Two Presentation Sisters minister to 3,000 Cree First Nation people in Big River First Nation Reserve in Northern Saskatchewan
Story and photos by Anne Hanley
On a warm evening, you can hear carefree peals of laughter ring out from children playing on Angel Beach.
Located on Big River First Nation Reserve about an hour’s drive north of Prince Albert in Saskatchewan, the beach is not far from the small wooden porch and backyard garden at Sacred Heart mission church and residence where Presentation of Mary Sisters Diane Lajeunesse and Yvette Perreault live.
Sister Diane remembers hearing how one of the grandmothers in the community once asked her grandchild why the beach is known as Angel Beach.
“Because that’s where the Sisters live,” came the child’s reply.
Home to about 3,000 Cree First Nation people, Big River First Nation Reserve has been mission home to Sister Diane and Sister Yvette for a total of 24 years—Sister Diane has lived and ministered there for the past six years, and now at 83, Sister Yvette for the past 18.
Their ministry of care and service starts early in the day and extends well into the evening. Beginning with morning prayer that’s followed by a simple breakfast, the day continues as the doorbell starts chiming about 9:30 a.m. with someone coming to visit, to ask for odd jobs around the church, to use the phone—and then after school and in the summer, as children ring the doorbell to visit, get help with homework, do puzzles in the small foyer area of their residence, or help weed the garden carrots that they’ve seeded.
Evenings can find the Sisters welcoming a long-time resident in for tea, comforting children who’ve been taunted by playmates and then contacting parents, or answering the door to a young man asking to exchange his carefully filleted fish for gas money to get to the hospital in Prince Albert.
With high unemployment rates on the reserve, multiple generations of the same family often living in one small dwelling and drinking water trucked in and stored in cisterns for families’ future use, Sister Diane says, “Ours is a ministry of presence, compassion and hospitality. We face their need on our front doorstep.” And walking the few steps from the kitchen area to answer their doorbell, Sister Yvette says quietly, “It could be Jesus. ‘Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.’”
A teacher for 28 years and former director of Our Lady of Guadalupe house in Saskatoon, Sister Diane today finds special joy in leading marriage preparation courses—especially when the couple has been together for many years and will celebrate the sacrament surrounded by their children and often grandchildren. “Theirs is a decision and a commitment to love,” she says “It is God’s blessing and their desire to marry now in the sight of God.”
Asked where she feels Christ’s presence on Big River First Nation Reserve, Sister Diane replies, “In the pain I feel as people tell their stories, in people coming to our door asking for a sandwich saying they are hungry, in the man who has a crippled foot but rides his bike to church; in another who walks four miles to church on Sunday, in singing with the group at Mass on Sundays, in the children gathered around Father Sebastian and holding hands during the Our Father. This is their church and they feel welcomed!”
There is one thing that draws children away from Angel Beach: the church bell on Sunday.
Father Sebastian Kunnath, V.C., resides in Debden—about a 15-minute drive away and celebrates Mass in Debden and two outlying missions before coming to Big River Reserve for Mass at 2:30 p.m. However, children start arriving about 1:30—eager to ring the church bell and call out: “There’s Church now!”
Asked what Catholic Missions In Canada supporters mean to their ministry, the two Sisters pause before answering as one, “Everything!” “Our sustenance comes from them,” explains Sister Diane. “There’s no way we could be here without them.”
And with that, Sister Yvette goes to answer the doorbell, and again give compassionate witness to the message of “Church now” near Angel Beach.