By Father Eugene Whyte, O.M.I.
Beauval, a beautiful valley, lives up to its name. And the best view is from the church, St. Mary Magdalene, and the rectory next door. They look out onto the Beaver River, and in the distance, a large pond-like lake, and further still, hills that clearly bear witness to the particular season we are in.
St. Mary Magdalene has been blessed generously over the years, thanks to the fulsome support of Catholic Missions In Canada. About fifteen years ago, the church building received a new steel roof, and it continues to shine brightly in the sun.
A few years ago, a major project involving four stained-glass windows brought in the four windows depicting The Four Evangelists. Aside from these particular efforts, Catholic Missions In Canada continues to fund the missions of Northern Saskatchewan each year.
My own missions are five in number: Beauval, Cole Bay, Canoe Narrows, Pinehouse Lake and Patuanak. They are adjacent to the missions of Father Wendelin Rolheiser, a fellow Oblate missionary who serves Île-à-la-Crosse, Dillon, and Buffalo Narrows.
Challenges of mission work
Such a collection of missions, all about 100 or so kilometres from Beauval, present some challenges at Christmas and Easter, but fortunately Father John Zunti, an Oblate priest now in his eighties, is able to help out over the different seasons. Father John is very familiar with the missions in this area; for several years, he was the only priest responsible for all eleven missions. He is now semi-retired, yet always available to help out.
At St. Dominic parish in Pinehouse, Sunday Mass is celebrated twice a month, and on the other two Sundays, a service in the absence of a priest is celebrated by the local community.
The community has a number of people working farther north in uranium mines as well as in the local community itself. The parish provides catechism preparation for the sacraments and also prepares people for marriage.
St. Louis parish in Patuanak is the home mission of a small Dene community located on a part of Ile-a-la- Crosse lake, at the origins of the Churchill River. The community is very supportive of the Church. Sunday Mass is usually well attended by the community when the priest is present to celebrate Eucharist; this happens two Sundays out of four every month. The financial contributions from Catholic Missions In Canada are important to maintain the church through the very cold winters, and also to provide continuing travel and other expenses for the missionary priest.
There are also many elderly people in Patuanak. They have a limited use of English, but have been blessed for many previous years in having Oblate priests who speak Dene.
Christmas in the missions
Before Christmas, at each of the missions, one or two evenings are spent celebrating a Christmas Vigil. The Church becomes a place conducive to silent waiting—the purpose of Advent—and an empty manger is set up surrounded by judicious lighting, usually candles, to evoke emptiness, and a longing, for the Coming of the Lord. Music from one of the many wonderful Taize CDs is played, and the people are encouraged to wait and pray in silence.
At Advent, we are also blessed with those wonderful feasts of Our Blessed Mother, the Immaculate Conception, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, and they also encourage prayer and devotion to Mary and her son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. The purpose of the Vigils is also to provide a time for Confessions, which are sought after by many in these isolated communities.
All of the missions are blessed with faithful teams of lay ministers who support and encourage the priest and who lead the people in Sunday Services in the absence of a priest. The lay ministers often lead the rosary, a popular devotion in these areas. They are a great testimony to the people, priests, laity and Sisters who served so many years as missionaries in these areas, and they are also a great testimony to the deep faith of the people, a faith that continues to fill me with awe and wonder. Indeed, how good is the Lord!
Oblate Father Eugene Whyte is pastor of five mission churches in Northern Saskatchewan, in the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas.