Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 14, 2001
Oblates go north for Christmas
Clergy celebrate Eucharist in priestless parishes
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
The only way to make sure Mass is part of the Christmas season in some remote areas of the North, where priests are in short supply, is to fly them there from the South.
In December, six Oblate priests from the Edmonton area flew to priestless parishes in the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith and northern Alberta to celebrate Mass.
For the Oblates of Grandin Province the trip is a return home because the order founded and manned most northern parishes for well over a century. They began retreating from the North about two decades ago due to the lack of priests but still run a few parishes, even some dioceses.
"We go back because we are Oblates and the Oblates always go to the forgotten places," says Father Camille Piche, provincial of the Edmonton-based Grandin Province. The order makes its personnel available for services during Christmas and Easter.
Piche said well-trained lay people run most priestless parishes in the North. When they don't have Mass with a priest, they celebrate a Liturgy of the Word and read a homily faxed to them by the bishop. And when they feel they have to have a priest, they fly one from the South at their own expense.
Father Alex Carrier, assistant pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Edmonton and coordinator of the Oblate-run pastoral biblical theology program, was flown from St. Albert to the Northwest Territories Dec. 21 to spend Christmas with the Dobri people at St. Bruno Parish in Wha Ti, a Dene community of about 400 people located an hour-long flight north of Yellowknife.
When Piche asked him to go, Carrier could not turn down the offer. "These people have no resident priest," he said. "They would be very sad if there was not a priest for Christmas."
He celebrated six Masses in the seven days he spent in Wha Ti and considers the experience a precious one. "I learned a lot from the Dobri people. They are very religious people and have a good sense of themselves."
Wha Ti is one of three missions of St. Michael's Parish in Rae-Edzo and the pastor, Oblate Father Jean Pochat-Cotilloux, can only visit the community every three months, mostly on major religious holidays and special occasions.
"It was good to have Father here for Christmas," said Mary Ann Jeremick'ca, a social worker and Church translator in Wha Ti. "It would have been very sad not to have a priest because Christmas is such an important feast."
Parishioner Cecilia Nitsiza said Wha Ti Catholics appreciate having a priest whenever they can. "We only see a priest here once in a while so it was good to have one at Christmas."
Carrier is not new to the northern Church. Last year he spent Easter celebrating at Inuvik and the year before at Assumption. He hopes this Easter he will be sent back to Wha Ti.
Another Oblate, Father Joseph Goutier of St. Albert, spent Christmas with the native people of Our Lady of Lourdes in Paulatuk, near the Arctic Coast in the Northwest Territories. Paulatuk has been without a resident priest since its pastor retired three years ago. Goutier could not be reached for comment.
Oblate Father Peter Doherty, a psychologist with Catholic Family Services in Calgary and professor at St. Mary's College, volunteered to spend Christmas in Fort Smith, replacing pastor Francois Cueff, who went to serve his second parish. Doherty has done the same for the past two years.
In addition to saying Mass for the community of 2,000, he led services at hospitals and schools. "I'm really glad I went. I work as a psychologist so for me this was like a retreat." He describes parishioners as "very open, very willing and very well organized."
Piche, for his part, spent Christmas some 1,000 km northwest of Edmonton, celebrating Christmas Eve Mass at Peter and Paul Church in Rainbow Lake, midnight Christmas Mass at Our Lady of Assumption Church in Chateh and Christmas Day Mass in Meander River.
The three parishes are served from High Level and are located in the Grouard-McLennan Archdiocese.
Piche had served the area for 25 years so he was welcomed as a friend. "They are happy because I do the readings in their own language," he said. "This is our way of supporting the lay people in their mission."