indigenous councils, Elders, various groups and organizations, and speaking publicly as a residential school survivor, Crerar says that what she has heard Indigenous Elders want most is a sincere apology from the pope.

Sincerity, in Crerar’s eyes, gets to the very heart of truth and reconciliation.

“You’ve got to be sincere. We don’t need false promises. We need sincerity and honesty.”

The traumatic and difficult history of the Indian Residential School system is more than headlines and news articles for Angie – she lived it. Crerar spent much of her childhood in St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School in Fort Resolution in the Northwest Territories.

Crerar’s experiences growing up in the Indian Residential School system were strenuous and hard. The school had a history of outbreaks of illnesses and food shortages. Angie says her and her siblings suffered physical abuse, and Angie can still recall students being referred to as savages and being told that their way of life was a sin.

“I will never forget those words,” Crerar said.

“I’ve been all over Canada, telling about my experiences in residential schools, and I’ve met so many Elders and survivors. Every time we speak about it, we’re back there again. That pain, that loss of feeling, that sense of nowhere to go – it all comes back. It’s like we’re there again.”

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 recent locating of unmarked graves has only further brought back difficult memories and feelings for Angie.

“It troubles me so much sometimes I can’t breathe,” she said. “Some came out with no place to go, so many new challenges. I knew three students who committed suicide, one of them was only a week after leaving the school. We were not prepared for the outside world.

“I still live with it and I will always live with it. Although I forgave myself and forgave everyone else, when the news comes – I still flash back.”

Through all of these immense challenges and experiences, there was however one kind-hearted priest Angie still remembers fondly. A parish priest near the Fort Resolution residential school who did much to help Crerar and her sisters after their mother died.

“That priest is somebody I keep close to my heart,” she said. “Because with everything we went through he was always so kind to us. That was when some of us understood the different between cruelty and kindness, because he was good. He belonged to God. And yet, others acted so differently, and we questioned that quite a bit.”

After she left the Northwest Territories in the late 1960s, for many years Crerar did not share her experiences in residential schools. In 1979, she met a Metis Elder who introduced her to the Friendship Centre in Grande Prairie, an organization that offers a variety of programs and initiatives to help Indigenous peoples living in urban areas. Crerar has remained a member ever since, and it was there she slowly found the encouragement to open up and share her story.

As she met more and more people she felt she could trust, much of the burdens of the past Crerar had kept inside she began to talk about openly.

By the 1990s she became involved with a variety of programs in the Grande Prairie area and began speaking at schools about her experiences in the residential school system. Today Crerar is president of the Metis Local 1990 in Grande Prairie and an Elder with the Metis Caring Centre. She even shared her story as a guest speaker at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s national event in Edmonton in 2015.

“The room was packed with people and when Angie spoke, you could hear a pin drop – it was so quiet,” recalled Marge Mueller, the northwest regional manager of the Indigenous Courtwork Program and a close friend of Angie’s. “Her story was very, very impactful. And she has been instrumental in guiding and helping others in their healing journey.”

Marge Mueller, the northwest regional manager of the Indigenous Courtwork Program and a close friend of Angie Crerar’s.

All of these moments represent important intermediate steps on Crerar’s lifelong pilgrimage seeking forgiveness and healing. Another milestone in this journey has come in the past two years, since she has sparked a close friendship with Fr. Remi Hebert, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Grande Prairie. Though it is often wrought with difficult emotions, Angie hopes to rekindle herself with the Catholic faith.

“It’s been a long, long journey, and I felt it was time,” Crerar said of her recent decision to try to reconcile her relationship with the Church. “I felt empty. I felt I was missing something. When I started my healing journey, I didn’t even think about the Church. All I was thinking about was getting rid of that big lump, the barriers I put in my life, so that I could take back control of my own life. It’s taken me many years, and it’s something I will be working towards for the rest of my life.

“Just in the last two years I’ve been working with Fr. Remi to try and come back, to follow what my parents taught me,” Crerar explained. “Both my parents and my grandparents were very, very strong Catholics. After my years in the convent and residential school, I came out of it very angry. But with the help of many, many people, I got over that anger. I learned to respect myself and to forgive – first myself and others.

“I know it has to come from here – the heart – it has to be sincere. I have to do this not just for my parents but for me, for my own peace of mind.”

Walking on Sacred Ground Together was an effort initiated by Fr. Remi Hebert to promote dialogue, healing and reconciliation. Angie Crerar attended several of these discussions.

