Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
March 5, 2001
Western bishops out to help the North
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — The bishops of Western Canada, already facing an acute shortage of priests, may soon be sending some of their scarce personnel up North.
In response to a request by the bishops of Northern Canada, the Western Catholic Conference has agreed to look into the possibility of sending some personnel there. The bishops met at the Grey Nuns Regional Centre Feb. 23-25.
Some dioceses in the North are operating with only five or six priests, which means some missions have to go without Mass for a whole year. They want clergy and lay workers from the South.
"When we look at our own dioceses we feel we are stretched but when we look up there we see they are more stretched than we are and so we are trying to find ways to help them," said conference president Archbishop James Weisgerber of Winnipeg.
"We are going to have to make sacrifices but it's really important that we help keep the Church in the North viable."
The bishops' conference is going to devise a plan over the next year on how to tackle the northern problem, Weisgerber said.
"We need to be in communion and therefore we need to share."
The Diocese of Calgary is showing the way. Two years ago it adopted the parish of Hay River, N.W.T., and for the next eight years it will make sure there is a priest serving in that parish.
There are seven dioceses in northern Canada - Whitehorse, Mackenzie-Fort Smith, Grouard-McLennan, Prince George, Labrador-Schefferville, Keewatin-Le Pas and Churchill. The majority of their populations are aboriginal people, either Dene Indians or Inuit.
These dioceses have been served since the 1850s by the Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate. But the old missionaries have died or retired and the supply of priests has gone down to practically nothing in the last 25-30 years.
Compounding the problem is the fact that "vocations are practically nil among the Dene and the Inuit," explained Bishop Denis Croteau of Mackenzie-Fort Smith.
He currently has six priests to serve Mackenzie's 38 missions. Of the six, two are over 73 years of age and three are on loan from Regina, Calgary and New Brunswick. "This means many of my missions do not have Mass more than once or twice a year because they are very isolated and can be reached only by plane."
All seven dioceses have similar needs, Croteau said in an interview. "We all have a shortage of priests and of pastoral leaders."
Northern dioceses are training native people to lead their own parishes but it's a slow and expensive enterprise, he said. It costs $25,000 to bring 15 leaders from the missions for a two-day weekend workshop.
"That's a difficulty. So what we are asking the dioceses of the South is first of all, for priests willing to come and serve in the North and lay leaders who can serve as pastoral workers and adult education coordinators (in the missions)."
A letter outlining the needs of the North was passed around to all the bishops attending the conference.
"They said they would go back to their priests, to their own dioceses and present the letter and our needs in the hope that some of their staff, either priests, sisters or lay people, would volunteer to come and work in the North," Croteau said.
"Our hope is that in the near future the South will help us meet our obligations of evangelization."
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