Deep devotion to the Creator builds bridges between Indigenous and Catholic traditions

30 July 2019

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Indigenous people make up about 35 per cent of the Catholic population in the Diocese of St. Paul, which covers the northeastern corner of Alberta. Of the 40 communities served by the diocese, 10 are First Nations and four are Métis settlements.

In this three-part series, we meet some of these Indigenous Catholics and learn about both the blessings and the challenges they experience in their relationships with the Church.

Across the Kehewin Cree Nation, Alan Badger is known as a man of faith. He is respected as an elder and pipe holder in his people’s sacred ceremonies. His knowledge of the Cree language, culture and religious traditions leads many locals to him for spiritual direction and insight.

Alan Badger

But the deep roots Badger has to the Cree culture is only one side of his spiritual life — he is also a devout Catholic.

“I’m one of those rare people where, if you want to come into my pipe ceremonies, you better believe in the Ten Commandments,” Badger says as he points his finger for emphasis. “You better believe the Bible belongs here just as much as my peace pipe does.”

Hills, lakes and ponds are scattered across the Kehewin reserve Badger calls home, which today has a population of just under 1,000. He has spent his life in this northeastern Alberta community, 45 kilometres east of St. Paul, as part of a family that kept both Christ and their Cree identity close to heart.

When he takes on his role as pipe holder in the sacred pipe ceremony, Badger serves as a holy man —  similar to a priest during Mass. The pipe holder blesses the tobacco through prayer and offers words of spiritual wisdom at the end. Pipe ceremonies are typically held four times a year, to correspond to each season.

Ever since he was a child, Badger has also participated in powwows, sweat lodges and sun dances — traditions practised by First Nations across the Prairies. In the sun dance ceremony, people gather around a chief tree to offer sacred dances and songs. What separates his experience from others is the words of his father, who would often tell his son that the stories of the Bible also come through in these ancestral practices.

“There is a chief tree in the middle of the sun dance, and my dad always taught me that this tree represents the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden,” Badger explained. “At the top of that tree we would make a nest using dried branches, and that represents the crown of thorns that Jesus wore.

“It has always been my contention that in both the Catholic Mass and our native ceremonies we put the Creator first.”

In the Diocese of St. Paul, which covers the northeastern corner of Alberta, Indigenous people make up roughly 35 per cent of the Catholic population. Of the 40 communities served by the diocese, 10 are First Nations and four are Métis settlements.

The relationship between the Catholic faith and the Indigenous people of the diocese goes back centuries. In the 1800s, the France-based Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate travelled across Alberta and brought Catholicism to the Indigenous people. The oldest Catholic parish in Alberta, The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin in Fort Chipewyan, was founded in 1847.

Rev. Jhack Diaz

“The faith is still alive in the First Nations community. They are very, very religious,” said Rev. Jhack Diaz, pastor of the Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Kehewin. “They have a deep connection to the Creator. It’s an essential priority with them — to acknowledge the divine.”

Given the history of residential schools and colonialism, the relationship between First Nations and the Catholic Church is marked in part by tragedy, abuse and conflict. But in their faith and customs, these two worlds may have more in common than apart.

Across the Diocese of St. Paul, there are people who have a passion both for their Indigenous roots and their Catholic faith in equal measure. Along with the elders of these Catholic communities, many young people share that passion.

The same interconnection Badger has between his Cree and Catholic identity has been passed on to his 31-year-old daughter Allison. As she walks across an open field to the 100-year-old Our Lady of Mercy chapel in Kehewin — a rustic and abandoned church she hopes will one day be restored — she details her devotion to Christ and her Cree ancestry.

“It was really easy for me to stay in line with both. I don’t know how many times my dad has read the Bible and told us stories,” she said. “For me, the Catholic faith and Cree culture are my way of life. I not only help out with our masses and get the word out to the community, I help my kids stay in touch with their culture. I encourage them to learn their language and at the same time teach them about Jesus.”

