Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 24, 2007
Bishop Croteau lost his heart to the North and its people
After 21 years as spiritual leader, this Oblate says he will live in the North
By RAMON GONZALEZ
"We like him because he has the Oblate charism.
- Monica Loomis
"But I'll still be with the people, visiting with them and ministering to them."
Monica Loomis, a pastoral worker in Norman Wells, is sure to miss the retiring bishop.
"He's is one of the best we've ever had," she said. "We like him because he has the Oblate charism. The Oblates are humble men who care for the needy. I think he is an Oblate at heart."
Born in a large French family of 12 children in Thetford Mines, Quebec, in 1932, Croteau knew from a young age he wanted to be priest.
When his Grade 2 teacher asked students what they wanted to be when they grew up some said they wanted to be cowboys or firemen.
"I said I want to be a priest," Croteau recalled. "In Grade 2 I knew that God was calling me to be a priest."
In Grade 5 he heard about the Oblate Fathers and became interested. "I liked what they were doing; I liked the mission work; I'd heard about the North at that time so I joined the Oblates."
In 1946, at age 14, he enrolled in the Oblate Juniorate in Chambly, Quebec, where he took classical studies, including Latin and Greek. He did his novitiate in Richelieu, Quebec, in 1952-53 and his seminary training in Lebret, Sask., from 1953 to 1959.
"I also did my seminary in Lebret to learn English because I knew I wanted to come north," Croteau said. "I knew I would need English. Up to then I spoke only French."
"We didn't have skidoos so I lived the Indian way of life so to speak for four years."
- Bishop Denis Croteau
Croteau was ordained to the priesthood Aug. 31, 1958, in Drummondville, Quebec, and two years later, at age 27, he was sent to Fort Rae, where he would spend the next four years working with the Dogrib people.
In 1965, after studying for a few months in Rome, Croteau was appointed to Fort McMurray, which at the time was part of the Mackenzie Diocese.
It was turned over to the St. Paul Diocese in 1980.
He spent four and a half years as a parish priest in Fort McMurray and in October 1969 he was asked by Bishop Paul Piche to become the director of Grandin College in Fort Smith. It was a residence for native students established by the Church, owned by the diocese and staffed by the diocese. He remained as director of that institution until 1973, when he became responsible for adult education in the diocese.
In 1975 he was appointed pastor at Inuvik and remained there for the next 10 years. In 1985 he was called to be the pastor of the cathedral in Fort Smith. A year later, in 1986, he became the bishop of the diocese.
"So I've been in the North for most of my (priestly) life," Croteau said. "It's been 47 years now (in the North)."
Why did he stay in the North for so long? "I could have been sent to Africa, South America, anywhere. We have priests in 65 countries in the world but I chose to come North," he said. "I was attracted by the North. I wanted to spend my life in the North. That was my choice."
- Photo courtesy ofCatholic Missions in Canada Magazine
Bishop Denis Croteau celebrates Mass in 1996 at Colville Lake N.W.T.
He likes the way of life of the North. "When I was in Fort Rae, I travelled by dog team and lived in the bush and the forest, on the land as they say here, with the native people," he recalled.
"In 1963 I went for two months to live with a family in the forest in a tent in the winter at 55 degrees below. I travelled by dog team for four years there. In those days we still had dog teams. We didn't have skidoos so I lived the Indian way of life so to speak for four years. That's one of my good memories."
Added Croteau: "I also like parish life, working close with the people, with parish council. I really enjoyed the 10 years I spent in Inuvik (as a pastor). In the North you are very close to the people; you are always dealing with people. You are one with them. That's the beauty of the North."
Another beauty is the simplicity of life and the people's openness. "People are very, very open; they are very simple in their ways and they are very friendly and very generous," Croteau said.
"They share. And this is due to their culture, to their way of life. They have accepted the missionaries. They really have great respect and love for their missionaries and we feel that the people love us; that we are one of the family so to speak."
The bishop, however, found it difficult to adjust to the slow pace of life in the North. "You have the impression that it's very slow moving," he said. "You try to give formation to the people, you try to involve the lay people into the Church life, but they have other obligations and (suddenly) leave and you have to start all over again.
