Jesuit in James Bay

Fr. O’Brien and a local family following a baptism

It was far from the ivy-clad office on Queen’s Park and our community house in the leafy neighbourhood near the University of Toronto, but in early April, 2023 I travelled to the frozen landscapes of northern Ontario to spend 2 months of priestly ministry there.

The reason for this assignment was due to St. Ignatius of Loyola, who prescribed that a Jesuit take a year away from his ordinary work to prepare for final vows, including several months with “the poor”. Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, S.J., who was then Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Hearst-Moosonee, informed me that many priests in the North, some coming from Africa, had been unable to have home visits for several years. Going there would give them that opportunity, as well as permit me to live among First Nations people. Soon after, I received news that I’d been appointed Director of the National Shrine to the Canadian Martyrs in Midland, ON, so this time in North would also help prepare me to steward the legacy of the first Christians of Canada, the martyrs both French and indigenous.

Attawapiskat is a community of about 1,000 Cree on the shores of the river of the same name, which flows into the western waters of James Bay. It is connected by winter road to Moosonee, a larger port town and terminal of the Polar Bear Express, a 1930s railroad that makes its way from the south. When the ice melts, like many northern communities, Attawapiskat is accessible only by air.

The town has made its share of headlines in the national news. A decade ago, there was a terrible epidemic of suicides among the youth. There was a housing shortage causing overcrowding and, aside from drugs and alcohol, there was a chronic problem getting clean drinking water. To cap this tragic litany, their 100-year-old church was burned to the ground by arson 3 years ago. Attawapiskat is no stranger to grief, but I found that the people have a great resiliency and a deep faith in God.

Despite the loss of their church, the parishioners gather in the former church hall, now called the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Chapel, while the band office and the diocese plan to rebuild the church. The liturgies are celebrated half in Cree and half in English, as there are still many whose first language is Cree. The parishioners say the readings and hymns in their language, and I learned the regular “priest parts” of the Mass in phonetic Cree.

Parishioners outside of St. Kateri Tekakwitha Chapel in Attawapiskat, ON
The Our Father in Cree

An Oblate named Fr. Rodrigue Vézina lived in Attawapiskat for nearly 45 years, arriving in the early 1970s and staying until 2015, when failing health required him to leave. He was much-loved and the high school is named after him. One of his innovations was to set up a camera that broadcasts the Mass throughout the town. Even if there were only a few people present for a weekday Mass, an untold number may have tuned in to watch it on TV, so I had to be on my toes for the homily! On Sundays I would bring communion to the house-bound and hospitalized, and sometimes do anointings and house blessings on request. I also did a baptism and conducted several wakes and funerals.

When the first month was over, I went down to Moosonee for a second month of ministry. I was based at Christ the King parish, which was historically the hub of Oblate missionary work in the James Bay region. Moosonee is not a reserve, but it is majority Cree, so the church has aspects of indigenous inculturation. A pair of moose antlers lends majesty to the tabernacle, and the stained-glass windows beautifully depict missionaries, saints, and a range of rich indigenous symbols. Every Sunday before Mass, the elders pray the rosary in Cree, and on Pentecost they sang a beautiful hymn to the Holy Spirit.

On Saturday evenings, I travelled by water-taxi to Moose Factory, a town located on an island in the river, and celebrated Mass in the hospital chapel for the small group of Catholics who live there. Moose Factory was founded as a trading post by the Hudson Bay Company in 1673, and is the oldest English-speaking habitation in Ontario.

The legacy of the Residential Schools has taken a toll on the relationship of the Cree to the Church, and many have stopped practicing. But by and large, they have a deep and instinctual faith that manifests in their devotion to the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother, and in their respect for those Oblates who learned their language, taught them the faith, and lived among them. In Attawapiskat, everybody, it seems, wants to see their church rise again.

At the end of 2 months, it was time to return to the south. The parishioners of both towns expressed their kind wishes that I come back some day. For now, the rugged beauty of the north and the presence of Christ in the faces and souls of the people will remain an abiding memory. It was an important preparation for my role as Director of Martyrs Shrine, which is a place where friendship between peoples is celebrated, and where great graces of healing and peace are available to all.

May the legacy of the holy Oblates and Cree in the North, as well as the Jesuit martyrs and Huron/Wendat Christians in the South, animate the renewal of faith in our country, from North to South, East to West, “from the river to the ends of the Earth” (Psalm 72). Miigwech!