Intrepid Oblate

Intrepid Oblate

By Agnieszka Ruck, The B.C. Catholic

He had no idea how to ice fish, fire a gun, or ride a dogsled when Father Raymond de Coccola, OMI, arrived in a 1930s Inuit community in present-day Nunavut.

The French-speaking oblate had only his sense of adventure, his desire to evangelize distant lands, and his camera with him. Yet, the intrepid missionary established Burnside Mission (his first) in 1937, and travelled thousands of kilometers by dogsled, charting the land, establishing several more missions, and documenting the lives and languages of the people who lived there for 12 years. He published a few books about his adventures.

Fr. De Coccola and dog in front of the Catholic Church.

Thanks to his efforts, the Archdiocese of Vancouver now has a rare archive of more than 400 photographs and other materials immortalizing the lives of the Inuit people in the early 1900s.

“We don’t have anything else like this in our collection,” said Jennifer Sargent, archivist for the Archdiocese of Vancouver. “His photographs are beautiful. He had an artistic eye.”

An Inuit woman near an igloo.

De Coccola’s captivating photographs have come to the surface just in time for Archives Week, observed annually in B.C. From Nov. 18-24, archives across the province may be found opening exhibits, hosting events, and hoping to shine a little more light on the work they do to preserve local histories. Other provinces, like Alberta, host Archives Weeks during different times of the year.

Sargent said it’s a great opportunity. “It’s a good way to highlight collections people might not otherwise know about,” she said. “People can get more involved in their local history.”

Inuit women and children in an undated photo by Father de Coccola.

Aside from hundreds of photographs, the Father de Coccola collection also includes various artifacts: two compasses belonging to him, maps he’s drawn or written on, letters, documents, Inuit art, and even a New Testament written in Inuktitut.

The Vancouver archdiocese’s archives also include a vast collection from Pope John Paul II’s trip to B.C. in 1984 (including many photos, artifacts, and documents), yearbooks and parish directories spanning decades, and childhood photos of past Archbishops of Vancouver.

A page of a New Testament Bible written in Inuktitut.

It also catalogues rare items including rosaries belonging to Archbishop William Mark Duke of Vancouver, religious art, several relics, and an entire collection of dolls in handsewn habits made to resemble the various outfits of religious congregations that have served here.

Sargent said unfortunately the archdiocesan archive is not open to the public (only to researchers, who must apply) but she was happy to share these photos to give a glimpse of the Catholic past in Canada’s north and the life of the mission- driven Father de Coccola.

One of two compasses belonging to Father de Coccola.

Due to illness, the oblate priest left missionary work in 1949 and served as a priest in Vancouver, including serving as pastor of St. Michael’s Parish in Burnaby for 28 years. He died in 1985.

Dog sledding in 1939.
Out hunting in 1949.
An Inuit man with a drum.

Photos Courtesy of Archdiocese of Vancouver Archives/Agnieszka Ruck