In many ways, Angie says Fr. Remi reminds her much of the kind parish priest she knew as a girl. Through continuing meetings for tea, conversation and prayer, the two have developed a strong friendship. Fr. Remi also helped organize a series of Walking on Sacred Ground Together events at St. Joseph’s Parish and invited Angie to speak there. This has further strengthened their efforts at truth and reconciliation.

Fr. Remi says Angie has helped teach him an important lesson for a priest in Canada today – that the heart of any efforts with truth and reconciliation is in forming relationships.

“Getting to know each other gives me great hope, and it shows that so much of this is about relationships. It’s about friendship,” said Hebert. “We know each other well enough I know I can call her any time. It’s warmed my heart a great deal. She spoke as part of an event here in Grande Prairie for Orange Shirt Day, and during her talk I was sitting there thinking, ‘Yes, that’s the person I honour.’”

Another important companion in Angie’s life has been Marge Mueller. They have worked alongside each other for more than 42 years, advocating and working together to create a better future for Indigenous peoples in Grande Prairie and the Peace Country area.

Mueller says among the people in the community who know Angie, there is confidence that the delegation is in good hands thanks to her involvement.

Angie Crerar and Marge Mueller

“When I heard the news I was excited,” Muller recalled. “I feel strongly they couldn’t have a picked a better person for this delegation, to represent not only the Metis people but all people.

“Angie has done a lot of work in this community, and it’s always been to empower the Indigenous people, to know that they’re worth something. Our communities were so broken. There was much alcoholism, destruction and self-destruction. We want to advocate for a better way for our people, towards healing and harmony in our community. Angie’s made a tremendous difference already in this community, in Alberta and nationally.”

No matter what unfolds in the coming days in Rome and in Pope Francis’s future visit to Canada, Angie is sure it will be another key moment in her life and in fulfilling her purpose in this world.

“If I can just find peace it will be my journey’s end. It’s time, and I will do it,” she said. “There’s still unfinished business I’ve got to seek. And I have to do it and embrace it with everything I’ve got.”

This story will also be in the December edition of Northern Light

‘Finally the homeless have a home’

After many months of restoration work, missionary priest is able to settle into his parish and rectory

Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

When Fr. John Basiimwa arrived at his new parish home in the northern Dene reserve of Chateh, there was one major problem – he had no rectory to live in.

The rectory attached to Chateh’s Our Lady of Assumption Church was still standing tall, but inside it was getting to a dilapidated state. Heavy winds had torn off some of the shingles on its roof. Parts of the ceiling were tearing apart and dripping with water. The kitchen floor was sinking in and mould was beginning to form throughout the building.

Fr. John Basiimwa with the church bell outside Assumption Parish in Chateh.

“It was in shambles,” Father Basiimwa recalled. “The ceiling of the rectory had protruded. I was scared it might fall on me. The place was very wet and boards were beginning to rot. It seemed like it was crumbling.

“I found a corner to sleep in for my first week, but it was really a kind of scary experience. But I thought to myself, ‘this is what missionary life is all about’.”

It was in September of 2020 that Basiimwa first arrived in Canada, joining the work of his fellow Franciscan Missionaries of Hope in deanery five, which represents the most northernly parishes and missions of our archdiocese. Basiimwa is a founding member of this Kenyan order of priests, who serve the parishes and surrounding missions of High Level, Fort Vermillion, Little Red River Cree Nation and Chateh.

Leaks from the ceiling was a major issue with the rectory, due to a build up of condensation

Father John still recalls his first time driving to his churches in Chateh and Rainbow Lake, when the rough and rugged dirt roads to the reserves were freshly covered in snow. It was the first time the Kenyan priest had ever driven on snow.

“It was really very tough for me. I had to go no more than 20-40 kilometres an hour. I thought maybe the car might fly off the road,” he reminisced, now able to laugh about the experience.

The main culprit for the rectory’s rough state was a lack of insulation near some of the church windows. This had created a build-up of condensation in the attic that was beginning to deteriorate parts of the building.

When the archdiocese went to investigate the state of the building, it was a community elder in Chateh that had first pointed out that this build-up of condensation was likely due to a lack of insulation.

In the late summer of 2021, Fr. John Bassimwa showed Archbishop Gerard Pettipas around his Chateh church to see the new shingles and some of the work being done in the rectory’s interior.

