By Fr. Mark Miller, C.Ss.R.
Over the past couple of years I have been delighted to hear the stories of the confreres who have made the trek to Inuvik at either Christmas or Easter in order to help Fr. Jon Hansen with his quaternity of parishes. Every confrere who has experienced this time in the North has come back full of enthusiasm and with great tales of the landscape and environment, of the people and their customs, and of the faith communities and the people they have met. I can now simply concur.
I did not know quite what to expect when I headed north. I assumed that it would be total darkness since the sun disappeared on Dec. 6th and would not reappear until Jan. 9th. But I was more than pleasantly surprised to see about 4 hours of daylight in Inuvik (slightly less in Tuktoyaktuk) during which it was easy to tour around the town or out on the landscape and to enjoy the (short) day if anything needed to be done. For example, Jon graciously treated me to a dog sled run one beautiful afternoon (see included picture, with thanks to Leo for the pose!) and I could enjoy the quiet, exhilarating ride over the lake and through the taiga with the sun playing red on the clouds near the horizon. The winter landscape has its own beauty both around Inuvik (in the Valley of the Mackenzie River) and over the tundra to Tuktoyaktuk on the shore of the Arctic Ocean.
Even more memorable were the people I met, albeit briefly in many cases. Jon had set up Christmas services at the hospital (where Mass concluded with a spontaneous singing of Christmas carols that even brought the staff!), Christmas Eve Masses in Inuvik and then, after a two-hours’ drive south, Tsiigehtchic (Midnight Mass at 11 pm) while Jon looked after Paulatuk. Even the Sunday Masses on Dec. 24th and Jan. 31st (in Tuktoyaktuk) were well attended. I would have loved to stay and get to know the people better.
In Tuktoyaktuk where I stayed with the amazing Sr. Fay Trombley, scic (who is in her 13th year there), we spent a lot of time preparing one boy for First Communion and two families for baptism (and visiting with many others who dropped by!). It gave me an insight into the need for adult faith formation, but also the thirst among especially these parents to learn for the sake of their children.
I could go on with many other impressions, but I would like to take this opportunity to thank Jon for his commitment to the people of the North, for his embracing of this ministry as a Redemptorist ministry and inviting/involving his confreres in the venture, and for the work that he has done to prepare the way for each of us to celebrate the various services but also to enjoy the territory and the people. Jon will be greatly missed in Inuvik, even though he will make it back as bishop once in a while, but he will make a very fine bishop for these people he so deeply loves and cares for. And I thank Jon for this opportunity that was given to me. Going off into the unknown is a good exercise for stretching one’s mind and heart and I am most grateful for the two weeks I spent amidst his communities and with his support.
Let me conclude by pointing out that it was warmer in the North than what most of you experienced over the Christmas break on the Prairies, in Toronto or the Atlantic provinces. And the people of the North complained! The deep cold of the North freezes the ice on lakes and especially rivers, making travel safer, but global warming seems to have its most pronounced effect on the Arctic. Let us keep that in mind. And, yes, I did see the Northern Lights several times, one of God’s special gifts to the children of the North!
Final Note: This picture of me standing in front of the schooner of Our Lady of Lourdes is particularly meaningful because I was able to read the “Memories of Fr. Robert le Meur, omi” who worked in the North from 1946 til his death in 1985, including over 30 years in Tuktoyaktuk. He became ‘one of the Inuvialuit.’ The schooner was used in the brief summers to transport supplies along the Arctic Coast and the Mackenzie delta. His memories are a wonderful testament to the faith he brought to the North but also the tremendous respect he gained for the Inuvialuit, the people.