Ministering in the Northwest Territories

posted on 03/12/21 03:13 pm by Kathy McMerty  

Behchoko- By Fr Mick Fleming, C.Ss.R.

The community of Behchoko is the largest First Nations community in the Northwest Territories, located near the North Arm of Great Slave Lake.

Behchoko was formally known as Rae-Edzo, the name was officially changed under the Tlicho agreement in 2005. Behchoko in the Tlicho language means, “Big Knife,” and it is comprised of three communities, Rae, Edzo and Frank Channel. The population is a little over two thousand and run by an independent Community Government.

Fr. Bill Bernard and I arrived in the Diocese of Mackenzie – Fort Smith on August 30th. After three days of orientation with Bishop Jon Hansen C.Ss.R and his team at the chancery, we arrived in Behchoko on Sept 4th. Fr. Bill will be ministering at the Parish of Our Lady of Providence in Fort Providence and I will be responsible for St. Michael’s in Behchoko and St. Peter’s in Wekweeti, formally known as Snake Lake, a community of about 100 people.

In early September the Covid-19 situation became a serious threat in the community. Thus we entered into containment and it lasted for two months. The local government put into place a blockade at the entrance into the hamlet. Only essential entering or leaving the community was permitted. They did an excellent job in containing the spread of the virus. Thank God on November 9th it ended.

For over two months we were only allowed to live-stream our Sunday Mass for the people. During this time I had nine funerals with only 10 people permitted into the Mass. The burial for each person is done by the family and community members (see picture at left). I took my turn at each funeral to help. A funeral usually lasts about four hours from the time we gather at the church to the placing of the flowers on the grave after the burial is completed.

During the month of October we used facebook to live–stream the rosary. It was well received by the people. Behchoko is a very faith filled community, strong in their love of God and in their care for one another.

With the start of November we entered into the dark season with shortened daylight. We began with a celebration for All Souls on the 2nd. After the homily we held a candle light ceremony to honor the twenty-four members who died in the past year as well to honor those buried in our community cemetery. This celebration was also live-streamed for the community.

Despite the challenges we faced as a community, as of last Friday, we are now COVID free (after reaching a high of nearly four hundred cases).

On November 14th we were given an exemption for our first public Mass with 25 fully vaccinated people allowed to attend.

I am happy to report that the NT Government has given us permission to have three weekend celebrations with fifty people able to attend.

I am excited as we have a number of families waiting to baptize their children. And ready to welcome the Advent season and get busy planning our Christmas celebrations.

Ft Providence – By Fr. Bill Bernard, C.Ss.R.

Late last August, Mick Fleming and I set off from Saskatoon to start our trip to Yellowknife, our first Northwest Territories stop before taking up our new ministry. We spent our first night with our confreres at Villa Marguerite, a second night at a hotel in High Level, Alberta; and our third night at Trappers Lake Spiritual Centre outside of Yellowknife – altogether a 2,000 km. trip. After a few days’ orientation with the staff at the Diocesan Centre, off we went to Behchoko, our home base.

We had presumed that the two of us would be living and serving at Behchoko (rhymes with “Mexico”) 100 km. northwest of Yellowknife. (It used to be called Rae-Edzo.) There were to be two outmissions we would also serve – once a month for Sunday Mass at a settlement called Wekweeti (a fly-in place not far from the Diavik diamond mines) and Fort Providence, 200 km. southwest of Behchoko.  However…the bishop told us when we got here that he really felt that Ft. Providence needed someone on location – so I got that job. Mick has been holding the fort at Behchoko. Behchoko had a high number of covid cases and was locked down for quite some time. As of last Friday, they are now COVID free so life should be getting back to something more normal soon. Once the covid crisis cools off, Mick will start going to Wekweeti; the two of us will alternate going out to Wekweeti. 

Fort Providence has about 500 residents. It’s on the highway leading from Alberta to Yellowknife, where the highway crosses the Mackenzie River. It’s one of the oldest missions in the North – established in 1836. The main church, which we use only in the summer because of the high heating costs, was built alongside the old residential school in the early 1930’s. Several beautiful oil paintings – a large painting of Our Lady of Providence over the altar and a set of painted Stations of the Cross, are in the church, along with two large banners made by local artists. We use a much smaller building as our winter church (pictured above). It is small, but it easily holds the current Sunday crowd – between 12 and 17 people.

There hasn’t been a priest living here for some time, so the people are glad to have “their own” priest again. And I’m happy to be here. The only thing that needs some adjusting is getting used to being so far from everything. But there are compensations. The river is right in front of my living room window – a magnificent, swift-flowing river; and we get some interesting wildlife coming into town from time to time. A herd of about a dozen wood buffalo came through a few weeks ago to mow our lawns and leave fairly large calling-cards on them, and another group of them is roaming through town right now. But they are generally calm creatures – as long as you treat them with a little respect. 

Two Sundays ago we began First Communion preparation classes – the local custom is to have First Communions at the Christmas Eve Mass. There has been no covid in Fort Providence so far, so it will be fairly easy to work within the restrictions. There is a three-person team leading the programme, a group in place before I came here. I hope that this will be a first step to start up religious instruction for the children again. The plan is to get these young people also to help set up the crib at the Christmas Eve Mass, and then to invite them to come to Bible Story classes starting in the new year: Old Testament stories for Grades 1 to 3, and Jesus stories for Grades 4 to 6.

For the month of November, I tried a little project. Priests serving here had collected memorial cards of deceased parishioners for many years. I got them together and mounted them on the wall behind the altar of our small church. People loved the idea. Last Sunday, at the end of Mass, I invited people to come up after Mass to have a closer look. I didn’t expect that some of them would think the Mass was over at the first words of the closing hymn – I almost had to fight my way out of the sanctuary! It’s another sign of how much the Dene people generally hold their deceased dear.

Our ministry is just getting started in both our places. Think of us as you work in your own fields of the Lord’s work.

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