Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of August 30, 2004
Oblates became servants of the Arctic people
Dedicated priests see beyond physical hardships
A Missionary's Musings
By FR. JACQUES JOHNSON
During a trip to Canada's far North some years ago, I was fortunate to meet a dozen Oblate missionaries who have been working for the Church, their people, for the last 20 to 40 years. Most have been living in a hostile environment for a long time.
I expected them to complain about the harshness of the land, the lack of communication, the isolation, but their attitude was quite the opposite.
This is their landThis had become their land, their home, and they made no fuss about it.
Father Lemeur had been living with the Inuit people for 33 years. When he arrived in Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Coast in the late 1940s, he was relieved to be able to settle down in what was for him a land of peace and abundance with staples aplenty, in contrast to the years of deprivation and famine he had experienced during the long war years in France.
He reminisced about the tragic years of the Second World War when he learned the meaning of hunger, persecution and constant threat to his life.
War has never been a major threat to anyone living in Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Coast where food is plentiful at your very door. All you have to do is to set a net in the bay and in a few hours, catch more fish than you can ever eat. Caribou herds are hunted only two or three hours away during the migrations.
What is even more rewarding is that the people are gentle and there is a host of ways one can be useful. For years, Lemeur directed a local radio program from 9 a.m. until noon and acted as the DJ doing his thing in both English and Inuit.
One remarkable thing about the missionaries of the far North is the dedication they've exercised in learning the local languages. Most of them were born in France.
They learned English when they came to the North. They also learned the native languages that are particularly difficult with sounds totally foreign to European ears and even more difficult to reproduce.
I know a priest who learned Slavey when he arrived in the missions. A few years later he was asked by his superiors to go work among the Inuit. He agreed to go and one of the first things he did upon arriving was to study the Inuit language until he was fluent in it. Since then he has returned to the Slavey people. These missionaries understood that basic to entering into real communion with their people was becoming fluent in their tongue.
In spite of the great distances and inevitable isolation, the Oblates of the Mackenzie Diocese appeared to be up-to-date in theological thinking as well as in their pastoral work. They are no strangers to the awesome questions concerning the development of the North and the aspirations of the First Nations peoples. A great degree of reflection has taken place already and no one can say when the debate will be over.
There is no perfect agreement among the missionaries either. One thing these men aren't is a choir of monks singing "Amen" in unison.
A major concern with some: that the life of faith be not cut off from the daily life of the people but be integrated to all levels of concerns of the people.
It seemed clear to me that the missionaries truly love their people and they are loved by them. They identify greatly with their plight and their achievements. They suffer to see them sometimes lose ground in their human and religious development.
But how proud they are to share their joys and to move forward with them!
A faithful folkTheir commitment is best expressed by their fidelity, by their staying on. The job is not always the most encouraging and consolations are not always pouring down on them. But they stick with it. Hudson Bay managers come and go as do the teachers, the RCMP officers and government agents. Only the missionaries stay on and on.
The real sadness is that there are fewer and fewer of them. People cannot escape the relentlessness of time and aging cannot be stopped.
After a 24-hour visit with a remarkable priest, Father Gerry and I left Tuktoyaktuk, not particularly sorry to leave behind the cold Arctic winds for more balmy horizons.
But Father Lemeur did not leave. He stayed in that hostile country of rocks and frigid winds and snow as he had done for the previous 33 years. All of this is a cheap price to pay in order to be with the people he loves. Before he died a few years later, he asked to be buried among his people and he's now awaiting the resurrection in six feet of permafrost.
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