“For me, the Catholic faith and Cree culture are my way of life,” says Allison Badger

It’s an identity that both Allison and her father see as complementary. Allison noted that the Indigenous practice of smudging — blessing oneself with the smoke of burning sweetgrass — is similar to the use of incense and the blessing with holy water at Mass. In fact, when Kehewin expanded its cemetery grounds, both Catholic priests and pipe holders were invited by the Diocese of St. Paul to bless the land with holy water and the Cree people’s sacred tobacco.

Smudging is included in the celebration of a Mass at Sacred Heart Parish in Edmonton.

At the heart of both Catholic and Indigenous spirituality is the presence of God. Before their contact with European settlers and Catholic missionaries, Indigenous people already knew a Creator who was invisible, always present, and maker and authority over all things.

“In the Catholic faith and the Aboriginal community, the Lord is No. 1,” said Phyllis Collins, a Métis Catholic who lives in Elizabeth Settlement, about 30 kilometres outside of Cold Lake.

“We always had that connection to the Creator; that’s been with us forever. I think Aboriginal people were really blessed, because they already had this deep understanding of the Lord before we were exposed to any outside world.”

Gary Gagnon

Gary Gagnon has made it his mission to build a bridge between Catholic and Indigenous spirituality. A former Aboriginal relations coordinator with the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, he works as a cultural facilitator with Edmonton Catholic Schools. He agrees that above all, it is the worship of God that can unite these two worlds in a shared faith.

“The common denominator is the higher power,” Gagnon said. “Whether we call it God, Great Spirit or Creator  ̶  that’s where our focus should always be. Catholics and Indigenous people recognize that God is everywhere and He’s with us at all times.

“The journey to recognizing that can be different, but the similarities are there if you have an open mind and open heart to see it. We didn’t always have the Church, but we always had ceremonies and practices that reflected our worship of God.”

That bridge between Catholic and Indigenous cultures is also being built through language. Rev. Manoj Mannakathu, affectionately known as Father Phillip, is the pastor in the Cree communities of Goodfish Lake and Saddle Lake. With the help of elders, Father Phillip is working to bring more of his parishioners’ culture into the Mass.

Now when the priest raises his voice and sings the Penitential Act at Mass, he sings “Lord have mercy” in Cree: “Manito Kitimakinawinan.”

Rev. Phillip during Mass at Goodfish Lake

Father Phillip belongs to the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate order in India. It was there he first experienced how parishes combine cultural traditions and Catholicism.

“In my order, Hindu customs were adapted to the Church — during the holy Mass, feast days, and the procession,” he said. “We decorate with emblems from the Hindu culture, and we bring musical instruments of the Hindu tradition into the Church.”

When Father Phillip first asked an elder of Goodfish Lake’s St. Matthias Church to teach him to sing part of the Mass in Cree, the elder thought he must be joking.

“When she finally taught me these words and I sang them – the response from the people was very positive. They really like to hear the Cree songs coming from me.”

“Soon maybe we will start doing the Our Father prayer in Cree. But only once I master that prayer will we start saying it at the Mass,” he added with a laugh.

Among the younger parishioners in Goodfish Lake, Father Phillip says many do not know how to speak Cree. In some respects, the Catholic Mass may now help them regain some of the language.

St. Kateri painting inside Our Lady of Mercy Church in Kehewin

The incorporation of Indigenous culture is evident in other parishes of the diocese as well. St. Kateri Tekakwitha, Canada’s first Indigenous saint, has a special place across the St. Paul area. Her icon can be found at the parishes of Kehewin and Goodfish Lake and at the St. Paul Cathedral, where an annual Mass in her honour is held each year. In the Métis Settlement of Fishing Lake, 100 kilometres east of St. Paul, Cree hymns are sung every Christmas and Easter at the St. Eugene Parish.

In recent years, strides have been made to acknowledge and develop the commonalities between Catholic and Indigenous faith practices, said Gagnon. Through his work in the Edmonton area, pipe ceremonies and drum circles are now celebrated within Edmonton Catholic schools.

Some Catholics may worry that ceremonies like the sun dance involve the worship not of God but of nature. But Gagnon says this misrepresents the real meaning of the sun dance.

