By Father Don Stein
The past Holy Week marked my fifth Holy Week at Our Lady of Grace Mission in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories.
I missed last year because of a serious hip surgery, but was able to find a replacement in the person of Oblate Father Joe Gouthier of Foyer Lacombe in St. Albert, Alberta. He not only replaced me for Holy Week but remained there for one month.
Because of the shortage of priests in the Northern dioceses, they are dependent on volunteer priests to assist them for Christmas and Holy Week. Otherwise, the pastoral leaders in those remote areas have to celebrate these important feasts with lay-led liturgies and Communion services.
The Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith is no exception.
The missions have always been very close to my heart since I was a little boy. My maternal grandmother used to read articles from mission magazines to me.
Although I am a diocesan priest and spent forty-eight years of active ministry in the Archdiocese of Edmonton, I am now free in my retirement to volunteer for services in the North—a dream come true.
I am honoured to travel the long distance from Edmonton to Tuktoyaktuk by plane via Yellowknife, Norman Wells, and Inuvik. I generally take an overnight stop-over on Tuesday of Holy Week in Inuvik to help Father Magnus Chilaka with Confessions. He is the resident priest in charge of the whole area.
Then on Wednesday, I usually take a smaller plane ride to Tuk. This year, Sister Fay Trombley, S.C.I.C., the pastoral Leader in Tuktoyaktuk, came to pick me up in her jeep travelling on the ice road of the Mackenzie River. This is truly a unique experience as the tree line ends just north of Inuvik and the scenery is flat and barren until the pingos near Tuktoyaktuk. It is a good three-hour drive.
This year, I was pleasantly surprised with the completion of the renovated church which is the most remote Northern mission church in the Western Artic. Sister Fay was able to organize the renovations with volunteers from Whitehorse and financial help from the Knights of Columbus and other benefactors from Catholic Missions In Canada.
On the weekend of March 15, the new Bishop of Mackenzie-Fort Smith made his pastoral visit to Tuktoyaktuk to consecrate the renovated church, and to baptize, Confirm and give First Communion to several of the parishioners of all ages. Bishop Mark Hagemoen was a big hit with all and expressed his joy in the pastoral dimension of his first visit.
It is very costly to fly up North. I am blessed to have a benefactor for these trips. I donate my services to the mission.
My first priestly duty was to officiate at a funeral Mass for Bob Steen of Tuktoyaktuk, who died in the Palliative Care Unit at Inuvik. It was held in the school gym to accommodate the large crowd.
My last duty as priest was on Easter Monday just before my departure with the baptism of a 12-year-old girl in the church.
Holy Thursday was special as we had substituted the washing of the feet with the washing of the hands as some had objected to the washing of the feet. However, this year we did the washing of the hands— then I offered anyone who wanted their feet washed to come forward, and, to our surprise, everyone came forward. In the missions, it sometimes takes time to follow the rubrics.
The Good Friday service went well. I processed with the three invocations, “Behold the Wood of the Cross…,” before I invited them to come for the Veneration of the Cross. I recited the prayer, “Hang it on the Crossm” which made it more meaningful.
The Easter Vigil was impressive with the lighting of the Easter Candle. In the sharing of the light, I lit the first candle to the first elder—also a pastoral leader, Jean Gruben. The second time, the light was shared by all the other elders. Then, at the third “Christ Our Light,” all shared the Light of Christ with one another thus ushering in the “Exultet.” All seven readings of our Salvation history were read.
Easter Sunday was attended by a large group. Many were from the Anglican parish who had no priest and who came and joined us for Good Friday and Easter.
On Good Friday evening, we had the Way of the Cross, and I made myself available for Confessions. Almost all who attended went to Confession—a true time of grace. That evening, Sister Fay and I were called to the Community Health Unit to anoint a parishioner who had had a stroke.
So once again I was blessed with a wonderful pastoral experience of Holy Week, way up in Tuktoyaktuk.
I am impressed with the wonderful work that Sister Fay Trombley and parishioners are doing in this remote community. They have a very active St. Vincent de Paul Society and are trying to extend it to the neighbouring mission in Paulatuk. Sister has a jeep available to help the young men learn how to drive a standard transmission, so they are able to drive when they leave Tuk for work elsewhere. She obtained a mini-school bus which is being used by the community school and also available to the elderly to go berry-picking in the summer.
The pastor, Father Magnus Chilaka in Inuvik, tries to keep in touch with the mission but can only make it to Tuk every sixth weekend. However, the parish is active and vibrant but still needs our attention and support.
One is overwhelmed with the distances up North and moved by the tremendous work of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, especially the work of the Oblate Brothers and Grey Nuns and other religious communities who pioneered the Church in the North.
Our prayers and support go with these communities as they continue to struggle and survive.
Father Don Stein is a retired priest from the Archdiocese of Edmonton, Alberta.