Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 22, 2003
Memories of a N.W.T Christmas
People traveled by dogsled to attend mightnight Mass and huge feasts
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
Oblate Father Jean Denis knows that to have a priest "of their own" present during Christmas was always important to the people in the North.
"Christmas has always been a great feast," Denis said. "They would set the traps in the fall so by Christmas there was fur and meat.
"They always arranged to be present in the settlements for Christmas. The custom was to join together at the community hall to have a great meal together. We had caribou and moose and fish. There would be a wonderful dance afterwards."
In an interview at Foyer Lacombe in St. Albert, Denis, 91 recalled how the church celebration was very holy. They always celebrated midnight Mass and the meal enjoyed on Christmas Day.
People would travel great distances to celebrate Christmas. The settlements around Great Bear Lake are 100 to 150 miles apart and travel was by dogsled.
"When I first arrived, Deline (Fort Franklin) was not a parish by itself. There was no priest before me. I spent Christmas at Tulita (Fort Norman)," Denis said.
"Some of the people of Deline would travel to Tulita for Christmas. After the new year, a Hudson's Bay manager would arrive from Deline with furs. When he had to return to his family, I used to go with him. It took us three days of travel.
"When I arrived in Deline, we would celebrate the new year."
Denis said he travelled by snowmobile once or twice but was not fond of the experience. The wind chilled him to the bone and the bumpy ride was almost unbearable. "I can say I have done my share of snowshoe walking and dogsled mushing."
A chance meeting
It was only a chance meeting between an Alberta bishop and this young man from France that led to 55 years of ministry in Northern Canada, says Denis.
He fondly described meeting Bishop Emile Grouard - then the vicar apostolic of Athabasca - in France and the eventual Christmases spent with First Nations members near Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories.
"Growing up in Brittany, France, my family was very pious. When I was very young I had a great respect for our priest," Denis said.
"I had my Communion and Confirmation on the same day on May 18, 1922. We had a visit from our bishop and I was asked to read the welcome. When I finished, he invited me to come and say Mass at the cathedral. I was only 10 years old. I never did go to the cathedral, but I knew I wanted to be a missionary. There was an impulse to push me to answer the vocation."
Denis had read some books on seminary life but remained clouded as to where he might like to do his work.
"I was attending a minor seminary and there, when I was about to finish, Bishop Grouard came to talk to us. He was 87 at the time (1927)," he said. "I guess he was more eloquent than anybody else and I said, 'That is where I want to go.'"
But Denis did not know anything about the Oblates. He made some inquiries and he joined the order in 1930 - making his vows in 1931. He then travelled to a seminary in Belgium to study.
"There were 18 of us in my class when the time came for the superior general to give me my obedience," he said.
One of his classmates was Father Jean Colas, who is also a resident at Foyer Lacombe. The two men remain good friends.
"We are the only two of the 18 still alive," Denis said. "Canada must be good to preserve us. We came to Canada in 1938 after I was ordained on July 4, 1937 in France."
After spending a few weeks with his family to say goodbye, Denis set sail for a 10-day voyage to Canada. After brief stops in Montreal, Ottawa and St. Boniface, Man., Denis took a train to Athabasca Landing where he boarded the Hudson Bay Company boat The Athabasca and sailed to Fort McMurray. He then sailed to Fort Smith and spent the next 55 years serving in the North, from 1938 to 1993.
"I was always in the company of Father Colas," Denis said. "When we arrived in Fort Smith, we met Bishop Gabriel Breynat, archbishop of Garella. For some reason, he seemed to have us confused. He thought I was Father Colas. I still ask myself if this confusion had any influence on our assignments.
"For which mission were we really intended? Soon enough, Father Colas was sent to Fort Norman and I went to Good Hope."
So many changes
During his 55 years in the North, Denis witnessed tremendous modernization and growth of the settlements despite a high mortality rate among newborns.
However, traditional values and Mass celebrations remained simple and unaltered.
"When I first arrived in Deline, there were maybe 300 people. There might have been 700 when I left. Practically everybody came to celebrate Christmas. The Mass and all of the songs are the same.
"We would sing the songs in the Rabbitskin dialect. I remember the small children being clothed in rabbit parkas."
A Grand Chief remembers
Raymond Taniton was grand chief of Deline from 1991 to 1995, when Denis left the North to retire.
Having a priest present to celebrate Christmas was very important for the community to reflect upon the meaning of the moment.
"Father Denis lifted up our spirits," Taniton said. "We really respect Christmas and New Year's. It is a time for us to really look within ourselves."
Taniton said the Dene elders and a Catholic priest are very highly respected.
"There is a lot of communication. They take the time to get to know you. And they visit you. It's very important."
The leaders in the community would go door-to-door to collect donations to help purchase groceries for the great Christmas feast. They would then return to the people and ask them to cook something. Timing was key as everything had to come together at the hall.
"The caribou and the fish would be cooked and the meal would be set out," Taniton said. "The leaders would make speeches about the holidays and everyone takes a moment to reflect on the meaning of Christmas and the new year, asking the Creator to help us. Father Denis then came in and blessed the meal.
"We enjoyed our meal and then Father would say a final prayer."
And then came the festive dance.
"It was a very traditional dance with both elders and very young children dancing together. It was always a great experience," he said.
The Father returns
In October 1998 after five years of retirement and at age 86, Denis volunteered to return to Tulita when he learned there would not be a priest present for Christmas. He left St. Albert on Dec. 6 to celebrate Mass of the Immaculate Conception at Norman Wells on the eighth and then moved on, arriving in Tulita on Dec. 14.
"I met Sister Celeste of the Felician Sisters from Mississauga but because we only had 10 days, there was little time to prepare for the great feast," Denis said.
"But I do remember a man who worked especially hard to construct a new manger scene. Everything was ready for the Holy Night."