“God made everything on earth for a purpose — we understand that as Indigenous people,” he said. “The forests and the land provided us with everything, even our medication is diminutive of the earth.

“So it isn’t that we worship the tree in the sun dance, it’s that we honour that tree. What we worship in those ceremonies is God. When we recognize Mother Earth, we’re recognizing the creation that God provided for us.”

Walking the halls of the Sacred Heart Centre in Edmonton, Gagnon passes a portrait of Pope St. John Paul II and walks into the room reserved for Indigenous pipe ceremonies. As well, there is a ceremonial room for Indigenous people at the district’s Ben Calf Robe – St. Clare Catholic School.

An annual Mass is held in honour of St. Kateri at the cathedral in St. Paul, AB

Gagnon recognizes these as steps forward in Catholic-Indigenous relationships. Through dialogue and education, he believes the bond between the two religious practices can only grow stronger.

“There’s a long way to go yet. There are still many people whose thinking is this has a negative, almost ‘pagan’ influence,” said Gagnon. “But we’re not here to change canon law. We’re not here to change the prayers of the Eucharist. That is sacred, and we understand that word ‘sacredness,’ We’re just trying to honour our love of God and our relationship with Him.

“That’s why we promote our culture, because what we’re really promoting is God. We’re not forcing our culture into the Church, we’re allowing it to happen and to grow with the Holy Spirit.”

One crucial way that Indigenous culture has grown with the Holy Spirit and forged into their church communities is through the kôhkom, Cree for ‘grandmother’.

Traditionally, the kôhkom is at the centre of the Indigenous family. She is the retainer of their beliefs and traditions and considered a great source of wisdom and values to her grandchildren. In this role, grandmothers have shaped parish life for many reserves.

Bishop Paul Terrio

“Before European contact, First Nations people lived in very matriarchal societies,” said Bishop Paul Terrio of the Diocese of St. Paul.

“Grandmothers continue to be very important now, especially in the raising of children and handing on of the traditions. That tradition fitted into their Catholicism, and grandmothers tend to be very important in the parishes.

“They are the nurturers and guardians of our traditions.”

Across the Indigenous Catholic households of the St. Paul diocese, the kôhkom is the foundational force in passing on the Catholic faith to the next generation. Since childhood, Allison Badger’s grandmother played a vital role in bringing her to church and closer to the faith. Badger still makes an active effort today to visit her kôhkom and pray the rosary with her.

Doreen Berlinguette

When the community of Fishing Lake celebrated the 50th anniversary of St. Eugene Church on May 26, it was the female elders of the community like Doreen Berlinguette who spearheaded and organized the celebration. Because they no longer have a full-time resident priest, Berlinguette says much of the church activity depends on the passion and direction of their church elders.

“Our church community has to come together to ensure things happen,” she said. “Some of the women here teach catechism and prepare First Communion, and we organize fundraisers like pancake breakfasts to raise money for the church.

“We’re trying to ensure there’s a future. So long as there’s still young people that follow the faith and there’s still the older people teaching it to them, the faith will always be here.”

Florence Castor

In Goodfish Lake, church elder and grandmother Florence Castor plays a leading role in keeping the Goodfish community involved with their St. Matthias Parish.

As she speaks above the sound of children running around the chapel before Sunday Mass, Castor details her work preparing the youngest parishioners for Baptism and First Communion.

In the summer she runs a children’s program for all Christian denominations.

Like many other elders and kôhkoms of the Diocese of St. Paul, Castor’s continual prayer is to keep the flame of faith alive in the next generation.

“I try to set an example in hopes that one day other people will do the same, and there will be leaders in this community that will take over,” Castor said. “The elders were always the pillars of our church; we’re just continuing that tradition.”

St. Matthias Parish at Goodfish Lake

Read the entire 3 part Faith and Spirit series:

  1. Deep devotion to the Creator builds bridges between Indigenous and Catholic traditions
  2. Residential history a source of both hurt and healing for Indigenous Catholics
  3. Through devout faith Indigenous Catholics grow their parishes

Residential history a source of both hurt and healing for Indigenous Catholics

Faith and Spirit: Part 2 of 3

Indigenous people make up about 35 per cent of the Catholic population in the Diocese of St. Paul, which covers the northeastern corner of Alberta. Of the 40 communities served by the diocese, 10 are First Nations and four are Métis settlements.

