Canada, Ministering in the Northwest Territories – Ft Providence

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Late last August, Mick Fleming and I set off from Saskatoon to start our trip to Yellowknife, our first Northwest Territories stop before taking up our new ministry. We spent our first night with our confreres at Villa Marguerite, a second night at a hotel in High Level, Alberta; and our third night at Trappers Lake Spiritual Centre outside of Yellowknife – altogether a 2,000 km. trip. After a few days’ orientation with the staff at the Diocesan Centre, off we went to Behchoko, our home base.

We had presumed that the two of us would be living and serving at Behchoko (rhymes with “Mexico”) 100 km. northwest of Yellowknife. (It used to be called Rae-Edzo.) There were to be two out missions we would also serve -once a month for Sunday Mass at a settlement called Wekweeti (a fly-in place not far from the Diavik diamond mines) and Fort Providence, 200 km. southwest of Behchoko. However… the bishop told us when we got here that he really felt that Ft. Providence needed someone on location – so I got that job. Mick has been holding the fort at Behchoko (and holding funerals mostly for Covid-19 victims). Behchoko had a high number of covid cases and was locked down for quite some time. As of last Friday, they are now COVID free so life should be getting back to something more normal soon. Once the covid crisis cools off, Mick will start going to Wekweeti; the two of us will alternate going out to Wekweeti.

Fort Providence has about 500 residents. It’s on the highway leading from Alberta to Yellowknife, where the highway crosses the Mackenzie River. It’s one of the oldest missions in the North – established in 1836. The main church, which we use only in the summer because of the high heating costs, was built alongside the old residential school in the early 1930’s. Several beautiful oil paintings – a large painting of Our Lady of Providence over the altar and a set of painted Stations of the Cross, are in the church, along with two large banners made by local artists. We use a much smaller building as our winter church (pictured above). It is small, but it easily holds the current Sunday crowd – between 12 and 17 people.

There hasn’t been a priest living here for some time, so the people are glad to have “their own” priest again. And I’m happy to be here. The only thing that needs some adjusting is getting used to being so far from everything. But there are compensations. The river is right in front of my living room window – a magnificent, swift-flowing river; and we get some interesting wildlife coming into town from time to time. A herd of about a dozen wood buffalo came through a few weeks ago to mow our lawns and leave fairly large callingcards on them, and another group of them is roaming through town right now. But they are generally calm creatures – as long as you treat them with a little respect.

Two Sundays ago we began First Communion preparation classes – the local custom is to have First Communions at the Christmas Eve Mass. There has been no covid in Fort Providence so far, so it will be fairly easy to work within the restrictions. There is a three-person team leading the programme, a group in place before I came here. I hope that this will be a first step to start up religious instruction for the children again. The plan is to get these young people also to help set up the crib at the Christmas Eve Mass, and then to invite them to come to Bible Story classes starting in the new year: Old Testament stories for Grades 1 to 3, and Jesus stories for Grades 4 to 6.

For the month of November, I tried a little project. Priests serving here had collected memorial cards of deceased parishioners for many years. I got them together and mounted them on the wall behind the altar of our small church.

People loved the idea. Last Sunday, at the end of Mass, I invited people to come up after Mass to have a closer look. I didn’t expect that some of them would think the Mass was over at the first words of the closing hymn – I almost had to fight my way out of the sanctuary! It’s another sign of how much the Dene people generally hold their deceased dear.

Our ministry is just getting started in both our places. Think of us as you work in your own fields of the Lord’s work

By Fr. Bill Bernard, C.Ss.R.

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