Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
April 2, 2001
Women serve northern Church
WCR article prompted them to join ecumenical ministry
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — On Thanksgiving weekend last October Joan Thielen, a leader of song and organist at St. Joseph's Basilica, decided to go North.
The retired music teacher loaded everything she would need for a year in her Volvo and drove to Yellowknife.
She wanted to volunteer for On Eagle's Wings, an ecumenical flying ministry that delivers religious and educational services to the faithful in remote and isolated areas of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
She had read in the Western Catholic Reporter that the ministry needed people to teach catechism to children and adults and she wanted to lend a hand.
So she drove and drove straight north. To keep herself awake she listened to tapes and sang and prayed. "I thought I would never get there," she recalls over the phone.
A day later, after spending the night in High Level and driving for at least 17 hours, Thielen arrived in Trappers Lake, a spiritual centre near Yellowknife, where she now lives.
Since her arrival Thielen has worked for Bishop Denis Croteau of Mackenzie-Fort Smith as a clerical assistant. She is putting into the computer all the diocese's records for the past 150 years.
"I was ready to serve as a catechist but I think this is their number one priority right now," she says. "The job that I'm doing is okay and it's good. I'm enjoying it. The whole experience is unique to me."
If anything, her new job has helped Thielen to use her time more effectively and to take directions.
The 68-year-old Thielen drives to Yellowknife every night and serves as an organist at St. Patrick's Parish there. Her commitment to the diocese lasts for a year.
Betty Clark, a semi-retired Calgary teacher, learned about On Eagle's Wings through her friend Thielen at a funeral in Calgary last year. Clark read the WCR article on the ministry and immediately contacted the ministry's pastor and pilot Rev. Lee Berry, a Yellowknife-based Lutheran minister.
She volunteered as a catechist for the ministry's vacation Bible school and was sent to Tsiigehtchic, a village of about 150 people in the Mackenzie River delta.
She and a Lutheran couple from Pennsylvania spent a week in the community providing basic Bible studies to about 40 kids. "(The experience) was an education on its own to me," Clark said.
"I learned a lot about the natives of the North," she said. "They are people of faith but not necessarily your definition of faith or mine. They are very recent converts to Christianity and their own beliefs in their own spiritual world, in their own faith, is still very much alive and well within the community.
"And I think they are grappling with trying to bring the two into focus together where they overlap."
Clark said the native way of seeing God and expressing their faith in God is "quite different from ours" and believes that "superimposing structured Church beliefs on them may or may not have been entirely successful out there."
There is no priest in Tsiigehtchic and the parish is run by a lay board.
Enriching as the experience was, Clark would not repeat it because of her knee problems that limited her involvement with the community. "I became a burden to the community and that became obvious to me," she said.
She hopes she made a difference to the children who attended the Bible classes, although she came away feeling that she had not accomplished enough. Pastor Berry, however, reassured Clark she had made a difference and so have some members of the Tsiigehtchic community.
"I'm still in touch with one of the children from there who likes to write to me and who seems pleased at what he did and learned and the idea that we went out there because we care."
On Eagle's Wings has been holding summer vacation Bible schools since the ministry took off in 1999. Last year it held 16 Bible schools in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and northern Alberta with some 700 children participating.
On Eagle's Wings is run by 12-member board of representatives of the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches and provides northern Canada's Christians with leadership training, pastoral care and counselling. At the request of Bishop Croteau, the organization may soon begin providing leadership training for Catholic lay leaders.
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