In this three-part series, we meet some of these Indigenous Catholics and learn about both the blessings and the challenges they experience in their relationships with the Church.

Shirley Pruden still walks the halls of the residential school she attended as a teenager. Even now, more than 50 years later, the memories of her time there echo within its walls and are never far from her mind.

Shirley Pruden attended Blue Quills First Nations College in St. Paul from 1965 to 1967.

Whenever Pruden offers guided tours to guests or prospective students at the Blue Quills First Nations College, just outside the northeastern Alberta town of St. Paul, she makes sure to tell them about her own experiences. The Goodfish Lake resident attended the school from 1965 to 1967, when it was still a residential school operated by Oblate priests and Grey Nuns. Today the college is run by the Blue Quills Native Education Council.

For Pruden, her three years at Blue Quills are not filled with memories of abuse and trauma. When she sees the familiar sights of its hallways, classrooms and schoolyard, she looks back fondly on her time in the residential system.

“I always felt welcome there; I never saw any abuse,” she said. “We went on hikes. We went on picnics. We could watch TV. We had a skating rink in the winter. If it wasn’t for Blue Quills, there’s many friends I would not have today.

“I can become a loner in saying there were positive things in our residential schools, but I know I’m not making up these stories.”

Blue Quills was one of more than 80 Indian residential schools that operated across Canada. It was the only one in the St. Paul Diocese, and one of the 44 run by Catholic clergy and religious sisters.

Blue Quills Residential School in St, Paul, AB

Canada’s residential school system began in the early 1820s. The schools were a partnership between the Canadian government and various Christian churches, under the directive to educate Indigenous youth into a Christian and westernized culture.

In June 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was struck to investigate the history and impact the residential school system had on First Nations people.

Gary Gagnon

Gary Gagnon, cultural coordinator in Indigenous Learning Services at Edmonton Catholic Schools, has spoken with people across Western and Northern Canada on their experiences in the schools. He’s heard mixed accounts.

“I’ve heard both sides. Stories have been passed down that are horrific, and some stories have been very positive. Neither of these should be forgotten,” said Gagnon.

“But for every positive experience with the residential schools, there’s a negative one. I’ve heard from people who stayed in residential schools right up until their Grade 12 graduation and went on to achieve great things, and I’ve heard stories from people who experienced a lot of abuse.”

More than 150,000 Indigenous students attended Canada’s residential school system. The federal government began phasing out the schools in 1970, and the Anglican-operated Gordon Indian School in Punnichy, Sask., was the final one to close, in 1996.

Twenty-five schools operated in Alberta. The St. Mary’s Mission Boarding School in Cardston, which was run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Sisters of Charity, was the final residential school in the province. The religious staff left the school in 1975.

The separation of children from their families and the suppression of native languages and culture are the roots of the system’s damaging legacy, says Gagnon.

“The one area where they really failed is with the acceptance of language,” he said. “If they were just to say, ‘You can keep your language and you can keep your hair long, we just want to share our God with you,’ then we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.

“It was the imposing of it — that was the most hurtful factor. We had our sacred ceremonies and our own identity that predated our contact with Christianity, and the openness to that should have been there.”

Alan Badger

Alan Badger, an elder at the Kehewin Cree Nation, recognizes the abuses suffered by his people through the residential system, but he has not let that history destroy his own faith in God.  He points to Scripture, noting that the Pharisees illustrated how people who claim to know God can still be corrupted.

For him, the abuses and mistakes of individuals within the Church do not take away from the truth of Christianity.

“I still have my faith because I learned to be a more realistic guy,” Badger said. “In the Bible, it teaches you to distinguish between two groups of people – the true believers and the Pharisees. In my later years I came to realize that some of these people were not the true believers, they were more like the Pharisees.

“What was done to us was not for the good of the Native people and it was not for the good of the Church.”

