A child once asked Sister Sheila, ‘Does God know how kind you are?’ to which she responded, ‘No, my darling, I think you need to tell Him.’
By Anne Hanley
As parish life coordinator at Tshukuminu St. Anne mission, Sister Sheila Fortune, C.S.J., has lived and ministered among the over 800 residents of the Innu community of Natuashish for the past four years.
Located 300 km (or a two-hour plane trip) north of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Natuashish is an inland Labrador community accessible year-round only by small plane, and by plane and boat in the summer months—when winter ice has melted.
Her ministry in Natuashish she says is one of being present. “There is no healing without presence,” she says. “It`s so important to empower people. How can I best support the good things they do?”
That presence and support have been key to her ministry in Natuashish as she journeys with the historically nomadic people in their efforts to rebuild their lives and futures following their relocation from the troubled community of Davis Inlet in late 2002.
Her compassion is felt throughout Natuashish—whether visiting elders, blessing families’ homes, opening Aboriginal days with a prayer, baptizing babies about to be airlifted out of the community for hospital treatment, answering late-night calls to comfort an injured child, preparing sandwiches, cupcakes and cakes for post-Liturgy luncheons, welcoming children to her rooms above the church for sacramental preparation, colouring and chatting, or helping teenagers prepare for their high school graduation ceremony. And for the first time during her ministry in Natuashish, this year’s graduation was a two-part ceremony—the first of which took place in the church.
In walking the dusty roads of Natuashish, the silence is regularly broken by children calling from passing trucks, playing or riding their bicycles: “Sister Sheila! Hi, Sister Sheila!”
To every child who calls—either on these walkabouts, to children knocking at the church window or calling from the church yard—comes her cheery response, “Hello darling!” and, if she is in her living quarters, “I’ll be right down!” —a cheery promise accompanied by cookies, crackers or cupcakes, and conversation.
“Our ministry should touch people’s hearts,” she says. “We have to be the vessel through which God’s unconditional love, mercy and kindness are shared.”
That kindness was shared one Sunday morning this past winter. With the furnace broken, Sister Sheila told those gathered that that day’s Liturgy would be brief so that they could quickly return to the warmth of their homes.
One youngster wouldn’t be rushed. Looking up at Sister Sheila, she asked, “Will we still have cookies and cupcakes?” Amid the congregation’s laughter, Sister Sheila said, “Yes, my darling, we’ll still have cookies.”
At that, the child shyly asked, “Does God know how kind you are?” Joining in the warm laughter, Sister Sheila smiled, and said, “No, my darling, I think you need to tell Him.”
The Innu were first evangelized by the Jesuits in the 1600s. After over 200 years and no priestly presence, the Oblates arrived and found the people saying the rosary in their tents
at night. Their faith remains strong—thanks to the Jesuits, Oblates, and Sisters who have ministered there.
It was the decision of the people to build a church in the new community of Natuashish in 2006. Sister Sheila says, “Given their faith journey and the many transitions they have survived, there is always a fear of being abandoned by God and the Church. They are an oppressed people who need a missionary presence to promote healing, to encourage the people and help them move towards a future where there is hope.”
In reflecting on her ministry and the people of Natuashish, Sister Sheila says: “I believe God has a dream for them. I hope that in some small way, we are helping them to fulfill their dream, (even if) we may not see it in our lifetime. ”
Catholic Missions In Canada supporters have helped make that dream possible. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Catholic Missions In Canada,” she says. “Without that support, we would not have a presence and the mission of Christ would not be alive here.”
It’s not just financial support that’s so important to Sister Sheila; it’s the knowledge that she is remembered in prayer. “You pray for us. When winter sets in and it’s dark and cold here, the knowledge that we are not forgotten means so much.”
The network of partnering relationships that has come about through Catholic Missions In Canada has been invaluable to “enhancing” her ministry in Natuashish—whether through knitted goods (see Catholic Missions In Canada Spring magazine, page 34) or special donor cheques that miraculously appeared when her grocery money was dangerously low. “These were all the miracles of Jesus,” she says.
“We’re only instruments for God’s use,” she notes. “Hopefully, we will play some small part in helping Natuashish be the community God calls it to be.”
(Ed. Note: Sister Sheila Fortune, a member of the Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph, bid farewell to the people of Natuashish in late June 2014. Father Anthony Anh continues to serve the people there as resident priest at Tshukuminu St. Anne mission. This article was based on Anne Hanley’s visit to Natuashish in late May 2014.)
Reprinted from Catholic Missions In Canada magazine, Fall 2014.