Article by Fr. Jon Hansen, C.Ss.R.
Tulita, NT is a small village located 200 km south of the Arctic Circle where the Great Bear River intersects the Mackenzie on its course north to the Arctic Ocean. In North Slavey, the language of the Dené who live here, Tulita means, “Where the waters meet”.
I arrived in Tulita, at the invitation of Murray Chatlain, Bishop of the Mackenzie-Fort Smith Diocese, to be with the people for the Christmas Masses. Tulita has a history of Catholicism which goes back nearly 400 years and the people still have a very strong devotion to the Eucharist as was evident in the close to 200 people who filled the church for Christmas Eve midnight Mass. What is notable is that this faith is sustained in the virtual absence of clergy. One priest serves this vast “Sahtu” region west of Great Bear Lake. The territory consists of five communities separated by hundreds of kilometres of wilderness with no roads except in the depths of winter when the muskeg bogs get firm enough to support traffic and the Mackenzie River freezes over.
In Tulita the faith community is served by a Felician Sister by the name of Celeste who has lived in the village for the past thirty years. Besides animating the parish community Sr. Celeste also manages the preschool, a school which she began shortly after she arrived. It is here, through her work with the children, that she best finds a way to connect with the families and after so many years she is like family to many of the community residents. But not all the communities are so lucky to have such a faithful “Religious” presence.
The land around Tulita is starkly beautiful with the distant peaks of the Mackenzie mountain range serving as a backdrop to the wide expanse of the frozen Mackenzie River. Towering above the Great Bear River standing as a sentinel over the village is Bear Rock (pictured at left), the mountain bluff which plays an important role in the creation myths of the local culture. The people here are closely tied to the land but at the same time fear that the youth are not picking up the traditions that have sustained this community for so many generations. It is a fear which is grounded in a harsh reality.
Tulita, like many communities in the north, suffers from the great changes that have swept through the past couple of generations leaving many to wonder what, in the wake of the modern world, is the best direction for the community to follow. Too often in this struggle it is the young people who suffer most as they find themselves caught between the expectations of their elders to follow traditional ways and the lure of greater opportunities in the larger centers to the south, opportunities for which they are sometimes ill prepared.
Despite these big questions the greatest impression left on me was that of a people who were warm and hospitable. They were people who loved to tell stories and to laugh. These were people who welcomed me and made me feel like I was an old friend who had returned from afar. These were a people who knew that God walked with them both in times of celebration and in times of difficulty and sorrow.
On the last morning of my stay I paused as I was loading my gear into the truck that was taking me to the airport. Looking up into the pitch black Arctic morning sky filled with stars I strained my eyes hoping to catch a glimpse of the northern lights. There was none to be seen but I was not disappointed. I had come to Tulita to bring Christmas, to bring Christ in the Eucharist and the people had welcomed that gift in a way that the Holy Family had never experienced in their journey through Bethlehem on that first night so long ago. In doing so they gave me the best Christmas present I could have hoped for.