Why would anyone commit to driving over 1,000 kms for 20 weekends of faith formation sessions? Answer: because one feels prompted by the Holy Spirit. This is what 6 women from Pelican Narrows, SK did in order to take a Lay Formation program offered in Saskatoon, a 7-hour drive away. Their stories may vary, but the initial impetus was the same – an inner call of the heart.
Frances Morasty recalls the day in 2007 when pastor Fr. Bill Stang, OMI, invited her to attend the program, where an Aboriginal stream was to be introduced. Her initial response was one of reluctance at the thought of abandoning her husband and children for 20 weekends. However, after some serious consultation with her family, she felt a tug at her heart to sign up and find out what it was all about.
Valerie Morin’s response to the Spirit’s prompting came about at various stages in her life. At age 7, she was sent to a public Indian Residential School where she grew up feeling alone and unloved. While struggling in an abusive relationship, one day she found a note on the ground with the words to a Cree song entitled “God Sees a Sparrow Fall.” As she read it, she felt God speak to her and know her heart. She felt loved. She began to attend a Pentecostal church but experienced doubts about questions of faith. As she pondered the medicine wheel, she was drawn to attend a retreat given by Sr. Anne Lewans, OSU on the theme of the Journey to Emmaus (Luke 24). Feeling herself “walking with the Lord” she began to attend the Catholic church. One day during Mass, she was prompted to receive the Eucharist as her source of new life. Then, encouraged by Frances Morasty, and desiring to grow in faith, she registered for the LF program in 2009.
Betty Highway, a teacher associate at the school, had heard about God from her grandmother, but carried deep grief since the age of 10 when she lost her father. Her mother never spoke about faith. Upon the death of her grandmother and while going through hard times in her marriage, she “felt lost and dead inside” and yearned “to strengthen her inner spirit.” When Fr. Stang invited her to take the LF program, her longing for a relationship with God over-rode her fears and lack of confidence.
Having experienced the promptings of the Spirit early in life, Frances McCallum taught catechism for several years. In the 1990’s she heard about the Summer School in Liturgical Studies at Newman Theological College. With only $30 in her pocket, she took the long bus trip to Edmonton, where her funds promptly vanished as payment for the taxi to the College. Chuckling, she recalled that she was penniless throughout the 4 weeks of classes. With her appetite for religious studies whetted, she jumped at the chance to take the LF program when it became available in 2008.
In Angela Ballantyne’s case, the Spirit’s prompting came through an inner stirring to work in the church after her children were grown. Another parishioner, Lana Michel, stated that it was upon Fr. Stang’s invitation to serve in the parish that she agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to take the program.
The 2-year Lay Formation program was created in the Diocese of Saskatoon in the late 1980’s as an opportunity for adult faith education. It consisted of 20 live-in weekends at Queen’s House of Retreats with a curriculum of lectures in scripture and theology, liturgical and personal prayer, discussion groups, celebrations, rituals and times for spiritual direction. Special sessions in Byzantine theology and spirituality were added for those in the Ukrainian Rite and in 2008 a distinct “Aboriginal Stream” was introduced, offering sessions in aboriginal spirituality. While their LF experience held some differences for the women from Pelican Narrows, they were unanimous in naming courses in scripture as their favorite learning experience. These, they said, profoundly deepened their relationship with the Lord Jesus. Frances McCallum added, “And I fell in love with St. Paul!”
During the first few weekends, Frances Morasty asked herself, “What am I doing here?” However, as she experienced the encouragement of leaders Kathy and Ivan Hitchings and Mona Goodman, and met “so many beautiful people,” she grew in love of the scriptures and communal prayer and singing. She looked forward to each weekend.
During her first LF weekend, Betty Highway was afraid to take part in faith-sharing sessions and too shy to express her feelings.
However, the welcome and acceptance she received from the program directors and the friendships she began to make, nurtured her spirit with love and support she’d never experienced before.
By learning about forgiveness, acceptance and communication, her “roller coaster marriage” began to flourish.
Angela Ballantyne recalled that she felt “at home” from the start, since she had waited to apply until she was completely ready. Similarly, Frances McCallum immediately enjoyed mixing with non-Indigenous participants and participated in the discussions and faith sharing sessions. Valerie Morin summarized her experience of faith formation of “head, heart and hand” as having been transformative for her.
Lana Michel and Angela Ballantyne enjoyed their introduction to Indigenous spirituality. From Debbie Ledoux, then Parish Life Director at Guadalupe Parish, they learned the meaning and practice of smudging and found the ‘blanket exercise’ to be very consciousness-raising. Both expressed their appreciation for the gift of spiritual direction. Lana, in particular, was grateful to Sarah Donnelly and Mona Goodman who helped her during a “rough time”. She learned Centering Prayer, a practice that has enriched her personal prayer life.
In assessing the benefits of the program, the women named greater knowledge of scripture, a closer relationship with Jesus, deeper prayer life, growth in ability to teach catechism and do sacramental preparation and confidence to conduct Liturgies of the Word and other ministries. All mentioned the joy of forming new friendships and belonging to a faith community where they felt accepted and loved. Betty exclaimed, “I loved Queen’s House!”
Frances Morasty expressed her joy in serving her parish as presider at Liturgies of the Word and funerals. Valerie Morin stated that by having her faith validated, she began to take a leadership role in her parish. Frances McCallum continues to lead Liturgies of the Word and give reflections, as well as conducting funerals and bible studies. She expressed gratitude to her husband of 47 years, who, during her 3 summers and 20 weekends away, looked after their 9 children.
Betty Highway beamed as she declared, “The wonderful blessings I received made the 7-hour trips worthwhile!” She, too, acknowledged with gratitude the support of her husband who looked after their 5 children during her weekends away. “Life is good now,” she stated and added with pride, “on Oct. 4th we celebrated our 32nd wedding anniversary!”
Upon reflecting on the “missionary discipleship” (to quote Pope Francis) of these women, Fr. Stang recalled that, as pastor at Pelican Narrows, he’d tried to get the parishioners more involved in the church.
“These great women were my answer,” he said. “They really accepted their journey in Lay Formation and were there to work with me. Together we led the ministry in the parish.”
In the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 8, we read that many women accompanied Jesus as “he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.” Furthermore, they provided for Jesus and the twelve “out of their own resources” (8:3). The Spirit that prompted those women in the scriptures also prompted these women from Pelican Narrows to proclaim the good news by sharing the academic, spiritual and practical resources they gained through a Lay Formation program to which they devoted 20 weekends and for which they logged over 20,000 kms.
Ed. Note: CMIC provided $6800 in 2008 and $5000 in 2010 to assist with the Aboriginal Lay Formation Stream in Saskatoon.