Story and Photos by Anne Hanley
Solomon Mason remembers the early days of the St. Theresa Point Marian retreat.
The 5-day summer retreat is now in its 14th year, but its history goes back much further to the days when a few families of the northern Manitoba Oji-Cree community gathered after Mass on Sunday afternoons for picnics, fellowship and time together.
Now 74, Mason remembers those Sunday afternoons of over 25 years ago. “It’s always been our tradition to go to church every Sunday,” he said in conversation during the 2017 August retreat. “And so after church, a group of about 6 families used to get together in this area behind the church to visit, socialize, picnic and share our food. We’d invite the priest to come and join us. We’d sit around and tell our stories.”
And there were games on those Sunday afternoons. “We’d play baseball,” Mason remembers with a smile. “Eventually other families in the community would join us. It was fun.”
Those afternoons soon grew to include an outdoor evening Mass and praying the rosary. Over time, families wanted to extend their time together and so began camping overnight in the woodland behind the mission church. Gradually, the fellowship grew to include families from Wasagamach, Cross Lake and Norway House.
And now he says, “Every summer, we look forward to this special celebration.”
Joined by his wife, Martha, at the family’s campsite during the 2017 retreat in St. Theresa Point, Mason reflected on what brought the community together in those early days. “We wanted to change the way of our lives in the community, to have a better life together and protect our children,” he says. “We wanted to pray for our children and their upbringing.”
Located in the Island Lake region of Manitoba, St. Theresa Point is 610 kms or about a 1½ hour flight north of Winnipeg, and is accessible by small plane from Winnipeg throughout the year, by boat in summer and by winter-ice road for about 6-8 weeks in winter. St. Theresa Point is home to about 3,200 people, with 41% of the population aged 14 or younger. 1
Because of the area’s isolation and the cost to transport food and other essentials from Winnipeg, prices for food and other items are high for St. Theresa Point residents. A loaf of bread for example cost $5.69 at the local Northern Store in August 2017, a jug of milk $8.95, a 100 ml container of fruit juice $5.49.2 Coupled with high unemployment rates and low family income, families struggle to put healthy food on the table; many cope with the additional stresses of food and safe water insecurity, overcrowded housing with inadequate heating and unhealthy sewage systems.3,4
Father Messia Vallapadasu S.D.M. has resided and ministered in St. Theresa Point since November 2010. “The people of St. Theresa Point inspire me by their spiritual devotion and prayer lives.”
As pastor of St. Theresa mission church, he reaches out to all with encouragement and openness through such ministries as healing Masses, counselling and prayer sessions, home and school visits, outreach on local radio and in annual retreats such as the summer Marian retreat.
In these and throughout his ministry, he relies on the mission’s lay leaders. For many years prior to his arrival, there had been no resident priest in the community and so lay people had to step forward to ensure ministries of the Church carried on.
That commitment continues today. “Lay ministers here are always willing to help the church and my ministry here,” he says.
Lay leaders serve as lectors, Eucharistic ministers and funeral assistants, on parish council, in sacramental preparation programs and in prayer, social outreach and music ministries.
“I trust our lay ministers and people accept them,” he says. “They are capable and have been trained. They know how to do things well.” He smiles and adds, “If I have to go away, they say to me, ‘Father, don’t worry. Enjoy your time away. We will take care of things here.’”
One of the priorities of his ministry is reaching out to St. Theresa Point’s young people aged 12-29. “One of the challenges,” he says, “is to bring youth who are misled by drugs and alcohol to a safe environment.”
Together with youth ministers and community elders, Father Messia works to offer that safe environment and encouragement through school visits, on radio talks, in music and games nights, dances and prayer sessions for youth. “We try to allow them to do something positive, to help them feel accepted and to recognize their value as God’s children.”
The annual Marian retreat is another opportunity that offers healing and connection for people of all ages. An estimated 250 people attended the August 2017 retreat, and from the early morning aromas of breakfast cooking, families continued throughout the day in prayer, drumming, music, visiting and quiet time, until days stretched into afternoon and late evening with praying the rosary, personal testimonies, presentations and evening Mass.
And always, kids were playing, bicycling, running and visiting in family camps on the gently sloping hillsides.
For Veronica Wood, the retreat is a time of unity, love and peace. “It makes me so happy to see lots of people coming around—especially children and youth,” she says. “We want to show them what unity is: to accept each other and to pray with each other.”
Veronica has been part of the Retreat’s volunteer team for the past six years. “Before that I didn’t even think about it,” she explains, “but then I felt something in this park that’s very sacred.” Today, she says one of her main hopes for the retreat is to reach young people, especially those who are lost. “Young people come around especially in the singing,” she says. “They may be in their camps, but they still hear the singing. I want them to know the Eucharist. That is more important in their lives than anything.”
At the opening of the final Mass of the retreat, Band Councillor and lay minister of St. Theresa church, Eugene Wood spoke to those gathered around the stage and on the hills surrounding the stage where Mass was about to begin. “You came here for a reason,” he said. “It’s not just for camping. You’re looking for peace. And you will find that peace. I want this gathering to say that to you.”
There’s a reason why the retreat is known as a Marian retreat, explains Solomon Mason. “We have a strong faith and belief in the Catholic church,” he says. “We know that Mary is the Mother of Jesus. We pray to her to help us, to have understanding, to have courage, to help young people in our community. We connect with Mary, as Mother in protecting her children.”
Postscript: At the end of August 2017, the Island Lake communities of St. Theresa Point, Wasagamach and Garden Hill were struck by a 23,000 hectare wildfire which forced the evacuation of people with health concerns in St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill and total evacuation of people in Wasagamach to Winnipeg, Brandon and Thompson. People began returning to their homes on September 10.
1) 2016 Canada Census http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/prof/details/page.cfm?Lang=E&Geo1=CSD&Code1=4622801&Geo2=PR&Code2=46&Data=Count&SearchText=St.%20Theresa%20Point&SearchType=Begins&SearchPR=01&B1=All&GeoLevel=PR&GeoCode=4622801&TABID=1
2) Prices include the NNC (Nutrition North Canada) food subsidy of $1.22, $7.26 and 0.02 respectively.
3) 2016 Canada Census. Canada Census reports that the median total income in 2015 for St. Theresa Point residents was $14,448.
4) A 2009 Natural Resources Institute, University of Manitoba report found that there was an 83% rate of food insecurity in the community. https://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/…/Final%20Poster%20St%20Theresa%20Point.pptx
Watch for pictures and article from the Oji-Cree community of Wasagamach in our summer issue.