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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.”

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.

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. 

 

Missionary nun and Indigenous Catholic fondly remember the canonization of St. Kateri Tekakwitha

Kyle Greenham
ArchGM News

Sister Mary Jeanne Davidson can still recall the canonization of St. Kateri Tekakwitha like it was yesterday.

In those brief moments on October 21, 2012, as Pope Benedict XVI entered St. Peter’s Square and an organ resounded over the tens of thousands of people there, the School Sister of Notre Dame was touched profoundly.

Portrait of St. Kateria Tekakwitha at the Sacred Heart Church in Cadotte Lake, Alberta.

“Wherever this organ was I never saw, but it started playing ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’ and I could feel it vibrating in my ribcage,” Sister Mary Jeanne recalled, in an interview before St. Kateri’s April 17 feast day.

“We all just felt fully alive and excited. I thought I was in an ocean with the saints in heaven, with all the Indigenous people on earth and the suffering Church – we were all one at that moment.”

As Canada’s first Indigenous saint, Kateri Tekakwitha’s life has touched many Catholics. Her canonization was a particularly moving experience for Billy Thomas of the Woodland Cree community in Cadotte Lake. Years before the canonization, Thomas had visited her grave in Kahnawake, Quebec.

“It’s like a dream to talk about it. People don’t believe I was there,” Thomas said. “It was certainly a proud moment seeing her canonized. She means a lot to native people. It struck my heart when I visited her grave, so when I heard about her canonization I decided right away I had to go.”

The saint is also close to Sister Mary Jeanne’s heart. The School Sister of Notre Dame has worked with indigenous communities in the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan since 2002, mainly in the areas of Cadotte Lake, Little Buffalo, and Duncan First Nations.

Sister Mary Jeanne Davidson

Sister Mary Jeanne believes devotion to St. Kateri can particularly inspire Indigenous people because of the many trials Kateri had to endure to keep her Catholic faith.

St. Kateri first heard the Gospel through Jesuit missionaries in her village. In 1669, when she was 13, Kateri helped these priests treat Mohawks and Mohicans wounded in battle. It further convinced her of the holiness of their faith.

Kateri then spent her days wandering through the woods and praying to Jesus. She would make crosses out of sticks and branches around her – something people devoted to Kateri still do today. Her family, however, did not approve of her new found faith and arranged to have her married. She resisted, having pledged her life to Christ, and eventually fled her village to live at the Jesuit mission of Kahnawake, south of Montreal, where she remained for the rest of her short life.

“It’d be wonderful to share her story more, to awaken devotion to St. Kateri in our communities,” said Sister Mary Jeanne. “I pray to her all the time, and we have many reasons to pray to her today.”

St. Kateri Tekakwitha

While she continually prays for Kateri’s intercession, actually going to her canonization was never the sister’s intention.

It was in June of 2012, from within the Woodland Cree community’s small log church named after the Sacred Heart of Jesus, that Sister Mary Jeanne announced to the people that a young Indigenous woman who died in Canada was going to be canonized a saint.

As she was about to hand out prayer cards of the soon-to-be-saint to parishioners, telling them to pour out all their hopes and prayers to Kateri, Billy Thomas piped up from the back of the church – “We should make a pilgrimage! And sister, you should come too!”

By the time that Mass was over, there was already five people in the parish determined to make a pilgrimage to Rome and be there for the canonization. Seven people in total went.

“They were so earnest to make this a pilgrimage, right from the get go,” Mary Jeanne recalled. “There were many obstacles along the way, but we prayed. We had faith.”

Billy Thomas provides music during Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Cadotte Lake.

Those obstacles came early on in the pilgrimage. Due to some forgotten passports, the group initially were split up at the Edmonton airport. But, providentially, they found each other two days later at the generalate for the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Rome. The group provided music for the sisters’ Masses each morning.

On the day of the canonization they took a taxi to St. Peter’s Square at 4 a.m. Although it was not scheduled to begin until 10 a.m., there were already lines of people crowding into the Square. Their taxi driver managed to take them near an opening gate and the group got front row seats to the canonization. As the hours went by, as many as 50,000 gathered there.

“A whole bunch of people from Canada were there, Indigenous people from all around the world,” said Thomas. “Somehow in that huge crowd we ran into our Archbishop Pettipas there, and then all of a sudden someone shouted my name ‘Billy! Billy!’ and a friend of mine from Manitoba was there too.”

“We made a circle there and prayed in thanksgiving and for the Church. It was just an incredible experience,” Mary Jeanne added. “In all things that happened we saw the hand of God.”

Billy Thomas initiated the pilgrimage to Rome that several Sacred Heart Church parishioners made for St. Kateri’s canonization.

They took with them sealed letters of prayer intentions from the Woodland Cree community. The group bonded on one specific prayer intention – that St. Kateri would help them in increasing faith and a love for the Eucharist in their community.

Sister Mary Jeanne believes that St. Kateri is still answering this prayer today. Recently, due to COVID-19 restrictions, Sacred Heart Church’s pastor Rev. Cyril Joseph placed a sign in the local store in Cadotte Lake, asking parents who would like to have their children baptized to provide their contact information. Then, those baptisms would be arranged one by one to comply with health restrictions.

After putting up the poster, Sister Mary Jeanne spoke “St. Kateri, please take care of this list.” Over the next two months, 17 families signed up to have their children baptized. It was a much larger number than they expected.

“So there is a quietly growing faith. God is working all the time and He is blessing our archdiocese,” said Sister Mary Jeanne. “We just have to keep listening to the Spirit, and find how the Spirit awakens faith in the people.”


St. Kateri Tekakwitha, intercede for us and pray for us, especially for the Indigenous people of this Archdiocese, of Canada and of North America. May your conversion story inspire many to seek and know Jesus. Amen.

