Fr. Bill Bernard, C.Ss.R.
Our appointments this summer brought about a big change for me. Archbishop Gerry Pettipas had asked me if I was willing to take on the job of Episcopal Vicar for the Aboriginal people in his diocese. When I expressed my willingness, the question went to our Provincial Council. The result was my appointment to this new office, and along with it, the responsibility of giving pastoral care to four small aboriginal places: Grouard, Peavine, Gift Lake and Atikameg (Whitefish Lake). Grouard is a hamlet that borders on a small reserve. Atikameg is a reserve. Gift Lake and Peavine are Metis settlements. (These have official status in Alberta.) The home base for me is Grouard, where the original cathedral of the Archdiocese was built and is still in use. It’s a designated historical building and contains paintings done by the first Vicar Apostolic, Bishop Grouard himself. Right now it’s in the process of restoration.
I really haven’t done anything concrete yet in terms of my job as Episcopal Vicar for Aboriginal people. Getting a start in the parishes has taken up my time. There hasn’t been a resident priest here in twenty years, so house and office had to be set up from scratch; and the kinds of pastoral care that a resident priest provides (for example, weekday Masses, regular times for the sacrament of reconciliation, sick visitation, local sacramental preparation) had to be re-established.
It took me only a few weeks to get a feel for the spiritual state of the parishes; and in many cases it isn’t pretty. Ironically, my home base is the toughest. If there are five people from Grouard at Sunday Mass, it’s a good turnout. We do get more than that most Sundays, many of them from the Alcohol Rehab Centre on the reserve next door. In the other places, the situation varies. The sheep nearest the shepherd are the best fed. I get to the outlying places regularly, but for a lot of the day-to-day stuff, each one has a contact person appointed by the bishop. These are a great help.
I wish I could report that the churches are starting to fill up. But that’s not the case. But I have taken a couple of initiatives in the attempt to open some contacts with the young people. The most recent has been that I have been given permission by the school board to teach catechism once a week in the Grouard public school. (Fortunately, one of the East Indian priests who had been visiting Grouard from High Prairie taught catechism in the school regularly some years ago. This must have left a good impression.)