Bishop Gary Gordon of Whitehorse shares a laugh with an aboriginal woman during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's event in Vancouver.

AGNIESZKA KRAWCZYNSKI | THE B.C. CATHOLIC

Bishop Gary Gordon of Whitehorse shares a laugh with an aboriginal woman during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's event in Vancouver.

October 14, 2013
AGNIESZKA KRAWCZYNSKI
THE B.C. CATHOLIC

Twenty-six priests, sisters, and lay people listened to tragic stories of former residential school students one-on-one and offered apologies on behalf of the Church for the crimes at the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission event in Vancouver.

"It's not easy to listen to the pain," said Sister Denece Billesberger.

Volunteers who signed up for two-hour periods during the Sept. 18-21 healing event were available to listen to any aboriginal person who wished to speak personally to someone from the Church. Many would only speak to a priest or sister.

Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and United Church representatives were present. Billesberger, who organized the Catholic efforts, said volunteers received a short orientation on what to expect and how to react.

They "had some knowledge of the harm that was done and were able to listen to the pain and respond in a gentle way," she explained.

When a native person asked to speak to her in the curtained spaces in the "Churches Listening to Survivors" area, Billesberger had to listen without becoming defensive. "I tried to respond from my heart to their heart," she recalled.

"It was an amazingly grace-filled time to be trusted by them and to hear their stories of intense grief," said Sister Fleurette Sweeney.

ABORIGINAL RAGE

Sweeney spoke with four aboriginal people and found "some were very angry" with the Catholic Church. She admitted offering an apology was difficult.

"It was ignorance, not bad will, that motivated us," she stated. "It's almost overwhelming for me to realize how ignorant we (Catholics) were even to consider the government policy" and "not have the discernment power" to reject it.

She told former residential school students she was sorry the Church was "complicit through ignorance."

Near the curtained spaces was a space where up to eight native people could speak to Church representatives in a public setting. They sat in a circle and took turns speaking while passersby watched and cameras recorded.

Sister Cecelia Hudec participated in one of these gatherings. "All the feelings come up when they start to tell their story," she said.

One aboriginal woman in the circle was a student at a residential school in Cranbrook which was operated by the Sisters of Charity-Halifax, Hudec's congregation. Hudec was shocked and affected to learn this.

"I had to take a deep breath, pause and realize that I was a spokesperson for the Church," Hudec explained. "I tried to listen to her objectively and with compassion."

The woman shared her experiences with anger. Hudec offered a short apology. "I listened to you with my head and my heart and I am very sorry for what you experienced."

She added that the Catholic Church has power, which it has used for various means in the past, and expressed her hope that it use the "power of love" in the future.

Sister Roberta Mullin also encountered a former residential school student carrying hatred for the Church. He spoke to her as if she had been the cause of his pain.

The sister let him speak. "I knew he wasn't talking to me," but to his abusers, she explained.

HEALING POWER

Rennie Nahanee, First Nations ministry coordinator for the Vancouver Archdiocese, said sharing one's experiences of residential schools with a member of the Church aids in healing.

"It takes it out of the obscurity of your mind," added Hudec.

Billesberger pointed out apologies are required for healthy relationships. "If someone has caused you pain, and they do not acknowledge the fact that they have hurt you or say they are sorry, how easy is it for you to forgive and move on?"