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This fall, a priest reflects on his Easter with the Cree:
The faith of the North

By Father Damian MacPherson, S.A.

It was about ten days before Easter when Father Sebastian Groleau, president of Catholic Missions In Canada (www.cmic.info), asked what I had planned to do for Holy Week.

As director for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs for the Archdiocese of Toronto, I am not assigned to any particular parish. So, to Father's question I simply answered, "Well, no one has asked for any assistance from me at this point."

With a sense of immediacy, Fr. Sebastian then asked, "Would you like to do something for Holy Week?" Knowing something of the places Father's ministry brings him, I hesitatingly said, "Well…yes, but what?" It was that response which sent me on a mission the likes of which will probably not happen again.

Within 24 hours I was in phone conversation with Archbishop Peter Sutton, O.M.I., and ordinary of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas. He asked if I would be willing to go to Brochet, Manitoba, to celebrate the Easter Triduum for the Cree community there. Even while I was responding in the affirmative, Archbishop Sutton repeated to me what Fr. Sebastian had earlier reminded me, "If you do not go, the community will not have a priest to celebrate the Easter Triduum."

I was hardly familiar with the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas, nor have I ever heard of the Manitoba town of Brochet. To be certain, it was the absence of a priest that prompted me to cancel a number of my calendar appointments and make way for saying yes.

To get to Brochet, I would have to fly from Toronto to Winnipeg, connect to a flight to Thompson, Manitoba, where I had to stay overnight. The next day, I took the final leg of my journey from Thompson, one hour north to my final destination, Brochet.

Brochet is accessible by winter road from Thompson, but once the ice roads have melted, one can only fly in. From the time I left the runway in Thompson until I touched down in Brochet, the landscape in between is best described as a howling wilderness. One quickly wonders if we are still in our own country. Filled with wonder and awe by the sheer wilderness, I arrived on Wednesday of Holy Week.

The first experience one must overcome is a deep sense of total isolation. The town itself is made up of one elementary school, a band office, council office, airport, clinic, Hudson's Bay convenience store, Catholic Church and a small Pentecostal Church. Since there is no supermarket, I was advised to do some grocery shopping in Thompson and transport the items with me. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, ninety-eight percent of the town of 500 Cree natives are Roman Catholic.

The pastoral care of the community is under the capable leadership of Sister Carmen Catellier, s.n.j.m. She is in her tenth year of service and enjoys the highest respect for her dedicated years of service and spiritual formation. Sister assured me that the community was delighted to learn that they would be able to celebrate the Easter Triduum with a priest. In a reassuring way, I found the Cree community warm, welcoming and genuinely hospitable.

My first pastoral duty was to attend to those who came for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. They came, especially parents and grandparents with their children in tow. It was a clear demonstration of faith being handed on.

Throughout the celebration of the Easter Triduum, three liturgical events proved especially touching. For example, on Holy Thursday, after I washed the feet of the eldest member of the community, the children then washed the feet of their parents. The entire congregation became involved.

During the Easter Vigil, as the singing of the Exultet began, the whole community approached to surround the Easter Candle, and with their candles held high, they listened intently to the Easter Proclamation. Their sense of solemnity was sobering. Then on Easter Sunday morning there was an infant baptism during the liturgy of the Eucharist.

As part of the introductory rite, after the godparents and I traced the sign of the cross on the forehead of the child, the entire community came forth and repeated the same gesture as their confirmation of welcoming the child. A powerful expression, which needs no words of explanation.

My five-day visit passed all too quickly. As the small propeller plane lifted from the runway in Brochet, where the airport can be described as an oversized bungalow, a litany of thoughts flooded my mind.

First among those thoughts was the realization that despite the desperate sense of isolation, and that daunting wilderness, I had encountered a community whose faith can best be described as resilient.

Their simple life was life-giving to a visitor like me. While there are modern-day problems introduced by drugs, alcohol and gambling, the faith of the people is a visible reality, which pours value and meaning into their daily lives, as they deal with these realities.

For those who support Catholic Missions In Canada in its effort to build up and sustain the Church in the North, it should be said that for every dollar donated, its value is very well spent.

(The mission in Brochet, Manitoba, is one of the many mission churches supported by Catholic Missions In Canada (www.cmic.info). Father Damian MacPherson, S.A., a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, is director for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs in the Archdiocese of Toronto.)

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