In recent years, Gagnon has seen an attitude of reconciliation and forgiveness rising among many people — even those who faced the most difficult abuses first-hand.

“Many conversions have happened,” said Gagnon. “Someone once said to me, ‘For the longest time I blamed the Church and I refused to go, because of the sexual abuse and the physical abuse I suffered at the hands of the priest. But when I looked back one day, I realized I was blaming the wrong thing. I shouldn’t have been blaming the Church, I should have been blaming the perpetrator.’”

Archbishop Smith with Elder Fred Campiou on a CBC Radio panel during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2014.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, released July 2015, detailed harrowing accounts of abuse. The report listed the deaths of 3,200 children and more than 31,000 sexual assault cases in the schools. It concluded that the removal of children from their own communities and cultures amounted to cultural genocide.

Allison Badger

That dark history creates challenges for Allison Badger, who hopes to grow the Catholic community in Kehewin.

“The residential schools are definitely one of the barriers. With Truth and Reconciliation a lot of our younger generation are learning more and more, and they see no other side to the Church,” she said.

“It’s hard to get them to understand that it wasn’t God and it wasn’t Jesus that did this. It was people, and people have to be accountable for their own actions. You can’t blame the whole for something only certain people did.

“Those individuals that did wrong to us are going to have to answer to God. But we can’t hold onto that anger.”

When Allison speaks with her friends about the issue, she does not go out of her way to force the faith on them. It’s important to empathize and understand that for many people, the schools brought great pain and trauma, she said.

“Ultimately, it was something that was forced on our people,” Badger explained. “So I don’t say, ‘You should go to church.’ I just tell my friends that this is what we do, and if they are interested they are welcome to join us.”

Her approach appears to have helped in Kehewin’s Our Lady of Mercy Parish, where attendance at Mass has been slowly growing in recent years.

Rev. Jhack Diaz

“There has been so much hurt in this regard, but I see the healing is now in the growing process,” said Rev. Jhack Diaz, the pastor of Our Lady of Mercy. “The faith is growing little by little. In Kehewin there is an increase not only in quantity of people, but in the quality of the faith too.”

In the Métis community of Elizabeth Settlement, 70 kilometres east of Kehewin, Phyllis Collins was continually told by her late mother-in-law, Rose Collins, about her experiences in the residential school system. The schools bring painful memories to many, but for Rose Collins it was where she first knew Jesus. That story has remained with Phyllis ever since.

“Once a nun had told my mother-in-law to clean the chapel, and she was given some water and a rag to wash the floor,” she explained.

“The Stations of the Cross were inscribed along the walls, and it just so happened that the way she started cleaning was from the beginning of His walk and ended at the crucifixion. By the time she got through looking at these pictures, she started to cry. When the sister came in and asked what was going on, she looked up, wiped at her tears and said, ‘Why did they hang this man?’ So the sister sat her down and explained to her all about the life of Jesus.

“So in the residential schools, there was a lot of bad, hurting things, but good things too.”

Grandin College in Ft. Smith, NWT.

Gagnon says Grandin College in Fort Smith stands out as a residential school honoured by northern Indigenous communities. Many community and political leaders in the Northwest Territories, including Premier Bob McLeod and former premiers Stephen Kakwi and Jim Antoine, graduated from Grandin College and have spoken fondly of the school.

The positive legacy of Grandin College is largely owed to the generosity and kindness of its priests, such as founding director Rev. Jean Pochat-Cotilloux, said Gagnon.

In the history of Catholic-Indigenous relations, Gagnon sees the role of individual clergy as a big factor in how communities view the Church.

“There are stories of priests, especially among the Oblates community, that were strong missionaries who really ingrained themselves into the Indigenous way of life,” he said. “They had bestowed upon them a lot of sacred things by the Indigenous people because they were recognized as holy men. I’ve heard stories of priests who have earned the sacred pipe, or have been granted a sacred headdress by Indigenous people.

“These missionaries were exceptionally successfully because they opened up. They came not wanting to change people, but to accept them and to bring the Word of God to them. Those who did that had great success and were well-loved.”

