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Children were forbidden to speak Indigenous languages – now a choir will sing in Cree for the Pope

22 July 2022

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Looking together at the themes of mercy, healing and reconciliation, members of the choir carefully chose music to support Pope Francis’ journey to walking together at his Papal Mass taking place at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton on July 26, 2022.

The choir will play a pivotal role not only in the Mass but in the continued work of reconciliation between the Church and Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Karen Koester is the choir coordinator and has recruited members from parishes across Edmonton. Johanna Dietrich is the choir director and conductor. She has carefully curated the choral music around the papal visit’s theme, “Walking Together,” on the path of healing and reconciliation. Some lyrics are written specifically for the papal Mass, and the choir will sing one hymn in the Cree language.

While none of the choir members are fluent in Cree, they are diligently practicing for when they sing before the Holy Father and the many indigenous elders and survivors in attendance. When asked about the choir, one of the tenors, Kevin Napora, replied that it is much larger than anything he has done in his past ten years singing.

“It’s scary! We don’t learn this much music in one sitting,” said Napora. “It’s a giant learning curve for me.”

Napora is a member of the Dene First Nation, born in Inuvik, and he moved to Edmonton shortly after finishing fourth grade up north. The papal visit is especially meaningful for him as his mother was a residential school survivor.

“I don’t know about other families, but my family was really kind of broken by that,” said Napora. “None of my family went to Church. Once they graduated, that was it; they never went back to Catholicism.”

However, in his youth, Napora felt drawn to the Church and often attended Mass on his own. Sacred music played a decisive role in his faith. “As a kid, I loved Gregorian Chant, “said Napora. “Loved it but never heard it. I would only hear it on records and stuff that I had.”

After a period away from the Church, Napora started attending Traditional Latin Mass and invited his mom to come with him. “I thought she might be a bit traumatized because it was what she had learned when she was a kid,” said Napora. “She ended up really liking it.” In time, his mom even began to sing in the parish choir. Together they attended Pope St. John Paul II’s papal visit to Edmonton in 1984.

“She had really come back to embracing the Church again,” said Napora. “I know my mom would have loved this.”

Singing in Cree will be challenging for the choir but incredibly significant for the healing of survivors. During the choir practice at St. Thomas Moore Church on July 14th, Cree Elder and day school survivor Betty Letendre taught the choir the pronunciation of the lyrics in the Cree language.

Letendre attended day school in northeastern Alberta before moving to Edmonton almost sixty years ago. She now works for the Edmonton Catholic School Division and founded their Council of Elders. She has taught Cree for over 30 years.

Singing in Cree before the Holy Father will be a historic moment in the path of reconciliation. It is one of the many indigenous languages that children were forbidden to speak at residential and day schools.

 “We suffered so much. We had to eat soap and get hit when we spoke our language,” said Letendre. “We would be beaten and hit. So when this hymn is sung in Cree, it’s like this is how powerful and resilient our languages are, when we sing this for the whole world to hear.”

As the choir will sing in less than a week, they are working tirelessly for their critical part in the Holy Father’s “pilgrimage of penance.” While singing in Cree will necessitate hours of practice, it is crucial to the path of reconciliation. The culture that was once forbidden will now hold a place of honour before Pope Francis, and the 65,000 people gathered in the Commonwealth Stadium for holy Mass.

“When I hear our language being sung at such a high mass to the highest Holy Father there is, for me, I guess you could say that’s forgiveness in itself,” said Letendre. “Let the people know they have a voice.”

Priority seating is given to Indigenous peoples who wish to attend the papal Mass in the Commonwealth stadium. Please register by emailing commonwealth@papalvisit.ca.

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