Beginning in 2010, Sister Divinia Pedro, CSJ served as pastoral assistant in Fort St. James, BC at Our Lady of the Snows Parish, a community that is 80 percent Indigenous. Aside from parish work, she visited Indigenous peoples in homes, hospitals, shelters, drop-in centres and prisons, giving support and spiritual guidance. In 2023, Sister Divinia bid a sad farewell to Fort St. James and returned to Toronto.
It was a difficult moment when I came to realize that my time in Fort St. James had come to an end. I felt and continue to feel deep sadness in leaving, yet very thankful. The last 12 years have changed me forever. I remember reading a quote from the review of the book Ministry to Prisoners and Families: “We are all God’s people called to be a healing community in the midst of brokenness around us.” As a Sister of St. Joseph, this has shaped my ministry in Fort St. James.
When I visited Fort St. James in 2009, I did not know anything about residential schools. My eyes were opened when I attended a Returning to Spirit reconciliation workshop. As I listened to the people and their individual stories, I came to realize the depth of pain experienced by Indigenous peoples in the residential school system and its intergenerational effects in their lives.
My understanding of poverty has deepened and expanded from economic poverty to the greatest poverty of all which according to Mother Teresa is “the poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for.”
I have heard Indigenous people speak of how they felt unloved and unwanted. They felt the government, with the cooperation of the churches, tried to “kill the Indian in them” by the attempt to take away their culture, their history, their teachings, and their language. I remember a couple of instances when a person blamed me and the Catholic Church for their poverty. It has taught me to be humble by asking for forgiveness for the role of the Church in the residential school and its intergenerational trauma.
It has been a joy and a blessing for me to learn how to sing and pray in the native Carrier language of the Indigenous community we serve in and outside of our parish, especially the elders. They taught me how to read their prayers, especially the Stations of the Cross every Friday in Lent. I incorporated the Carrier version of the basic prayers Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be into the book that we use for wakes and funerals. When I was there, I used to sing and pray with elders in Carrier on Sunday masses, wakes and funerals. This for me is my small way of journeying with them toward reconciliation.
The Indigenous elders shared with me their deep faith despite their painful past. They taught me their practices: drumming, singing, putting up gravestones, their sweat lodge. I loved drumming and singing with them. They also introduced me to their food: moose, deer, salmon, beaver, and the Indian ice cream. I love them all except the ice cream. Every time one of the elders saw me, she would say, “Sister, I cannot forget how you looked. Your face looked as sour as our ice cream!”
Another important part of my ministry was visiting the prison. Listening with my heart and not simply with my ears, to their stories of pain, suffering and loving, emphasized to me what Pope Francis told us: Do not judge.
It was a joy for me to see people recover from their hardship, like finding steady jobs, rebuilding their relationships with family and friends, and moving forward. I am grateful for how they welcomed me into their homes and into their hearts. They allowed me to walk with them in their pain, in their joy, and some of them even called me part of their family. My ministry with the First Nations people of Fort St. James is on a person-to person-basis and not on a large scale. My 12 years there are years of loving and living our charism of inclusive and reconciling love.
Our faith and the church invite us to reach the people on the streets, in drop-ins, in shelters, in prisons, in homes, to people who are lonely, who are vulnerable, who feel lost, who need support, who need kindness. This, for me is the path, to the journey of reconciliation. How I wish I could have done more and gone farther in our collective journey to reconciliation.
Article reprinted with the permission of Sr. Divinia Pedro CSJ, from Journey for Justice, a newsletter of the Ministry for Social Justice, Peace and Creation Care, Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto. It has been abridged to fit this format.