Thankfully the renovation work, done by the company Weather Proof-IT, began shortly after Basiimwa arrived in Chateh. The renovators first did some repairs to the outside of the rectory as well as to a sewage line, and then moved inside the structure itself.

When the renovators came in the late fall of 2020, Basiimwa initially planned to stay with Fr. Henry Kiggundi in High Level, but plans soon changed.

“When I was in Rainbow Lake I shared my story, and two parishioners, Maureen and Trevor, said that there was an apartment available in Rainbow Lake, and if I wanted to stay it wouldn’t be a problem,” Father John recalled. “It started out being just for a month, and then I ended up staying there almost a year. They were very kind and considerate. The people were really good to me and I appreciate all that they did for me. They made me feel at home in Rainbow Lake when I was really stranded and didn’t know what to do.”

Work underway to renovate and repair the rectory in Chateh throughout the summer and early fall.

Some members of the community even joined him for his daily Masses. Father John says whenever he celebrated Mass in Rainbow Lake, he always had a community to pray with him, even if only 2 or 3 people.

This is only an excerpt. The full story will be in the November edition of Northern Light

Among saints and scholars in Belgium

In this article, seminarian Ryan Beaupre reflects on his past year studying in Belgium, earning a masters in theology

Ryan Beaupre
Northern Light

I know it is a strange thing to say, but the past year was one of the best of my life. In September 2020, I headed off to the city of Leuven in Belgium in order to study the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, while living in a monastery in the town. The program was an international Master’s of Philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven for short), to be completed in one year, with both classes, and a thesis. Despite COVID restrictions being similar to what they were here in Canada, I learned so much from the great minds of the past, made many good friends, and grew ever closer to Christ.

This is the courtyard of Keizersberg Abbey at sunset, where Ryan lived during his studies in Belgium.

Before I say anything about my studies, I feel I should share what it was like to live in such an historic town and country. From my monastery window, I could see the spires of six Gothic churches! The university itself was founded in 1425 (making it four times older than Canada!) but the town goes back further than that, to at least the 9th century. I would often walk the cobblestone streets thinking about how many great men and women walked through them before me. St. Thomas Aquinas and his teacher, St. Albert the Great, had travelled there; Leuven played an important role in the Catholic response to the Reformation; our world map (the ‘Mercator projection’) was developed there; its university had taught countless great scholars and thousands of priests, among whom were Fr. George Lemaitre, who first proposed the Big Bang Theory, and the Venerable Fulton J. Sheen. But above all these, the greatest figure was St. Damien of Molokai. One of my favourite childhood saints, St. Damien was a missionary who spent his entire life serving a leper colony in Hawaii – I learned on my arrival that he was originally from a farm just outside Leuven, and is buried in the city. During my stay, I would go and pray at his tomb once a month.

Ryan and friends visit the central square in Brussels.

I must speak as well about my temporary home there, namely, the Benedictine monastery of Abdij Keizersberg (Mount Caesar Abbey). This abbey is young by monastic standards, about 130 years old, and currently has only four monks. Beginning with St. Benedict in the sixth century, Benedictine monks devote their lives first and foremost to the contemplation of God. While other orders focus on doing good work in the world, such as Franciscans who serve the poor and Dominicans who preach the word of God, the Benedictine Rule states that ‘nothing is to be preferred to the work of God.’ These monks live a stable community life, normally in a single monastery for their entire life, perform plenty of manual labour, take frequent times for silence, and most of all, have beautiful, reverent liturgies. The virtues of deep and abiding humility, and obedience to superiors as to the will of God, are very important virtues for them. This lifestyle leads to Benedictine monasteries being very large and beautiful. Here in Canada, the largest abbeys are Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC and Saint-Benoît-du-Lac in Québec; both abbeys have around 30 monks.

Ryan outside the castle of the 11th century crusader Godfrey of Bouillon, in Bouillon, Belgium.

For me, the Benedictine charisms were perfect for my growth this past year. My life consisted almost entirely of prayer, study, and friends. Each morning, I would wake up at six and spend a couple hours each morning in silent prayer in the abbey church. Then, I would do classwork all morning before Mass and Midday Prayer at noon. More classwork in the afternoon, followed by Vespers (Evening Prayer) just before supper, leaving me to relax and hang out in the evenings. I would close my day by chanting Compline by myself in the abbey church. These liturgies primarily consist in chanting the psalms, with times for other Scriptural readings and silence mixed in.

