“Every day of my ministry is an adventure,” says Sister Mary Jeanne Davidson, S.S.N.D., pastoral assistant at three First Nations missions in the northern Alberta Archdiocese of Grouard-MacLennan. “There is no typical day—except that I arrive in each community to spread the Good News of God’s love through my love for the people.”
Father Cornelio Esguerra baptizes baby Harlow Jones Courtoreille at Sacred Heart Church in Cadotte Lake, Alberta, on a cold day in January 2011, while her mother Charity Jones Laboucan lovingly holds her. Pastoral director Sister Mary Jeanne Davidson, on left, of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, wrapped mother and child in a quilt to keep warm as there is no heat in the church.
For the past decade, Sister Mary Jeanne, a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, has served over 500 First Nations people in the Peace River area communities of Little Buffalo and Duncan First Nation. Her territory has recently grown to include Cadotte Lake—home to about 800 people. From her base in Peace River—five hours north of Edmonton—Sister Mary Jeanne travels weekly to Little Buffalo (100 km), Duncan (60 km in the opposite direction) and Cadotte Lake—which is on the way to Little Buffalo and approximately 80 km from Peace River. “I’m on the road a lot,” she says simply.
Sister Mary Jeanne’s ministry is one of presence, of walking with the people she serves. “As the day unfolds,” she explains, “I find myself offering hope to parents struggling with addictions, comforting the sick, providing blankets, sheets, food and clothing to needy families, preparing children for Baptism and opening up the Scriptures for children and their parents.”
While residents of Duncan First Nation and Cadotte Lake have adequate housing with running water, Little Buffalo residents are among the most impoverished in Alberta; there is no safe drinking water in the community nor indoor plumbing. “Social challenges are everywhere,” says Sister Mary Jeanne. “Poverty, widespread unemployment as well as suicide and alcohol-related deaths mark each community.” In general, she notes, up to 60 per cent of each community’s population is 35 years old or younger.
Lillian Whitehead with granddaughters Lydyah and Renita who are learning the phonovisual sounds.
Sister Mary Jeanne works to build and sustain relationships with members of each community through family visits, phone calls, participating in wakes, funerals and Eucharist. She is also welcomed at community events such as healing days, addiction awareness workshops, traditional ceremonies, Round Dances and Tea Dances. “I am called to comfort the sick, accompany the grieving and tenderly pray with families,” she says. “My deepest joy is in spreading the Good News of Christ’s love in the world.”
This past summer saw Sister Mary Jeanne with community youth leaders in Little Buffalo partner with youth and coordinators from St. Joseph’s parish in Grand Prairie. They worked together to repair a building for future use as a youth centre in Little Buffalo, as well as repair the boards on an outdoor rink.
“There is little provision for youth in Little Buffalo,” Sister Mary Jeanne says, “and so they wanted to provide a healthy environment where youth could gather.” The building isn’t yet fully operational, but Sister Mary Jeanne is excited by its future opportunities. “It’s well on the way. It’s all part of our hopes for this mission community.”
An example of Sister Mary Jeanne’s pastoral work and ministry in the three mission communities occurred one Christmas a few years ago in Duncan. In the absence of a priest, Sister Mary Jeanne had prepared a Christmas prayer service, during which she shared the story of the shepherds and described how Jesus loved the poor and how He had olive skin and looked just like them. Upon hearing this, one little girl was amazed and said happily,” Sister, thank you so much. Jesus looks just like me!”
The words of the Chief and Duncan’s First Nation Band Council apply to that little girl and to all Sister Mary Jeanne serves. “Sister Mary Jeanne is loved and respected by all Duncan’s First Nation community members,” they note. “We hope she continues to be a light of the Lord and brighten our day.”
Catholic Missions In Canada is essential to her ministry, says Sister Mary Jeanne. “Support from Catholic Missions In Canada donors allow me to continue my ministry of offering hope and giving faithful witness to the love and healing power of the Gospel among the First Nation, Métis and Inuit people in the Peace River region,” she says. She expresses her deepest gratitude to all, who through their generous support and prayers, share in her ministry of spreading the Good News of the Gospel.
Anne Hanley is publications and communications officer at Catholic Missions In Canada.
Reprinted from Catholic Missions In Canada Magazine. (www.cmic.info).