Rev. Manoj Mannakathu, better known as ‘Father Phillip,’ has seen mixed attitudes on the residential schools issue.

In his own time ministering to First Nations people, Rev. Manoj Mannakathu has seen mixed attitudes on the residential schools issue. Better known as ‘Father Phillip,’ the priest has been pastor to the Cree communities of Saddle Lake and Goodfish Lake since 2014.

In these parishes, there are people young and old who have left the Church because of the historic abuses. Some of the church elders, like Pruden, attended a school but did not have bad experiences, and others who had bad experiences now want to reconcile and be active in the Church.

Father Phillip feels the best approach to resolving the challenges created by this controversial history is through forgiveness and a renewed attitude to Church life. Above all, clergy and laity should come together not to dwell on the past, but hope for a better future.

“I cannot blame them or blame the Church. Usually what I say to them is that the past is the past, so let us start a new beginning. Let us grow in the faith and let us walk together today,” he said.

With changes in his parishes  ̶  such as introducing the Cree language into liturgy and actively promoting the Sacrament of Marriage to many of the families at Mass — Father Phillip’s approach is bearing fruit. The priest also makes himself available to parishioners at all times, whenever they need spiritual direction, confession or other help.

In recent years there have been various efforts in Alberta toward reconciliation, including public apologies from the Oblates and the Alberta-NWT Bishops, reconciliation walks, educational seminars, and the incorporation of Indigenous customs and language into the curriculum at Catholic schools.

Newman Theological College in Edmonton is developing new credit course and non-credit seminar initiatives specifically related to ministry with Indigenous people, and the college continues to sponsor the Directions in Aboriginal Ministry summer program in partnership with the Building Bridges program of the Western Bishops.

Shirley Mykituk

“With reconciliation, the school level is really where it all starts,” said Shirley Mykituk, manager with Edmonton Catholic Schools’ Indigenous Learning Services.

Mykituk also works with seminarians in Edmonton’s St. Joseph Seminary when they are assigned to Indigenous parishes.

“We have five schools in the Catholic district dedicated to Cree language programs, and that speaks volumes. To help our youth grow in the faith, we have to make it applicable for them. The students should be able to see themselves in the programming, especially in the Catholic schools because we are encouraging that relationship on the spiritual level.”

Read the entire 3 part Faith and Spirit series:

  1. Deep devotion to the Creator builds bridges between Indigenous and Catholic traditions
  2. Residential history a source of both hurt and healing for Indigenous Catholics
  3. Through devout faith Indigenous Catholics grow their parishes

Through devout faith Indigenous Catholics grow their parishes

Faith and Spirit: Part 3 of 3

Indigenous people make up about 35 per cent of the Catholic population in the Diocese of St. Paul, which covers the northeastern corner of Alberta. Of the 40 communities served by the diocese, 10 are First Nations and four are Métis settlements.

In this three-part series, we meet some of these Indigenous Catholics and learn about both the blessings and the challenges they experience in their relationships with the Church.

As Harriet Favel holds tight to her grandchildren and speaks with a trembling voice, it’s easy to tell her pain runs deep. Since she lost a daughter to suicide last year, Favel has not missed a Sunday Mass at the St. Matthias Church in Goodfish Lake.

Even as she admits that some days she feels too heartbroken to go, in times of such immense loss the Catholic faith is Favel’s place of refuge and her source of healing. The time she spends in prayer and the support of the St. Matthias community are her aids as she mourns her late daughter.

What’s just as important as attending Mass every Sunday is making sure her eight grandchildren are in church with her. Four of them recently celebrated their First Communion.

“I want my grandkids to know their religion, to know that there is a God and that prayer is powerful,” Favel said. “That’s really why I come. My faith is a comfort and God has been a great help.”

Harriet Favel (left) with her grandchildren at St. Matthias Parish in Goodfish Lake. Back row: Thorn Bernard, Chloe Waskahat, Lakeisha Favel and Caige Waskahat. Front row: Anneka Favel, Shayla Favel, Tiana Favel, and Colby Waskahat.

