Sister Margaret Suntjens, centre, and Sister Monique Jubinville, of the Daughters of Wisdom
In 1948, at the very end of November, three Sisters of the Daughters of Wisdom arrived at the new Atikameg Indian Day School. This was being built that summer in the forested area of Alberta, north of Lesser Slave Lake. Its opening was delayed simply because the school building was not yet finished. It worried me that even at that late date, it was still not complete. School was to open at 9:00 a.m. What did that mean to the parents living in that area? “Anytime after sun-up” seemed right to them. This was the end of November when the sun is the most tardy. Some children arrived early, at 10:00 a.m.—others at 11:00, and a few, a quarter to 12:00, nearly time to dismiss for noon! I had much learning to do in this new situation.
I thought I was to teach mathematics, language, reading... but I realized that these would be last on my list.
After a few observations, I became aware that other lessons needed to be mastered first. Vocabulary and experience of time—alarm clock, morning, noon, and so forth, as viewed by the native people were necessary. There was no university course to back me up on how to work this out: Only lived experience—trial and error, and trial again another way—was the answer.
This was a Day School at Atikameg, I was told, and that meant to me that children were expected to go home for mid-day meal, and to be back for 1:30 p.m. We thought we were to train the children to have noon meal at NOON...but it was not only to train the children, but the parents as well.
We were not successful in our efforts to have all the day students back to school according to our concept of noon hour. We soon realized this could not happen.
Since we were three Sisters who came to Atikameg for the Mission, I could call on the others' help when I needed. I put the question to them. A suggestion came, “Keep the pupils here at school by offering them a noon meal.”
So Sister Marie Gerard added, “Brother Dugas has made a garden bigger than we need. I'm willing to make a daily dinner with these surplus vegetables.”
We decided to make a meal for the children at noon. All we had were vegetables. Meat was a rarity even for ourselves. It was somewhat difficult for these children to get used to this kind of food, but all of them chose to accept the invitation to stay at school for lunch. Of course, Sister Alma dressed the veggies in all sorts of different ways to make them appetizing. This went over very well with the children and they looked forward to the next noon meal.
Yet we needed to be aware these hunting and gathering people normally ate a meat diet. They never tended gardens. So all this was new to them.
(Sister Margaret Suntjens, D.W., who served as a missionary sister in the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan, lives in retirement at Providence Centre in Edmonton, Alberta. With your help, Catholic Missions In Canada in 2011 provides $315,000 to support missionaries like Sister Margaret now serving in the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan.)