Passionate priest reflects on his three years in northern Alberta
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”