Tag Archives: canada

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

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.”