REGISTER PHOTO | MICHAEL SWAN
Sr. Goulet shares a laugh with a young couple during marriage preparation.
TULITA, N.W.T. — When Sister Celeste Goulet was nine years old, her dad died. She grew up a fat, lonely kid in Guelph, Ont., who was paradoxically good at sports. Badminton was her game.
When she was first attracted to religious life, Goulet went looking for an order that ran an orphanage. By the 1970s there weren’t many of those left. Some, mostly Polish Franciscans, the Felician Sisters, were the last women’s order in North America that still owned an orphanage.
By the time Goulet arrived in Tulita 32 years ago, the young sister had a degree in early childhood education and a conviction that what happens to children matters.
She spent a year talking over options with Tulita parents — do you want a daycare or a pre-school? She carefully explained the difference. The parents opted for education that would increase their children’s chances of success in school.
Sister Celeste’s Child Development Centre has been going 30 years. It was the residents of Tulita who insisted on that name. She would rather be anywhere but the centre of attention. The people of Tulita also put Goulet on the school board for several years, and on the hamlet council. Now some of her original pre-school students are coming to her for marriage preparation.
Goulet makes no great claims for what she has accomplished in those 30 years. She believes there’s been a change in the culture of child rearing. Parents know what their children are doing at the Child Development Centre and they understand that growing up isn’t something that just happens. As parents, they have a role to play.
At the same time, she’s not blind to the troubles Tulita children face. She deals with kids who have fetal alcohol syndrome. She sees more teenagers today who are drinking.
The Felicians once tried to persuade her to come home. There were too many reasons she had to stay.
Then breast cancer hit in 2009 but she stayed in Toronto just long enough to make it through chemotherapy. She came back even though the chemo left her with diabetes.
There’s a priest in Tulita about once a month. For the people of Tulita, Goulet is the one they rely on. She’s been among them almost two generations. She’s committed her life to them in concrete, practical ways.
They rely on her for a lay-led Communion service Sunday mornings. The service begins with the rosary, a devotion that crops up everywhere in the village. In Tulita homes there are rosaries draped around holy pictures, rosaries in kitchen drawers. In the two cemeteries, rosaries are draped around crosses.
Not everybody in Tulita is Catholic. Some call themselves traditional, though there’s nothing about traditional Dene spirituality that can’t find a home in the Church. There’s a Pentecostal church in town that puts down traditional Dene spirituality, myths and legends as satanic.
“It’s too bad they didn’t learn from our mistakes,” says Goulet.
Franciscan spirituality and native spirituality fit in ways that go beyond the obvious respect for nature, said Goulet.
St. Francis had a profound, awestruck reverence for God’s incarnation, real and present in everything around him, in everyday experience. Once you know Christ is there in the air, the water and the land there’s nothing surprising or unusual about the experience of the holy.
Among the Dene there’s an active tradition of prophets — men and women who have the gift to speak truly about holy things. There’s a story about Prophet Ayah, who in the 1930s predicted a future of computers and diamond mines for his people. Though he had never learned to read, they say that if you opened a Bible for him he could read it.
Goulet would never claim to be a prophet. But living in the future that Prophet Ayah predicted, she is there to read the Bible for the people in Tulita.