Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 28, 2004
Oblate earned his moccasins
The good Fr. Vandersteen faithfully walked in his parishioners' path
A Missionary's Musings
By FR. JACQUES JOHNSON
The priest is essentially a brother to humanity. His family is you, the people out there. You're all he's got. He carries you in his heart, he prays for you and cries with you. You're the centre of his life. He talks about you with pride. He's married to you: you're his beloved one and he's giving his life serving you.
A priest who doesn't care for his people more than for himself is in the wrong outfit. As you know, he loves to laugh with you. He prays for you and dreams about you. A priest I knew who lived out that brotherly love for all particularly well was Oblate Father Roger Vandersteene.
A warm welcomeHow was I to know many years ago now, that three weeks after I visited with him he would be gone from this world? He welcomed us warmly, a friend and me, as we arrived at the Cree mission of John d'Or Prairie, a small isolated community in northern Alberta, after having travelled over 500 kilometres north of Peace River. We stayed with him for two days.
We chatted mostly. Endlessly he shared his adventures in the Indian mission field that the Grouard-McLennan Archdiocese turned out to be for over 30 years of this Belgian missionary's life. He expounded his fascinating vision of Christianity, of the Church, of humanity. His spontaneous expose would often be coloured with humourous anecdotes that would send him into contagious fits of laughter.
What came through constantly was his great respect and his deep love for the Indian people he served, as well as his intimate communion with nature.
He laboured most of his adult life in the vicinity of the great and awesome Peace River, that majestic waterway that rules supreme in northern Alberta. He had some epic battles with it and a few times he almost lost his life to it.
Once he was leading his dog team on the river when he slipped into a treacherous crevasse hidden beneath the snow. He panicked momentarily and he removed his moccasin and sock even though it was bitterly cold. His foot froze rapidly. He managed to drag himself to an Indian cabin that, fortunately, was close by.
The old Indian admonished him for having removed his footwear, then he proceeded to bandage his foot in bear fat and native medicine. He fed him and cared for him for two weeks after which the bandages were removed. His foot was saved.
Dog team was the most convenient means of transportation in the wintertime. There was the time when he left Fox Lake for Fort Vermilion a distance of 100 km. Through radio the fathers at the Fort were told of the time of his departure and the time he was expected to arrive there. He had not travelled far when a violent snowstorm attacked him. The visibility was nil and soon the snow began to pile so high that it was almost impossible to make any progress.
With snowshoes the missionary had to pack a path in the snow, then walk back to drag the bone-tired dogs after him. He managed to make it to a small cabin on a hill by the river. The dogs dropped in their harnesses and went to sleep, too tired to eat. The next day he left the cabin.
After about a mile and a few hours of struggle he realized he would not make it. His strength had ebbed away. The dogs refused to move another inch. Suddenly he saw a shadow through the blizzard. Then another, and another yet. It was a group of four dog teams and eight Indians who came to his rescue. They had heard that the priest was on his way. They knew he would never make it alone. What a joyful reunion that was in the blizzard!
Another time he was travelling on the river at night. At one point he saw a fire on the river's edge. Then he heard a voice yelling out in Cree: "Are you the father?" There stood two men who had heard he was coming. They wanted to warn him of a bad crevasse in the ice that he would not have seen at night and that would surely have carried him and his dogs into the river.
A fine hunter he was. One day he saw a huge bear in the river. A duel of minds followed. The bear refused to land on the open beach. In the water he knew he was safe. It could not be shot in the water for it would sink and the meat would be lost. The finer mind won in the end. The priest managed with great difficulty to put the bear in his boat.
The bear truthWhen he arrived at the mission he was met by the forest ranger. Bear hunting was outlawed at that time of year. The priest convinced the forest ranger to help him cut up the meat after which he prepared a delicious bear meat feast for his helper. He shared his house with the forest ranger for the night.
The next day the people heard about the meat. They came one by one to get a piece of meat as it is customary for native people to share. By noon all that was left was a little piece of meat for himself and his guest.
He had shared everything with his people. He had shared the bear. He also shared his life with them. It was the thing to do. It must also be said that many times they too had shared everything with him.
Father Roger Vandersteene died in Slave Lake on the evening of Aug. 7, 1976, his moccasins on his feet. One of Western Canada's foremost missionaries had passed on to our loving Father. And surely, he is resting in peace.
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