‘…[G]iven the choice, I would like to be back at this very moment in the far away country of the Canadian North. In my desert of ice. Sleeping on a snowbank at 45 degrees below zero. Wrapped up in snow with only my dogs for companions. In my mission land, I do not drink wine but water obtained by melting ice. I do not eat bread, but rather frozen fish, often fasting for days on end. My life is one of survival. Mason, carpenter, nurse, teacher, fisherman and dog musher. Every day, I have to improvise myself as a jack-of-all-trades….’ Venerable Vital Grandin (1829-1902)
(Following is the speech delivered by Oblate Bishop Denis Croteau, retired bishop Mackenzie-Fort Smith, on receiving the St. Joseph Award for outstanding missionary work at the Tastes of Heaven fundraising dinner in Toronto, April 23, 2008.)
Former Prime Minister John Turner, on right, congratulates 2008 St. Joseph Awardee Bishop Denis Croteau, O.M.I.
When Catholic Missions In Canada contacted me to let me know that I had been chosen to be the recipient of the Saint Joseph Award for 2008, I was reluctant to accept. But when I heard that the award was to recognize the contribution of the Oblate Bishops to the missions of the North, I became less reluctant and hesitant. We, the missionaries of the North of my generation, are much more used to tepees than to luxurious hotel rooms. More used to coffee breaks than to lavish banquets. More used to do chores than to receive awards.
This reminds me of a visit paid by Bishop Vital Grandin to his native France, after many years of missionary life in the North. As you know, Bishop Grandin was to be the first bishop to roam the vastness of what would eventually become the Mackenzie diocese in the Northwest Territories.
Occasionally, he would go to France to recruit new missionaries, but most of all, to raise money for his missions. He was not fortunate enough to have, as we now have, an organization similar to Catholic Missions In Canada to keep the wolf from the door.
Before his return to Canada, he was the guest of honour at a banquet organized by his countrymen. After the meal, he stood up and said: “We have spent a good moment together. Thank you for your hospitality. We have just left a bountiful table. The soup was excellent. But given the choice, I would like to be back at this very moment in the far away country of the Canadian North. In my desert of ice. Sleeping on a snowbank at 45 degrees below zero. Wrapped up in snow with only my dogs for companions. In my mission land, I do not drink wine but water obtained by melting ice. I do not eat bread, but rather frozen fish, often fasting for days on end. My life is one of survival. Mason, carpenter, nurse, teacher, fisherman and dog musher. Every day, I have to improvise myself as a jack-of-all-trades.
“Wanting to be back has nothing to do with my feelings. It has to do with my convictions. I believe that my life out there makes a difference for the people I have adopted and who have adopted me, I know what my life out there is worth. In the darkness of the Northern Night, I bring Light. In an icebound land, I bring the fire of love. In death, I bring life.”
I cannot claim to have suffered all the misery that Bishop Grandin has suffered even though I have driven dogs and slept on the snowbank at 55 below zero without even a tent for shelter and counting stars like insomniacs count sheep. But what I can claim, though, is the same conviction that my presence in the North was willed by God and was beneficial to the salvation of our native people.
Today, some people question the validity of Christian evangelization of aboriginal peoples. Some people say that they should have been left to their own spirituality and culture. Does it mean then that the Northern people of Canada should have been excluded from the command of Christ to His disciples to go to the ends of the world and preach the Good News?
Indeed, native spirituality had many good things.
For one, it was based on a personal relationship with the Great Spirit. Each day was a day of prayer to God’s providence to ensure survival.
The world was their church building. That is where they found God and celebrated the daily liturgy of their daily lives.
The roof of their church was the sky with the sun, the moon and the stars.
The walls of their church were either the vast emptiness of the Northern steppes or the forests surrounding them.
The floor of their church was the ground upon which they walked.
Their church music was the singing of the birds and the wind blowing in the trees.
Their incense was the smoke of their campfires.
The artwork of their church was the flowers, the grass, the clouds, the Northern lights, the sunrises and the sunsets.
Their priests were the medicine men and the elders passing on their wisdom from one generation to the next.
In one way, we could say that before the arrival of the Christian missionaries the native people were people of the Old Testament.
Their God was the God of Creation. Their God was a God of Providence providing for their physical and material needs.
But native spirituality had its limitations.
Native spirituality was incomplete because it referred to God only as a Creator and not as a Saviour.
Native spirituality never talked about forgiveness of sins and how to make friends with God after one had sinned.
In the words of the Apostle Paul: “In the past, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets, but in our time, He has spoken to us through His Son Jesus who made everything there is.”
Native spirituality is the religion of the prophets.
Christian spirituality is the religion of Jesus Christ.
Native spirituality is the religion of the Great Spirit.
Christian spirituality is the religion of the Holy Spirit.
In their native spirituality, the aboriginal people spoke the language of creation. They spoke it well.
More than 150 years ago, when the missionaries came to the North, they taught the people a new language. The language of salvation, of forgiveness of sins through the life and death of Jesus
Christ, the Son of God.
I would be the first one to admit that the methods used and the approaches developed by some missionaries were not always beyond reproach. Missionaries were of their time and as such not always perfect instruments of transmission of the message. But there is one thing that I am sure we would agree on, and it is the dedication, generosity and zeal of the missionaries who tackled the task of evangelizing the North. They had staying power. I cannot imagine a better marriage than the union of the Church of the North and its missionaries. “Till death do us part” could very well be the motto of such a union.
It is with great joy that I stand here tonight to represent those missionaries. And it is with great honour that in their name I accept the Saint Joseph Award.
Catholic Missions In Canada president Father Philip J. Kennedy with Light of Christ awardee Sister Dora Durand, S.G.M.
Let me conclude this talk with a word about the presence of the Religious Sisters in the North.
Soon after the first missionaries came to the Northwest Territories, in the1850s, they realized, like Adam in the Garden of Eden, that there was something missing. And as God created Eve as a final touch to His Creation, in the same way, God provided the Grey Nuns to the missionaries of the Mackenzie diocese.
I cannot imagine the missions of the North without the presence of the Sisters any more than I can imagine Adam taking care of the world without Eve.
The Book of Proverbs gives us a description of the valiant woman who is the pride of her husband and children. Such have been the Sisters for the Oblates missionaries of the North.
I have asked Sister Dora Durand to accompany me for this occasion because she represents in my eyes the perfect example of what the missionary sisters have been for our missions. She has served in faith, in simplicity and generosity, with a loving heart and the skilful hands, many generations of aboriginal people.
(St. Joseph awardee Bishop Denis Croteau, O.M.I., has recently retired as bishop of the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith, in the Northwest Territories.)