"You always have the impression every year that you start with the same program. That's the difficulty I find myself - you don't seem to get results."
When Croteau came to the diocese there was no radio and television and no roads and so he thought he would live a primitive kind of life. But the North was opening up at the time and within a few years, development started to take place.
"He's always done what he can to assist Aboriginal people and he makes himself available to assist them."
- Terry Villeneuve
"In Fort Rae in 1964, we had mail 10 times a year; the plane would come once a month, except at freeze-up time in October and at break-up time in May," he recalled. "When they built the Mackenzie Highway, within a year we had mail three times a week by the bus coming from Edmonton.
"Then we had radio and then television came in and then people started driving trucks. As soon as you have the roads, development takes place, you know. So the big surprise is that I didn't live the cultural way of life on the land for very long because the North just opened up and the mission life became somewhat like parish life in the South."
One of the biggest challenges for Croteau is that he has never had enough priests to minister to the nearly 20,000 Catholics in the diocese. So how has he managed? With the help of some volunteer priests from the South and a lot of help from the laity.
In the mid-1990s Croteau 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 km and 40 parishes and missions. He got a few priests from the South and some dioceses committed themselves to man certain parishes.
But it was never enough, so at one point he divided the diocese in five regions and appointed a priest in each region. Some regions have seven or eight missions so the priest goes one Sunday here, the other Sunday there. When the priest is not there, the lay people run the service.
When Croteau came north in 1960 the diocese had 62 priests, but that number declined steadily over the years.
After his plea for help, he reached 10 priests, then eight. Today he has seven, including two diocesan priests he recently ordained, a former Anglican pastor and a priest from Nigeria.
- Photo courtesy of Catholic Missions in Canada Magazine
Bishop Croteau visits the Dene in Fort Franklin in 1996.
Educating the laity in the art of running parishes and missions on their own has always been one of Croteau's main priorities. To make it happen, he built a spirituality centre 11 km out of Yellowknife called Trappers Lake soon after he became a bishop. The goal is to give Christian formation and discover possible leaders.
"So we have given sessions of all kinds in the last 20 years, I would say - in Bible, in leadership, in liturgy, in Church music and in healing," Croteau said.
"The diocese has spent a lot of money and a lot of effort trying to develop the religious leadership among the native people. That's been the big challenge."
As a result of Croteau's efforts, today in Mackenzie, lay people are basically in charge, leading services, giving Communion, marrying and burying people.
The diocese is said to have a list of almost 20 people, mostly women, who can perform weddings, funerals and Baptisms. They serve communities such as Norman Wells, Fort Simpson, Fort Providence, Deline, Tulita and Fort Good Hope.
"I think his main contribution to the Church in the North has been educating the people, the church workers," Loomis said. "He is always updating us."
One reason native people don't line up to become priests is the celibacy requirement. "In the native culture family is extremely important and to sacrifice family is not very easy for the native people to do," Croteau said. "So I don't think we'll ever get a big number of native vocations."
Terry Villeneuve, pastoral leader of St. Joseph's Parish in Fort Resolution and a mother of seven, said people in the area love Croteau because "he is very supportive of Aboriginal people" and has even run healing programs in the diocese to help former students of residential schools.
"He's always done what he can to assist Aboriginal people and he makes himself available to assist them, even financially," she said. "We are going to miss him, but I'm glad he is not going to leave the Northwest Territories."
Pastoral leaders have free rein in their parishes as long as they abide by the rules. "He let's us do anything we want to do within (the parameters of) canon law," Villeneuve noted. "'Be creative,' he tells us."
But Villeneuve sometimes gets in "heated arguments" with Croteau because "he could be so stubborn. He makes up his mind about things and that's it. But eventually he breaks down," she laughed. "I've really enjoyed working with him."
Eddie Lavoie, a permanent deacon in Inuvik who has known Croteau for 24 years, said he will remember the retiring bishop for the sincerity of his vocation and for trying his best to create a native Church in the North.
"He is gracefully growing old," he pointed out. "He is happy being a priest and he seems to pass that on to others."
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