Father Feroz bids farewell

Passionate priest reflects on his three years in northern Alberta

Kyle Greenham
ArchGM News

As Fr. Feroz Fernandes bids farewell to his first parish, the place he has made home for the past three years, many fond memories run through his mind.

But, the priest would not describe them as things he will miss. Instead, these are memories he will always carry with him.

Rev. Fernandes with parishioners on Christmas Day, 2019.

“As a priest, your heart goes 100 percent into the place you are assigned. And the people, they come to adopt you. The moment they adopt – you feel like you belong,” said Fernandes, who has ministered to the faithful of Grimshaw, Whitelaw and Duncan First Nations since 2018. “This sense of belonging I will carry with me from Canada – a sense of belonging to the people, to the land, to the faith experiences.

“I won’t say I’ll miss it, because I’ll carry it with me.”

Originally from the state of Goa in India, Fernandes was ordained a priest in the Society of Pilar in 2002. Since then he has lived an adventurous life of ministry, as a missionary in remote communities without electricity or running water, an editor for a Catholic newsweekly, a member of the Society’s formation team, a YouTube vlogger, amongst many other roles.

Rev. Feroz Fernandes at Holy Family Church in Grimshaw, the parish he has called home for the past three years.

His time in the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan marked not only his first experience as a pastor, it was also his first time in Canada.

It was while studying at Chicago’s DePaul University for a masters degree in public service management that Fernandes decided, if he truly wanted to better his leadership skills, he needed to spend some time as a parish priest.

“I needed grassroots experience,” he said. “I wanted to go to a diocese, understand the pattern of it, to live with the people, to walk with them.”

Rev. Feroz Fernandes stops by the 2020 Alberta Pond Hockey Championship at Lac Cardinal Provincial Park.

Fernandes prepared a letter and forwarded it to a friend priest in Calgary. From there, it was shared with other bishops in the province. Archbishop Gerard Pettipas was the first to respond.

“My thinking was the first diocese that reaches out to me – I will take it. I am not a home bug. I couldn’t even pronounce the name of the archdiocese. I still have trouble sometimes trying to spell it,” he said with a laugh. “But it was immediately very interesting to me. This archdiocese is very northern and isolated, with many different communities.”

As soon as he settled into Holy Family Church in Grimshaw, Fernandes made sure to partake of every uniquely Canadian experience he could. Having grown up in India, where it is always hot and humid, he particularly came to love Alberta’s snowy and bitter cold winters.

Father Fernandes takes part in the “polar bear plunge” in Lac Cardinal Provincial Park.

“I’ve tried skiing, snowshoeing, dogsledding. I jumped into the Peace River polar bear plunge. I went ice fishing countless times. Tell me what I have not done in the snow,” the priest recalled. “I enjoy winter. Once it was -52 and I woke up in the middle of the night and went out to Bear Lake to watch the northern lights. Only a crazy guy like me would do that.

“I even made an announcement to the parish – whenever there are northern lights, give me a call, I will go.”

Fernandes’ outgoing and charismatic personality is a key part of his priesthood. Through his time as pastor, he came to understand how much the priest is a point of connection, and not only in people’s spiritual lives.

“You connect people to God, but you also connect people to people,” he said. “What you do, what you say, how you say it, how you process what others say – it all matters. This has been the greatest lesson, that when someone comes to me with an idea or concern, I must take the time to process it, to be patient and journey with it.

Rev. Feroz Fernandes enjoys the company of Rev. Nel Esguerra of Our Lady of Peace Parish in Peace River, at Camp St. Martin.

“Because Canada is a very diverse place, the faith experiences amongst each of our people are very different. If a priest can pick up on this diversity and incorporate it into his ministry, and be the person who can bring equilibrium to the community, he will do well. If you can understand and incorporate their worldview, you will express faith much better.”

Fernandes lived this philosophy through his work with the Duncan First Nations community. Over the past three years, he has taken part in their pipe ceremonies, sweat lodges, and even fasted in the woods for three days, without food or water.

“These ceremonies were very fascinating. You discover how they look at the world and experience the Divine. And then you are better placed to express their faith experience, because you begin to see what God, the spirit, what all of these words mean to them.”

Father Feroz is visited by youth missionaries with NET Canada at Holy Family in Grimshaw.

All of these efforts reflect Fernandes’ core work ethic – the greater the challenge, the more he wants to tackle it.

“Challenge is a joy, it is like a dessert for me,” he said. “One of my prayers is, ‘God, if I don’t have a problem, give me one.’ Because problems only make you come closer to God, they make you a better person. If there are challenges, it means that I am trying to do better. Only if you are going out of yourself can you receive new knowledge.”

As a parting gift, Rev. Feroz Fernandes gave Archbishop Gerard Pettipas an artwork detailing a popular Christian conversion story from his home state of Goa in India.

Looking back on a venturesome life of travelling, delving into new jobs and experiencing different ways of life, Fernandes says he ultimately sees himself as a pilgrim. While some people travel to discover interesting things, he travels so he can discover God – who will then make things interesting.

Now Fernandes will be moving to Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, where he will be chief content editor for Radio Veritas Asia. The broadcasting company runs 21 Christian radio stations across Asia. As he prepares for this new pilgrimage in the Philippines, the parting advice the shepherd offers to his Albertan flock is to discover holiness and hold on to it.

On Good Friday 2019, Rev. Fernandes took part in an ecumenical prayer walk.

“It’s a message that’s stayed with me forever – holiness is amazing,” said Fernandes. “You taste it, it’s tranquillizing, it gives you a high that no other physical element can give. Holiness is not something that can be pursued. It is a gift, a gift you can only use for others. That is the beauty of life.”