Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 15, 2002
Arctic shepherd pined for North
Oblate missionary loved the land and his people
By RENATO GANDIA
WCR Staff Writer
The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate lost another pillar of their mission work in the far Arctic.
Father Leonce Dehurtevent, 91, who spent more than half of his life as a northern missionary, died April 6 at Placid Place, the Oblates' retirement place.
Known to the people of Paulatuk, about 300 km east of Inuvik, as Umiligaaluk meaning "the bearded one," Dehurtevent was born in France in 1911.
He was ordained a priest in 1936 in France. A year later, he came to Canada to serve as a special missionary in northern Canada.
Having lived with the Inuvlaluits for 58 years, he was not only their spiritual leader, but also a special priest and friend to all who knew him.
When he moved to Kikoliorvik, Mackenzie in 1937, Dehurtevent realized he had many new challenges to overcome, not the least was to learn two new languages: English and Inuvlaluktun.
But the people helped him adjust. One family even acted as his walking dictionary and teacher. And the young children felt it was their duty to help Dehurtevent learn their language.
Within a year, the missionary happily communicated fluently with them in Inuvlaluktun.
Dehurtevent admitted he often felt lonely and challenged when he first arrived in the distant, cold and barren North as a young priest. One struggle he wrestled with was surviving without mail from his family in France.
"But I expected it to be a lot worse," he said in one of the records of the Oblates.
Learning two new languages immediately upon arriving in the mission was just the beginning of many more challenges. The young priest soon became equally competent in driving his team of dogs or walking miles in the deep or hardened snow to visit his people. In between his visits with one family to another, he would travel an average of 100 miles.
He admitted he was never an expert at building igloos even though he lived in a land where the ground was frozen and covered with snow almost nine months of the year.
During his travels, Dehurtevent would pitch a small canvas tent in the middle of nowhere for a good night's sleep while fishing in the frozen lakes and rivers to keep his food pack filled.
He found cooking a chore, so he preferred chewing, eating and tasting raw frozen northern fish and meats.
The Arctic shepherd endured several snowstorms and blizzards, sometimes becoming lost and terribly frightened. But with God's help, he always managed to patiently drive home, usually frozen and starving.
In December 2000, Dehurtevent told the WCR, "I miss it. I still can't used to Edmonton - it's so big." The priest missed the people he worked with: many former parishioners would drop into Placid Place to visit their beloved priest when they came to Edmonton.
Memories of his beloved northern home sustained the ailing priest. "I saw things that I will never see anywhere else. The sunrise in the snow was so beautiful, you will never see it like that anywhere. The northern lights . . . you see the sky vibrating with the colours - everything is so beautiful there."
Dehurtevent loved the people in Paulatuk as he was loved in return. Father Gilles Gauthier, superior of Placid Place, told the WCR, "He is the saint, the good shepherd of the North."
His fellow missionaries respected and admired Dehurtevent's commitment to share his love of God and dedicate his life for all God's people.
His door was always open to everyone and the youth loved to get together in his home.
"I have never, never regretted sharing my life and God's message with my friends. In fact, I often had a great dream, a dream that I would never leave Paulatuk, but God also had plans for me," Dehurtevent said.
In 1996, he had a hard time making up his mind to leave his home among the Inuvlaluit and settle in Placid Lake.
But poor health and advanced age started to take a toll on him. And even the distance between Edmonton and Paulatuk did not hinder the people from getting in touch with him when they learned Dehurtevent was counting his final days.
Before he died, the beloved priest was able to talk to his people and sang with them their favourite Inuvlaluktun hymns.
"Hearing from all of you is worth a thousand pills," Dehurtevent told his people.
With notes from the OMI files.