By Fr. Leo English, C.Ss.R.
“We are in this together” was the catch phrase that we – Sr. Fay Trombley scic, Andrea Wan, and I – used during the busy 2016 Christmas season in the most northerly settlement of mainland Canada – Tuktoyaktuk or Tuk, as it is affectionately known, in the Northwest Territories.
Now that I have been in northern Alberta for a while, I have become more and more aware of the pastoral ministry needs of Canada, especially the more northerly parts of the country. After a conversation with our community at St Joseph’s in Grande Prairie, Alberta, I spoke with Jon Hansen C.Ss.R. in Inuvik and offered to go to Tuk for 10 days – to work along side Sr. Fay and Andrea. There is no resident priest in Tuk and so I wanted to make myself available. Sr. Fay is a Sister of Charity of Saint John, New Brunswick who has faithfully ministered in Our Lady of Grace Parish in Tuktoyaktuk for the past 12 years. Andrea is a pre-social work student from Leduc, Alberta who is studying in Whitehorse and has a passion for ministry among Tuk’s indigenous people. What a great experience to live and minister together in the Delta-Arctic region of the Mackenzie-Fort Smith Diocese, an area that includes Inuvik, Tuktoyaktuk, Paulatuk and Tsiigethtchic. I salute Steve Morrisey, Tom O’Rourke and David Purcell who have also previously ministered in the area.
After a journey down to Edmonton from Grande Prairie, I set off on another flight to Yellowknife and overnighted at Trapper’s Lake, a retreat center just outside the city. The next day it was off to Norman Wells; I finally landed in Inuvik to overnight with Jon. On Thursday, the 22nd, Jon and I set out on the 185 kilometer ice road highway into Tuk. The road runs on the Mackenzie River and across parts of the Beaufort Sea/Artic Ocean before coming to Tuk.
There were full days in Tuk; we had the Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, coupled with baptism preparation and baptisms celebrated on New Year’s Day. We made home visits and welcomed parishioners to eat with us after each church service. Our three-person team was also involved in planning and celebrating the funeral Mass for a 35-year old Indigenous man from Whitehorse with family ties in Tuk. One evening we hosted his family of 13 people at Sister Fay’s house, where she operates a food bank and works with a St Vincent de Paul used clothing store – there were many requests for help over the season and she was undaunted by all of them. Posted schedules are casually observed, to say the least!
On Christmas morning in Tuk, I had the golden opportunity to see spectacular Northern Lights at 3am. Sr. Fay brought me to see the Northern glory, and as we stood in reverent silence; she whispered “God is dancing at the birth of His Son.” These were words and images that made Christmas come alive in my heart.
I found faith-filled, hospitable people with a deep respect for the land and with a tremendous pride of place. It is not everyone who can live in a land of two hours of twilight during a long winter and 24 hours of daylight in a brief summer season. In a land far above the tree line, traditional dress and dancing, jigging and feasts are real expressions of a lively people and culture. I had a taste of all that was offered, and I am so grateful. I experienced Tuk’s trademark pingos, or hills formed after a combination of soil and ice; along with trucks, ski-doos, sled dogs, and wind “blows” that come upon the land from the Arctic Ocean, almost unexpectedly and with little compassion, Tuk has its own unique landscape and people.
It takes a very special grace and aptitude to minister in Tuk. I salute with gratitude and send very best wishes and prayers to those called to northern life. Jon, Sr. Fay and Andrea – best wishes and God’s grace and favour upon each of you in the New Year ahead. Thank you for the opportunity to accompany you on your mission in Canada’s North.
“We are in this together!”