By Fr. Leo English, C.Ss.R.
At the invitation of Bishop Jon Hansen in the Diocese of Mackenzie–Fort Smith, I travelled to Fort Good Hope in the north west of the North West Territories. This was my third Christmas to be with the people of that community and, as before, I was given a truly memorable Christmas from Epiphany people. In the land of so much darkness – they were the light!
It was both dark and cold at minus 47 when I stepped out of a pickup truck in Colville Lake after a four hour drive on a winter road, the only time of year when they have a road; otherwise, all travel is by air. I felt like I had been in a blender after the long journey! The driver wanted to share on many levels and he had me as a captive audience, driving across the Arctic Circle north into Colville, a town further out from Fort Good Hope, where I had arrived 2 days previously. The driver’s words and heart were tender and real, as he unburdened himself. What a humbling experience on Dec 25th. A number of other people also wanted to go to confession on that Christmas Day. I asked the people to say their act of contrition in their Slavi language and reassured them that God spoke Slavi.
The parishioners at Colville Lake went through great pains to set up a generator outside their log church which was wonderfully prepared for the Christmas mass. The wood stove burned as hard as it could to take the bite out of the air. At about halfway through the mass, the generator died, and the good people assembled in the church turned on their phones so that I could read the prayers from the missal. I debated putting on my winter coat over the vestments, and relented. At the end of the mass, people sang Silent Night, while warming themselves with the heat of a wood stove. The generosity, simplicity and faith of these Slavi people was overwhelming to me. Each conversation and gesture during the mass, were epiphany moments and in a very real sense they made my Christmas!
Off we then went to the Youth House in the town for a feast. We had caribou, seal and other meats, all laid out in a festive banquet. The elders were the first in the food lineup and great care was given so that they could have tea and coffee served to them, rather than have them line up again. Four of us left Colville Lake at 9:15 pm for the return trip back to Fort Good Hope. About 15 kilometers outside of Fort Good Hope we discovered that we had a flat tire. With the road being so rough it took a while to notice that something was terribly wrong. The tire was in shreds! It reminded me of a cloth mop that had been put into the wringer on a scrub bucket to clean the kitchen floor.
What absolutely amazed me was how calm and reasoned everyone was about the incident. They were not fazed by the hour – after midnight – the temp of minus 47, or the circumstances. By the grace of God, Wilbert had a satellite phone that he used to reach a friend who came to our rescue. It was easier to let our pickup truck continue to run there on the side of the road. Getting it restarted in those temps would be impossible, so we let the Good Samaritan drive us home in his vehicle. I was dropped off at about 1:30 am.
This story unfolded in such a short space of time that only now am I fully unpacking it. I walked away from the whole experience humbled by their reaction to this roadside emergency and how they embraced the generator quitting. They are a people well accustomed to dealing with the curve balls of life found in northern towns in the dead of winter. Their calm manner is something I need more in my own life! It was so truly important for them to celebrate Christmas Day mass, and it showed at every level. I am grateful beyond measure for having celebrated the Lord’s birth in the NWT.