A word about my spiritual life. I spent more time in silent prayer this past year than I ever have before. While I remain a novice in the spiritual life, I know God brought me to understand and love Him in new ways through this silence. Just as it may be difficult to express in words the emotions and love one has for one’s family, so too, in silence, the Spirit brings us to love the good God “with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). In regular silent prayer before the tabernacle I was surprised to find myself crying from incredible joy in considering God’s goodness, His creation, His incarnation and resurrection, and presence to us in the sacraments.

Read the full story in the October 2021 edition of Northern Light

The ruins of the Trappist monastery of Orval, built in the 12th century. The monastery was destroyed during the French Revolution, though it has since been rebuilt.


Walking on Sacred Ground Together

Open discussion at St. Joseph’s provides an opportunity for conversation and healing

by Fr. Remi Hebert, C.Ss.R.
Pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in Grande Prairie

I believe it is a powerful symbol of reconciliation to admit that we must learn from each other and grow together. As a response to finding unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, we began a conversation, “Walking on Sacred Ground Together,” at St. Joseph Parish in Grande Prairie.

On Sunday, May 30, 2021, a group of people gathered outside the church under the bell tower expressing their own deep hurt as a result of residential schools. It came in the immediate aftermath of the announcement by the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation, that 215 suspected unmarked graves were found near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

That evening we stopped and listened as a parish, cancelling evening Mass so that we could stand together with our brothers and sisters who were hurting. The evening ended in a tender way as we prayed together.

Fr. Remi Hebert

In July, in response to the event on May 30, we began “Walking on Sacred Ground Together,” a way to promote a conversation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. We met Tuesday evenings in July and August at the church. There was always iced tea and cold water.

The format of the evening was pretty simple. We introduced ourselves, and then shared with the large group our reason for attending.

We would then break into smaller groups to share something we had learned in our conversation. It truly was a time of walking on sacred ground together – in conversation and friendship.

“Walking on Sacred Ground” was held every Thursday evening throughout July and August, at St. Joseph’s Parish in Grande Prairie.

“The findings of the unmarked graves of Indigenous children was shocking and reawakened a sense that God is continuing to call everyone to walk in love with Indigenous people,” said Vivianne Servant, who was in attendance.

“Love requires that we first come to know the depths of one another’s pain. I was very appreciative that a time and space was provided for brave Indigenous and Metis parishioners to speak their painful truth to those present. It was humbling and difficult to hear, but very rewarding.”

Servant’s sentiments were felt among others as well.

People would gather after the 7 p.m. Mass for informal and open discussions. Water and iced tea were provided by the parish.

“Attending Walking on Sacred Ground was both an honour and an amazing learning experience,” said Erna Moon. “Sharing and listening to other’s stories and ideas in a safe environment created an opportunity to see the world through other’s eyes. I came away feeling very strongly that we all have so much to learn in order for healing and reconciliation to take place. I look forward to future organized events designed to meet these goals.”

In the words of Angie Crerar, Elder and President of Metis Local 1990, “it is time for reconciliation. This was getting ready to move forward. We have a lot of work to do to reach peace.

Welcoming the stranger

St. Joseph’s Refugee Committee continues a more than fifty year legacy

Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

As they hope to welcome a new family this autumn, St. Joseph’s Refugee Committee in Grande Prairie is continuing a long and cherished legacy.

For the parish committee, it’s been more than fifty years of helping families and individuals resettle in Canada. Their first partnership with a refugee was in August of 1979, after the parish and the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan had signed on with the federal government as a refugee sponsorship entity.

Their work has continued since that time, with changing membership and levels of activity over the years. They have brought more than 60 individuals and families to the area, from persecuted, war-torn or impoverished countries.

Ranjini (left) and Noel Keerthikumar, originally from Sri Lanka, were sponsored by St. Joseph Church and resettled to Grande Prairie.

While it requires much perseverance, compassion and hard work, it’s been a deeply rewarding experience for committee members.

“Sometimes the obstacles are overwhelming, but the rewards are immeasurable,” said Sharon Biggs, who has been a part of the committee since 2011. “When you see the families you’ve helped in the past doing well, you see pictures on their Facebook of the kids first day at school or you see people advancing in their careers and helping others, you go to their weddings or hold their babies – that’s the real reward. It’s all about the relationships you form.”

Each family and individual touches their hearts in their own way, no matter the difficult and traumatic experiences the migrants are fleeing.

