Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 26, 2004
Croteau juggles tasks in 2 Arctic dioceses
Southern priests say Mass in world's largest diocese
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Bishop Denis Croteau runs two of the largest dioceses in the world - Mackenzie-Fort Smith and Whitehorse - but he's not complaining. How does he manage? With a little help from priests from the South and a lot of help from the laity.
Because of the lack of priests in the region, Croteau has trained hundreds of lay people in the art of running parishes and missions on their own. But you have to celebrate Mass once in a while and Croteau just didn't have enough priests to cover the entire diocese.
So in the mid-1990s, he made a national case out of the fact he only had a half-dozen aging priests to cover Mackenzie, the world's largest diocese geographically with 1.5 million square kilometres.
Priests step in
In the past few years, solidarity from dioceses in the South, including Edmonton, has begun to grow, with many priests stepping forward to serve in Mackenzie for one or two years.
"There has been an influx of priests from the South in Mackenzie," explains Croteau, 71. Because of that, the diocese's 25,000 Catholics, spread across 38 missions, now have the opportunity to attend Mass at least once a month.
Mackenzie now has at least 10 priests from places like Saskatoon, Edmonton and Kelowna, all of them running four or five missions each. An Edmonton priest, Father Emmett Crough, arrived in August to look after another five missions from his base parish in Norman Wells.
"So I have to say I've got a priest now in each region of the diocese," Croteau said. "I don't have a priest for each mission, but all the missions are covered."
The only missions without a priest are three Inuit missions in the central Arctic. A priest flies from Yellowknife every two or three months to visit those missions.
"So basically the situation has improved on account of the loaning of priests from the South," Croteau said.
And then, last May, the Vatican appointed Croteau apostolic administrator of the Whitehorse Diocese. The diocese of 8,000 Catholics has been without a bishop since Bishop Thomas Lobsinger died in a plane crash in April 2000. The diocese covers most of the Yukon. It has three diocesan priests, eight religious priests, two permanent deacons, nine religious and 66 lay pastoral assistants.
Croteau met with all the staff of the Whitehorse Diocese, priests and lay people, in June. He went back again in the middle of September and spent a month visiting all 20 missions in the diocese. He is planning to visit the Yukon again next month for another diocesan meeting. "I have to divide my time between the two dioceses," notes Croteau.
Father Jim Bleackley, his right hand man in Whitehorse, helps him. "He runs the show when I'm not there and he's been doing it for three and half years so he knows what he is doing."
Isn't the work of running two large dioceses driving Croteau crazy?
"Not yet," he says. "Here in Mackenzie I don't have many priests but I've got good staff. Lay people here can conduct services, give Communion, help with the preparation, do sacraments, do First Communion preparation, Baptism preparation, you name it. Now we have programs for marriage preparation and family life. So I have lots of lay people volunteering to help the Church."
Croteau said if he were to disappear for a couple of months, the sky would not fall. "Everything is in place here," he said. "People here know what to do. In fact four or five years ago I took a four-month sabbatical and I went to study, but everything was in place so they just kept going.
"That's the advantage of a Church that is not based on only one leader."
The same thing has happened in Whitehorse. "They haven't had a bishop for more than three years and they are still going," Croteau noted. But they need more leaders and the bishop is ready to help them. He plans to train dozens of lay people in all aspects of the faith and parish administration so they can run their own missions and parishes.
Another problem he has to face is the priest shortage. It may not be so evident now but it soon will be. Out of seven Oblates who remain in Whitehorse, four are between 83 and 88 years of age. "That means very soon, on account of health and whatever, they will not be functioning to do the ministry."