Gifts of Indigenous Ministry

Left to Right: Bishop Emeritus Gerald Wiesner OMI, Eugene Warnke OMI, Viola Bens OSE

Those who engage in the service of others often state that in doing so, they receive more than they give.  These are certainly the sentiments of 10 Sisters, 4 priests and a bishop, all of whom have ministered among the Indigenous people of Western and Northern Canada and who now live at Trinity Manor, a Catholic retirement residence in Saskatoon.

In interviews for this magazine, they named some of the gifts they received in their ministry and expressed ways in which their own spirituality has been enriched by Indigenous spirituality.

For 20 years, Bishop Emeritus Gerald Wiesner, OMI served as the Chief Shepherd of the Diocese of Prince George, BC.  After many years in academic and leadership roles, this appointment called him beyond his previous experience.  However, from the moment the elders of the Dakelh people wrapped him in a colorful blanket amid applause following his episcopal ordination, he felt he belonged.  Their gift to him was their desire to make a contribution to bring their faith to life.  He was always inspired by their enthusiasm and commitment to involvement in the life of the church.

Similar enthusiasm was the gift named by Sr. Marie Gartner, SMS, who for 9 years served as a community support worker among the Sushwap people, Chu Chua, near Kamloops.  Having never met an Indigenous person prior to her arrival in British Columbia, she had come filled with fear, but was so warmly accepted that she discovered strengths she didn’t know she had.  She quickly became ‘part of the family’ as the people worked together to build up church and community life. She appreciated their gentleness and kindness and was inspired by their love of the sacraments and their practical spirituality. 

For 8 years she served as parish life director among the Blackfoot people at Brocket, Alta.  Their gift to her was their strong commitment to native traditions, especially their devotion to Mother Earth.  From them she learned to allow her white tradition to be stretched to become more holistic and spiritual.  She gained much from their spirit of generosity and freedom in sharing the blessings of their cultural heritage.

Six of the Trinity Manor residents served in Northern Saskatchewan.  Fr. Albert Ulrich, OMI was pastor for 11 years among the Cree at Sandy Bay, Beauval and Buffalo Narrows.  The gift of faith he received was their total reliance upon God for everything.  His own faith was particularly enriched by the humility of those who achieved sobriety after much struggle and yet regarded their success as “all God’s work.” 

Sr. Leona Meier, SMS ministered among the Cree people at Ile a la Crosse and drew inspiration from their deep devotion to Mary.  “She was their protector; the one they turned to in trouble.”  The rosary was the first prayer they learned and the prayer they said when they were ill or dying.  “It was like their key to heaven,” she said.

Fr. Wendelin Rolheiser, OMI served in Northern Saskatchewan for 11 years.  The gift he received from the Cree people was the great respect they held for him as a priest. Finding them very welcoming and friendly, he felt that they valued his presence.  They loved to visit at the rectory for hours.  He particularly cherished the memory of a blind parishioner who found his way across a crowded room to approach Fr. Wendelin. With a broad smile, the man said, “I recognize your voice; I want to shake your hand.”

Those who engage in the service of others often state that in doing so, they receive more than they give.

In her work as a teacher in Ile a la Crosse and LaLoche, Sr. Viola Bens, OSE also trained adults to teach religion in the schools.  Their gift to her was their eager desire to pass on their religious beliefs to their children.  She stated that her own faith was enriched by their deep trust in God and their desire to do His will.  She was particularly inspired by one family’s struggle to forgive the perpetrator of a serious crime.  Amid profound suffering, they sought to be free of the burden of hatred they would carry if they refused to forgive.  Sr. Viola supported them in their struggle and accompanied them to the prison to express their forgiveness to the perpetrator in person.

From his 10 years of Indigenous ministry, Fr. Eugene Warnke, OMI singled out the gifts he received among the Dene people of Patuanak.  “They saw God everywhere,” he said, “and they were remarkably open in talking about what the Lord had done in their lives.”  He found them to be very prayerful and “at the drop of a hat” they would sing hymns in either French, English, Latin, Dene or Cree.  When he visited their homes, they welcomed him with a prayer.  Each summer upon returning from the week-long pilgrimage at Lac Ste Anne, they would continue the pilgrimage for another 4 days. 

For 40 years, 2 Sisters of Our Lady of Sion served at Rossbrook House in inner city Winnipeg and taught in 3 schools for Cree and Ojibway children and youth. Originally sponsored by St. Ignatius Parish, an elementary program was started by Sr. Margaret Hughes. The school was named Wi Wabigooni (flower just opening) by an elder in prayer. The gift Sr. Margaret received from her students, aged 6 to 12 years, was their sense of and response to Creator.  From them she learned to celebrate what you have, enjoy life and find ways to laugh.  They had a strong sense of community and connection to their ancestors.  Every May when they celebrated a Pow Wow, the children would lead the grand entry in dancing. As she danced with them on the field, she felt a great connection with the earth.

The gift that Sr. Bernadette O’Reilly received from her Junior High students at Eagle’s Circle School and Senior High students at Rising Sun School was experiencing joy at their achievements.  For example, at the recent installation of the first Indigenous principal of the 3 schools, she happily recalled the day this university-educated, competent administrator had arrived as a timid little girl. Another gift was her students’ commitment to their studies and their determination to develop their talents.  From the people in general, Sr. Bernadette named the gifts of their transparency, trust in the Sisters and strong sense of community.

At the request of the Inuit and Dene people in the North West Territories, Fr. Andre Poilievre spent 5 years training young Indigenous adults to assume management roles in 32 Co-Ops serving 68 communities.  Initially established by Oblate missionaries, these Co-Ops were administered by people from the provinces.  As he worked with Indigenous trainees and Boards of Directors, Fr. Andre experienced the gift of a profound awakening that was both awe-inspiring and painful.  He discovered how very knowledgeable the Inuit were as survivors in a nomadic system in a harsh environment.  Eminently practical, they had developed a strong culture based on sound social and economic structures. On the other hand, he also realized how oppressive colonialism has been in imposing paternalistic structures and foreign traditions on them. 

From the Dene people who lived among less harsh conditions, he learned a different world view.  He was impressed by their deep sense of community, strong sense of solidarity and tremendous respect for everyone, especially their elders.  With no vertical authority structures, their decisions are reached by consensus.  He marveled at their philosophical, poetic and artistic gifts and their readiness to engage in political discussions.  His associations with Indigenous communities at places such as Rankin Inlet, Fort Wrigley, Iqaluit, and Gjoa Haven put, in his words, “order in my search for meaning,” prompting him to dedicate his life to the service of Indigenous people.

Fr. Andre then taught for 10 years at the Native Survival School in Saskatoon, a high school later named Joe Duquette and then Oskayak.  Here he taught Native Studies and Native Survival Skills drawing upon his experience in the North and his heightened awareness of colonial oppression of First Nations.  He also received many tangible gifts from these Indigenous communities.  His carvings, sculptures and artifacts are periodically on display at Trinity Manor for all to admire and appreciate.

The Sisters and priests at Trinity Manor also shared in the challenges, difficulties and crises faced by these Indigenous communities.  In these interviews, however, they were invited to focus on the gifts they received as they lived the reality of the opening statement of the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World: “The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor and afflicted, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well” (Gaudium et Spes, 1).