Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 6, 2008
White Fish priest had a mother's heart
Oblate spoke Cree, built a school, earned aboriginals love
By PETER REIS
He (Paquette) spoke the language of the people and spent much of his time visiting the families of his area.
It is said that he was hard looking but that he had the heart of a mother. Little by little, he became well loved by his people.
Until 1938, the school in White Fish had been under the guidance of the Anglican Church.
When Paquette arrived on the reserve, he noted that many of the children attending the school were Catholics. Paquette obtained permission to build a Catholic school on the Big River reserve.
The priest begged the Daughters of Providence and the vicar to have sisters for his mission at White Fish (then called Big River Indian reserve).
“Because,” he said, “alone, I am helpless, but with the help of sisters, I dare hope that good will be accomplished.”
In October 1941, upon the request of Father Paquette, the Daughters of Providence were asked to open an Indian school at White Fish Reserve.
Three sisters — Sister St. Louis de Gonzague, Sister Cecilia de Jesus and Sister Paul de la Croix — were chosen to open up this new field of labour.
The first occupation of the sisters was to teach, but they did much more than educate.
They had a small pharmacy and ministered to numerous minor ailments. In this way, they met many people who they would not have otherwise seen.
Aside from teaching household and hygiene skills to the women, they also visited the Indians’ homes and helped the people in any way they could.
The early beginnings were hard. Limited living quarters, no electricity, no refrigerator, no furnace, not even a pantry. In winter as well as in summer, water was brought in by the pail-full from the nearby lake.
In wintertime, this meant hacking through three feet of ice, just as native people still do today.
The work in the mission was by no means any easier. Each morning, rain or shine, the missionary priest would go from cabin to cabin or from tent to tent, according to the season, to wake up the children and bring them to school. The class would be gathered together so that by noon everyone would be present. The children’s appetites never failed.
Soon, the men and women who came to “supervise” the daily class routine ceased their visits and, satisfied with what they saw, began sending their children to school without waiting for the missionary to come and get them.
Many had come on foot: all, without exception — young and old — surrounded the coffin, weeping.
At school, each child was washed, combed and dressed in clean clothes. Before entering his classroom, he would have eaten his breakfast, and by noon, would have been served a good dinner.
Besides reading, writing and arithmetic, each child was expected to learn to love manual work and to know, love and serve the Lord. Everyday the good Father Paquette would give religious instruction in Cree.
Little by little, both the school and the sisters’ residence had to be enlarged. Then a heavy trial came on this mission.
On Feb. 14, 1956, Father Paquette, who was then confined in the hospital at Prince Albert, died suddenly. A funeral service was held in Debden.
In spite of severe cold weather and a raging snowstorm, all the Indians of White Fish attended this service. Many had come on foot: all, without exception — young and old — surrounded the coffin, weeping.
Several Oblates succeeded Paquette. The sisters entrusted the leadership of the school to the lay teachers and, in 1972, decided to leave the mission. It was a painful moment for all.
Father Luc Gaudet, who was the parish priest of Big River in the late 1950s, recalls the many times he visited Indian people who were sick in the hospital.
He would visit for a while, and then would ask the patients to what religion they belonged.
One day he received the reply: “I belong to Father Paquette’s religion.” For that man, the religion preached by Paquette was the one in which he believed, and the one he had chosen.
Father A. Rodrigue came to White Fish in 1964. By that time, the wooden boards close to the foundation of the church had rotted from dampness.
Rodrigue asked Oblate Father Roland Tetreault to come and build a new church. Bishop H.P. Morin blessed this new church in June 1968.
The last Oblate to live in White Fish was Father A. Alberti. After his tenure, diocesan clergy assumed leadership of the mission but did not reside on the reserve.
Currently, the parish priest in Debden looks after the Catholic community of White Fish.
The faith life of the parish has grown because of the presence of the Presentation Sisters on the reserve.
Parish records indicate an increase in the number of Baptisms and Confirmations.
The spiritual life of the people continues to grow with the formation of youth groups, Christopher groups, small Christian communities and Life-In-Spirit seminar groups from within the parish.
(Peter Reis, who wrote this short history of the Sacred Heart mission in Whitefish reserve a month before he died a few years ago, served as resource centre librarian in the Diocese of Prince Albert, Sask.
Over the past decade, Sister Yvette Perreault and Sister Estelle Lavigne, and most recently, Sister Diane Lajeunesse, of the Sisters of Presentation of Mary, have administered the mission.
Father Millan Sajonas, pastor of Saint-Jean-de-Baptiste Parish in Debden, celebrates Mass in the mission on Sundays.)
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