By Father Ted Slaman
“So, what are you doing, Ted, for Christmastime?” asked the Bishop’s representative. I had retired from my pastorate about five months earlier, and was getting calls to replace priests on holidays or in need of additional priestly help.
So, I said, “Well, where do you want me to go?” “We got a call from the Bishop of Churchill-Hudson Bay, and he is looking for a priest to go up to Coral Harbour for the Christmas season.” After my “Whoa, wait a minute!” I began to ask questions, then phoned Bishop Tony Krotki to get more details, and prayed about it. Responding to God’s call with a “Yes, Lord” is good, so I agreed to go.
Knowing that the cost of food is high (about three times its cost in Hamilton), I prepared by packing food, and found my warmest clothing. When Bishop Krotki emailed me my flight plans, I was amazed at the immense costs of traveling in our Canadian north.
After uneventful flights, I arrived at the airstrip of Coral Harbour (Salliq), on the southern shores of Southampton Island, in the north-western part of Hudson Bay. Fr. Daniel serves an hour’s flight away in Repulse Bay (Naujaat), and is able to come a few days every month or two to Coral Harbour. He made arrangements for faith leader Marty Angootealuk to welcome me. After I got settled in the little house that serves as priest’s quarters, he came in his pick-up truck to show me the hamlet in the darkness of the evening. I met several of his family members, then drove out of the village into the dark, to see God playing with His pallet of colours in a sky of northern lights. I am grateful.
The arctic, above the tree-line surroundings, has its intense white beauty – so different from life in the city, or from what I lived in the 1970’s, when I spent about six years with the indigenous people of rural Guatemala. Climates and culture are opposite extremes. In Guatemala’s intense heat, people spend all their waking hours in the open air, working or walking about on the streets and paths and fields. There is a bustle of activity for all to see. Here at Coral, because of the -30-degree air, mostly one stays indoors if possible. However, between Christmas and New Year’s many community members of all ages gather for the evening hours in the school gym for social time – games and square dancing. Down south I had time to learn the language – Spanish – whereas here, as a short-term visitor, I know none of the local language. Fortunately, though their conversations are in Inuktituk, they switch to English with me. Gratefully, these Inuit friends, though Catholics are in a minority, are warm and friendly with this “white” visiting priest.
The respected elders of the Catholic community, Armand and Lucy Angootealuk, normally lead a Communion service in Inuktituk on Sundays. Since I have arrived to celebrate Christmas and the feast of Mary Mother of God with them, we work together, part Inuktituk, part English. I recognize the traditional Christmas Carols we use, singing along quietly in English as they praise the Lord in their tongue. By the time we start the Christmas “midnight” Mass at 11:00 p.m., the small church is filled with babies, children, youth and adults too. They clearly appreciate the opportunity to celebrate this great feast, as we conclude with lots of “Merry Christmas” greetings. New Year’s Eve we similarly honour Mary in this church of St. Joseph.
As I write this piece from Hamilton, Ontario, I share my concern that, though we have many children in our Hamilton Catholic schools, many of our churches are becoming less filled as the older generation passes on. I similarly reflect on the future of Coral Harbour’s Catholic community. The gift of faith is alive. Yet, good efforts to provide catechesis for the young have not been well attended. Will the youth get to know our faith? In a culture now bombarded by the secularism of T.V and internet, will these children of God continue to value their Inuit and Catholic ways? Will a priest be available to celebrate Eucharist with them more frequently? Will new strong leaders carry on the torch, stepping forward with knowledge, skills, wisdom and love to encourage the people and spread the reign of God?
Father Ted Slaman, is a Retired Pastor, now in residence at St. Augustine’s Church Rectory in Dundas, Ontario.