“Their resilience is incredible. Their courage, their faith – it inspires you. When I think of some of the things people are going through, it’s incredible,” said Biggs.

Helen MacDonald, left, and Sharon Biggs are both proud members of St. Joseph’s Refugee Committee.

September 26 is designated by the Catholic Church as World Day of Migrants and Refugees, held since 1914. It’s a day that has only gotten more relevant with time, as the number of refugees and displaced people across the world continues to increase.

“There are currently more than 85 million people now displaced in the world, and with recent events in Afghanistan that number will only grow,” said long-time committee member Helen MacDonald. “Who gets sponsored in Western countries – it’s only a drop in the bucket.”

MacDonald is a staple member of the committee, having first joined in 1988. At that time the committee sponsored Hien Tran Nguyen, a Vietnamese man who became a close friend of MacDonald, and he still holds a dear place in her heart today.

Hien Tran Nguyen, from Vietnam, was the first person the committee sponsored at the time Helen MacDonald joined. They remained close friends.

There are many sponsors that have become lifelong friends with committee members. Kenia Guerrero, who came to Grande Prairie with her sisters and mother through a sponsorship with St. Joseph’s Committee in 1989, keeps in touch even today with many members and the parish.

Her family had first fled from their home country of Nicaragua, where a guerilla war and communist take over were underway. They illegally crossed into Mexico and then into the United States before they were able to come to Canada. Kenia and her sisters were only small children at the time.

The family eventually got in contact with the Canadian embassy, and from there were sponsored by the St. Joseph committee in Grande Prairie.

Kenia Guerrero

“Grande Prairie definitely feels like home,” Kenia said. “When people ask what I am, I say ‘I am Canadian’. ‘Canada is home.’ I grew up here in Grande Prairie. I know the environment, the people, I know the schools.”

Read the full story in the October edition of Nothern Light

Preservation through song

Grouard man preserves his language and traditions through Cree hymns

By Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

Through his passion for music, Manny Chalifoux has found a way to keep the Cree language alive and to preserve a unique tradition of Cree Catholicism.

Most Sundays in Grouard, where Manny was born and raised, he can be found at the historic St. Bernard Mission Church, singing Catholic hymns and acclamations, all originally composed or translated into the Cree language.

Manny Chalifoux

His collection of Cree spiritual songs mainly comes from an old hymn book simply title “CREE HYMNAL”. The hymns contained within this worn and wrinkled yellow booklet are all original compositions. It’s a hymnal that has been passed around Indigenous Catholic communities of western Canada for generations.

In this Cree Hymnal Manny finds many of his songs. All hymns in here are originally composed in Cree.

The origins of this one-of-a-kind book are quite vague, Chalifoux says, especially because there is no date of publication within its pages.

“The book has been floating around this area for years – from Joussard, Grouard, Gift Lake and Atikameg,” he said. “I think the hymn book originated from somewhere in Saskatchewan or Manitoba by one of their priests. There’s no doubt the hymns are old – I mean real old. My great grandfather used to sing some of these.”

Like the oral traditions so common to Indigenous cultures, Manny first learned of these songs by having them passed onto him through community elders.

It was at the Kisimanito Centre in Grouard in the early 1980s, Chalifoux was first introduced to these Cree hymns by Johnny Waniandy, who would play the organ and sing them. Chalifoux’s instrument of choice is guitar, and he began figuring out the guitar chords to these songs by ear, based off the organ notes Waniandy had ascribed to them.

The Kisemanito Centre was a centre in Grouard that offered Indigenous and Catholic worship services. It was there that Chalifoux first discovered his love for Cree hymns and playing in the Church.

By 1984, Chalifoux began playing these songs at Mass.

“Johnny [Waniandy] grew up at the mission, and he learned to play the organ from a very young age. His language was Cree, and most of the kids at that time sang in Cree,” Manny shared. “I did not play much music before this time. When I joined I just knew how to play a few guitar chords.”

Now a staple of St. Bernard’s music ministry for 40 years, Manny has copied songs from this original small Cree hymnal into a large binder so he can more easily read them while playing at Mass.

Manny believes this music provides an effective way in preserving the Cree language.

“People often talk about how we’re losing our language, but we’re also losing our language because we’re not finding ways to practice it,” he said. “For me, I practice it when I sing in Cree. I try to keep my language that way and it’s a great way to preserve it…”

Read the full story in the October 2021 edition of Northern Light

Revitalizing the Girouxville Pilgrimage

With new dynamics as an archdiocesan event, locals hope to see a strong future for historic pilgrimage

By Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

The light of the sun slowly departed and was replaced by the light of the candlelit procession.