In the Diocese of St. Paul, the Goodfish Reserve on the Whitefish Lake First Nation stands out as a beacon of devout faith. The pews of St. Matthias’ Sunday afternoon Masses are crowded with young and old. The church elders gather in the front rows, young mothers clutch their babies, and the teenagers sit together in a pew.

At the back of the church, the bookshelf is loaded with pamphlets, encyclicals and other books on prayer and Church teaching.

Photos of Bishop Terrio, St Kateri and Pope Francis adorn the walls inside Goodfish Lake Parish.

Hanging above are pictures of Pope Francis, St. Paul Bishop Paul Terrio, and an icon of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, Canada’s first Indigenous saint.

The reputation of Goodfish’s Catholic community is well known across the reserve.

Florence Castor recalled an ecumenical Unity Prayer Week held at various churches in and around Goodfish Lake last year.

The night came for Goodfish’s Catholic community to host the group, and the packed attendance at their Mass brought one visitor to tears.

“An older guy from a nearby Protestant church was just crying because of how full our church was. He was so happy for us,” she said.  “This was an evening Mass on a school night, and they were surprised that there was lots of young people and lots of young families coming. We get that comment a lot.”

There are still many in the community who have strayed from the faith, Castor said, in part because of the history of residential schools. But her persistent prayer is that those people will someday return.

Florence Castor

Castor feels the charitable spirit of the Church will help bring many back. St. Matthias parishioners are working to set up a community food bank, and it’s expected to open this summer.

“We’re a family here; we call ourselves the church family,” Castor said. “And I think a lot of it has to do with a sense of identity. You are a Catholic and you understand the need for that spiritual part of your life. And when families start coming here, they too see the need for God in their lives.”

The high attendance at Mass is partly owed to the presence of the Missionaries of Charity sisters in the community. They come to St. Matthias every Sunday afternoon. They teach the catechism and prepare the children for the sacraments, and ensure the church is cleaned before each Mass.

Sisters of Charity Sr. Maxmilina, Sr. Christena, Sr. Alinda, and Sr. Dymphna.

On highways and dirt roads, Sister Dymphna – their Mother Superior  ̶  and Sister Alinda routinely travel from St. Paul to visit families in Goodfish Lake. When invited into a homes, the sisters listen to the family’s problems and heartaches, and offer to pray the rosary with them.

The children of Goodfish Lake are typically the first to welcome them in the community, said Sister Dymphna.

When the sisters come walking along the dirt roads in their blue and white habits, many of the kids watch from their windows and shout “The angels are here!”

“The sisters play a big role in our faith – teaching us to remain strong and committed,” Castor said. “Whenever I was going through anything, that’s who I turned to. They would always set me in the right direction. I’m really thankful for them; they’ve done a lot for us and our community.”

The Missionaries of Charity have served the Diocese of St. Paul since 1986. Their presence was spearheaded by St. Mother Teresa’s visit to St. Paul in 1982.

Mother Theresa visits St Paul.

While their mission is based out of St. Paul, the sisters’ efforts largely focus on the Cree communities of Goodfish and Saddle Lake.

A common issue in Goodfish and Saddle Lake is the damaging influence of drugs and alcohol, Sister Dymphna said, and a lack of fathers in the households.

Despite the obstacles, a desire for God and prayer is what fills the pews at Goodfish Lake each Sunday, Sister Dymphna said. The Cree are deeply spiritual people, and prayer is seen as a key source of healing.

Layla Mooswa prepares for Communion with Sr. Alinda.

“They want to pray whenever they come to the church because their pain is so deep,” she said.

When Rev. Manoj Mannakathu, better known as Father Phillip, began his ministry at St. Matthias, he too recognized that single-parent households were common among his parishioners.

“I had an experience my first or second month here when there was a baptism in my parish,” he explained. “In our register there is a place for the name of the parents, so I turned to the mother and asked for the name of the father. She said, ‘My child has no father.’”

Because of this, Father Phillip he has now made the Sacrament of Marriage a key part of his mission. Since his time as priest, he has married seven couples in Goodfish Lake.

“My experience in India and Africa is working with two-parent families. There the deep richness of the family is molded in church life,” Father Philip said. “But here I am trying to help them to reclaim these lost coins – and that means reclaiming the family.”

