Bishop Mark Hagemoen

Bishop Mark Hagemoen

February 8, 2016

In a significant turning point for the Church in Canada, the country's northernmost dioceses have shed their status as mission dioceses.

The Vatican announced as of Jan. 25, it will no longer consider the six remaining mission dioceses, five of them in western and northern Canada, as mission dioceses.

Until last month, the dioceses of Grouard-McLennan, Mackenzie-Fort Smith, Keewatin-Le Pas, Churchill-Hudson Bay, Moosonee and Whitehorse were counted among the mission dioceses under the jurisdiction of the Vatican's Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

The dioceses will now officially join their southern counterparts under the Congregation of Bishops.

Calling it "an exciting new time for the North," Bishop Mark Hagemoen of Mackenzie-Fort Smith joined bishops across the country in welcoming the Holy See's decision.

Hagemoen noted that in the past, Canada's neediest dioceses could rely on practical support from the Vatican, given their missionary status.

In addition to a share of the Canadian contributions to the annual Mission Sunday collection, the designated mission territories also received support from the Holy See.

Their six bishops, with the help of all the bishops and the Catholic faithful of Canada, are now fully responsible for the pastoral life of all of their diocesan churches, Bishop Douglas Crosby, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement on the transfer.

"As Catholics, we have entered a new phase in our history and development, the seeds of which were sown many years ago," said Crosby. "Now, however, all of us, together, need to continue in our common effort to find new ways to sustain and extend our presence and service in Northern Canada."

Crosby said the decision followed almost a quarter of a century of planning by the northern dioceses, the CCCB, dioceses in southern Canada and the Holy See.


Archbishop Gerard Pettipas, of Grouard-McLennan in northwestern Alberta, said the change in status acknowledges a longstanding reality.

Canada's mission dioceses, mostly established generations ago, do not fit the profile of the Vatican's missionary activity today, which is helping to develop new dioceses around the world, mostly in Africa and Asia, he said.

Archbishop Gerard Pettipas

Archbishop Gerard Pettipas

"We were established quite a while ago, so in a sense, even though we are still needy, we could hardly be called new," said Pettipas. The presumption is once a diocese has been operating a number of years it will be able to stand on its own. This, however, continues to be a struggle for the northernmost dioceses.

"In actual fact, we are still the diocese we were last week," said Pettipas.

As the dioceses are weaned off the Evangelizations of Peoples' grants, they will still rely on support from several Canadian Catholic organizations, such as Catholic Missions In Canada, a Toronto-based organization that has long funded northern missions.

Father Philip Kennedy, president of Catholic Missions, said many of Canada's dioceses are still mainly poor with widely scattered communities.

They are burdened with extremely cold and long winters; high costs for food, heating and transportation; and still require missionaries to travel sometimes more than 100 kms each way to celebrate the Eucharist or preside at funerals.

Catholic Missions still supports 24 Canadian dioceses that it considers mission dioceses, including some that were taken off the Evangelization of Peoples' list several years ago.

Kennedy said he is concerned about the dioceses that have been receiving financial help of about $50,000 annually from World Mission Sunday, especially those in western Canada, where the largest amounts of the organization's funds go.

"We'll do what we can to make sure that they don't go without because those missions are really very difficult to run," he said.


Pettipas said he hopes the change in status will help his diocese become more self-sustaining. Indigenous people, who account for about 26 per cent of the Catholic population in Grouard-McLennan, will play a large part in that, he said.

While poverty has made it a struggle for many people to donate, the reality has been changing toward more donations from indigenous communities. One Metis council recently gave $6,000 toward building church steps and a steeple in their community.

In Mackenzie-Fort Smith, where most Catholics are Aboriginal, the community will continue to play a part in the training and formation of Aboriginal leaders, Hagemoen said.

"Aboriginal peoples will be a big part in discerning and looking forward," he said.

The bishops are also looking forward to increased support from the southern dioceses, which can take the form of loaning more priests to the North and twinning arrangements such as that between the Edmonton Archdiocese and Mackenzie-Fort Smith.


"The change is an exciting new time for the North and certainly the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith," said Hagemoen. "The exciting part is it necessitates on a greater basis, a dialogue and ministerial relationship between the North and others in the South."

The CCCB's 2015 plenary assembly also saw support pledged for the six former mission dioceses.

Crosby said a working group of bishops was set up to make recommendations on pastoral and financial collaboration, so that all Canadian dioceses and eparchies can take greater responsibility for the Church in the North.