As the people processed through the woods behind the Our Lady of Lourdes shrine and grotto, the reflection of the candles slowly panned across the gravestone of Father Clement Desrochers – the priest who dedicated much of his spirit and energy to growing this very pilgrimage.

The candlelight procession following the vigil Mass, at the pilgrimage in Girouxville, August 14th.

For many long-time attendees, honouring the legacy of Father Desrochers is a vital part of the annual pilgrimage in Girouxville, held on August 15th, the feast of the Our Lady’s Assumption. The dynamic, energetic and devoted priest was a true mover and shaker of the area, and the pilgrimage is just one example of the permanent legacy he has left behind.

In his efforts to expand the pilgrimage, it was Father Desrochers who initiated the creation of the Our Lady of Lourdes shrine. He travelled throughout Europe to gather relics, the statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Bernadette, and a church bell that came directly from Lourdes, France.

“The heyday for this pilgrimage, for this local area, was with Father Desrochers. He’s that one that, you might say, ‘made it happen’,” said Maurice Blanchette, who was born and raised in Girouxville. “It began before him, but he’s the one who really made an event out of it. He went overseas and got relics. The idea for the shrine – that was his baby. And he did it all with little money, and it turned out so wonderfully. He made something quite big for this area, and a lot of this pilgrimage is honouring his legacy as well.

“Some of the local people have already canonized him in their hearts. We look back and see how he was a saint, how the Holy Spirit was with him in all he did.”

Maurice Blanchette

For Blanchette, the candles and crowds of the night vigil and procession always stand out as the highlight of the pilgrimage. Having attended since he was a child, Blanchette says it is an event of great significance, not only for his family, but for the whole community.

“This is an agricultural parish, so weather and crops are the main determiner of what happens in this place,” he said. “Typically the pilgrimage always comes shortly before harvest begins, so it was a pivotal point in community life. It always signified that harvest was just around the corner. The pilgrimage was our last kick at summer vacation before the harvest began and we entered a new chapter.”

The pilgrimage in Girouxville has a long history stretching back to the early 1940s. The first pilgrimage was held in 1941, just among the parish priests, parishioners and Sisters of the Holy Cross, and the following year it became a regional pilgrimage with many religious and faithful from surrounding communities. Father Desrochers erected the first grotto in 1942.

The pilgrimage in Girouxville has a long history, dating back to 1941.

The event has remained a staple for the area ever since. Many grainy black and white photos have been collected over the years, showing the grotto grounds filled with families, priests and Holy Cross nuns in habits. Within Desrochers’s memoire, several miracles are recorded as having occurred at past pilgrimages, including Jean Lapierre, a lumberjack who had been left physically disabled by an accident, who was healed before everyone’s eyes during the pilgrimage’s healing service.

“I have beautiful memories of going to the pilgrimage,” said Helen Couillard, who has spent her life in Girouxville and today helps run the Girouxville Museum – another staple of the area created by Father Desrochers.

Helen Couillard

“My great grandfather lived in a house that was right across from the grotto, and we would go every year – my mom, my dad and the rest of us kids. There were people everywhere; hundreds of people came to the pilgrimage back then. For this community – it meant a sense of prayer and comfort. It helped everybody,” said Couillard.

But, like many rural communities in Alberta and across Canada, Girouxville has dealt with a dwindling population over the past few decades. Beginning in the 1960s, Blanchette says, Girouxville slowly began to lose its population as the dynamics of society changed. The young people moved on to bigger cities like Grande Prairie, Peace River and Edmonton. Religion also began to lose its influence in people’s day-to-day life.

Daily Mass, adoration and many other devotions and services were a part of this year’s inaugural archdiocesan pilgrimage.

“There was a lot going on here at one time,” Couillard recalled.  “I grew up in Girouxville. I went to school right up to grade 12 at the convent here. We had the train. We had stores. But slowly everything went down. The roads came, and with that the school buses came, and soon we didn’t need the convent or school anymore. Slowly things went down, stores closed, and as the years went by there was less and less coming to the pilgrimage. And like a lot of little towns in this area, there was less and less people in general.”

Read the full story in the September 2021 issue of Northern Light

Watch the video recap of our 2021 Archdiocesan Pilgrimage in Girouxville here.