Baptism at St Joseph Pilgrimage: Kim John, Allison Badger, Carlissa Moosepayo (holding baby Kova John-Badger) and Jody John.

“I’m really promoting the Sacrament of Marriage especially for this purpose. The family is the basic structure of our Church.”

Allison Badger of the Kehewin Cree Nation understands the importance of family first-hand.

As she’s grown in her faith, Badger says marriage has become increasingly important for her. It will affirm a permanent and lasting bond between her partner and their four children.

In September, she will be walking the aisle of St. Paul’s Cathedral to marry her longtime partner, Kim John.

Bishop Paul Terrio of the Diocese of St. Paul said he’s thrilled to see Badger getting married and he hopes she can set an example, adding to Father Philip’s efforts to encourage more families to stay together.

Bishop Paul Terrio

“Isn’t it wonderful?” said Terrio. “I’m so grateful and supportive of her. Father Phillip has made progress on that particular pastoral priority as well. Many people have come forward and had their marriages blessed. He’s done very good work.”

Badger said marriage has always been important to her, even as a child.

“Originally I had wanted to get married on St. Joseph’s Hill (in Kehewin) but Bishop Paul Terrio said marriage always needs to be within the church. I said, ‘OK, so long as it’s a priest marrying us.’ That’s very important to me – ensuring that the marriage is blessed.”

“I know a lot of people they go and get married in the outdoors or really pretty places, but for me it has to be in a church. I knew that since I was a little girl.”

Rev. Jhack Diaz

As the diocese and her pastor, Rev. Jhack Diaz, help her prepare for the wedding, Badger said the Church can be a positive force in building family and community.

She also hopes to give back to Kehewin’s Catholic community, especially through her efforts to revitalize the annual St. Joseph’s Hill Pilgrimage. It has been a replenishing source of faith for her since childhood. This year’s pilgrimage will be held Aug. 9-11.

During the event, white crosses are placed along the route as pilgrims walk up the hill. At the summit is an outdoor chapel with an overarching view of Kehewin. As the sun sets and Mass begins, a cross decorated with lights illuminates the hill.

Attendance at the pilgrimage has diminished in recent years. But Badger has made it her mission to ensure it remains a source of faith for the reserve’s next generation.

“The pilgrimage is one of the most influential events in my life. I always remember going there,” Badger said.

“My grandma was a very devout Catholic, and since I was young she would take me. Each day we would get 150 people at least. We would have Gospel singing every evening, and there were campers set up all over.

The annual St. Joseph’s Hill Pilgrimage in Kehewin will be held this year on Aug. 9-11. All are welcome.

“Then over the years, our pilgrimage got smaller and smaller. Now the most we would get is just under 100 people on the Sunday. So I joined the volunteer group and started to help; I really want bring it back to the way it used to be.”

Badger has helped raise funds for new tables, chairs, candles and songbooks. As well, in the last two summers, Badger and other organizers have provided a free breakfast and lunch.

Allison Badger’s nephew Tyshaun Badger

“It’s been growing and hopefully it’s going to get better and better,” said Badger. “I’ve been able to put more word out to people of my generation to come back. We’re trying to see a turnaround.”

Badger is also working to secure provincial government funding to restore Kehewin’s historic Our Lady of Mercy Church by having it declared a provincial historic site. Built in 1915, it’s grey, worn and condemned. Restoring it key to preserving the community’s Catholic identity, she said.

Despite the sometimes difficult history between First Nations and the Catholic Church, Badger hopes local efforts will help create a better future for younger generations. Badger describes her main motivator in two words: “my kids.”

“I don’t ever want to see the faith die,” said Badger, who raises four of her own children as well as a niece and nephew. “I want it to carry it on for generation to generation.”

Read the entire 3 part Faith and Spirit series:

  1. Deep devotion to the Creator builds bridges between Indigenous and Catholic traditions
  2. Residential history a source of both hurt and healing for Indigenous Catholics
  3. Through devout faith Indigenous Catholics grow their parishes