By Fr. Tom O’Rourke, C.Ss.R.
When Fr. Jon Hansen asked if I would be interested and willing to come to Inuvik over Christmas to offer pastoral assistance there and say Mass in one of the smaller communities he serves, I gave it some thought, and then eventually agreed, not knowing what to expect except that it would be an adventure for sure. As the departure date drew near, I looked forward to the journey, but would never say that I was excited about it; winter is a season that I endure, and thoughts of experiencing an Arctic winter in such an isolated Northern community was not something on my “bucket list.” I had visions of a week spent in complete darkness, and of having to eat foods like raw Baby Beluga whale and dried beaver meat, and other local delicacies that I’d read about.
I arrived in Yellowknife on December 20 to spend my first night before continuing the journey the next day to Inuvik. As I waited at the baggage carrousel, I was surprised when eventually greeted by Bishop Mark Hagemoen of the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith. He brought me to the Trapper’s Lake Spirituality Centre where I was offered a hot meal, a friendly chat, and a comfortable bed for the night in a lodge-type setting.
I arrived in Inuvik around noon on Tuesday, December 21st. Fr. Jon met me and we spent the rest of the day together prior to his departure for Paulatuk, early the next morning. We shopped for a few groceries, he gave me a quick tour of the town and surroundings, and also oriented me with a crash course on all I would need to know with regard to keeping the church warm and setting up for the various Masses. Our plans for an early Christmas dinner of Chinese food were dashed when we learned the chef was on vacation. Instead, a pub meal at “Chillers” in the Mackenzie hotel would have to suffice. It was quite good.
The next morning, after saying farewell to Fr. Jon, I decided to bundle up and go for a walk through the town. It had all the basics that one would need: a grocery store, drug store, Home Hardware, library, barber shop, coffee shop, souvenir shops, a few churches, and of course, the famous “Igloo Church”. I later took a drive outside of the town, and I was intrigued by the surrounding frozen barren landscape. With its frost covered stunted trees and bushes, it looked harsh and isolated like that of another distant planet.
During my first night, I experienced an uneasy feeling of being alone and vulnerable in a place unfamiliar and so far from home. Thankfully, that feeling was short-lived and soon it felt like I was on a warm and cozy winter retreat. I listened to Christmas music as I relaxed and snacked and prepared for the various liturgies of Christmas and the weekend following.
The first Christmas Mass in Inuvik went well. Although, not every pew was filled, the Mass was well attended and the people were genuinely friendly and welcoming. The lit Christmas trees and the wood pellet fire burning stove in the church helped to create a festive atmosphere on that holy night.
My greatest highlight of the entire week was a trip to a community of about 150 people in a community called Tsiigehtchic, about a two hour drive away, for an 11pm Christmas Eve Mass. They had not had a Midnight Mass there in about ten years. I felt fortunate that a local native man affectionately known as “Big John” and his 8 year old granddaughter accompanied me to Tsiigehtchic that night. Since there was virtually nothing between the two places, and no cell phone coverage, I figured that if something went wrong, my chances at survival, were greatly increased with these two special travelling companions.
We arrived with about ten minutes to spare before the start of Mass. The village seemed very quiet and peaceful. As I walked into the small chapel I was welcomed by the Steiner Family (a mission family from Central BC), and very moved by the chapel filled with aboriginal people, dressed in their finest clothes, who had gathered for Mass, mostly children, youth and elders. It was such a privilege to celebrate the Christmas Mass in this place and among those people. I knew from the start that it was probably one of the most special Christmas Masses that I’ve ever celebrated. After a delicious hot meal at midnight with the Steiner’s and their five children, we set off once again for Inuvik. An extra blessing as we drove back was a momentary glimpse of the Northern Lights that were not outshone by the full moon that magically lit and brightened our way across the winter wonderland.
The rest of the week was not as quiet as the first few days. My social calendar quickly filled up. Jon’s next door neighbour, Sheila, treated me to another tour of the town where I would see the local “warming shelter” and other significant places of interest, and hear stories of some of the local characters. I was invited to Christmas dinner with a family from the parish. I went to a gathering to play board games and enjoy snacks the next night at another parishioner’s home. and then, after a parish Christmas dinner on the Feast of the Holy Family, I was also invited for an afternoon hike on the trails around one of the local lakes, followed by an evening of wine and cheese and good conversation.
The next day on the morning of my departure, I received a text message from Sheila asking if I would be up for one more Arctic adventure. On the way to the airport, we stopped at a local business and I was given the exhilarating opportunity to operate my own dog-sled. After a quick orientation, four energetic and beautiful Huskies whisked me to the top of the lake and back on a ride that I’ll never forget. Surprisingly, they were never startled by my screams as they took off like a shot.
In all, my Northern Arctic experience was a trip like no other. I was fortunate to meet a wide variety of some very faith-filled people and committed people who live and work in the community. I enjoyed chats with some aboriginal youth at the parish soup kitchen, and was impressed by some of their artistic talents as they drew with pencil crayons and paper over lunch. Most of all, I felt blessed to be the recipient of some of the warmest hospitality “North of 60”.