STORY AND PHOTOS BY ANNE HANLEY
A 23,000 hectare wildfire in August 2017 forced the evacuation of over 5,000 people from the northern Manitoba Oji-Cree communities of St. Theresa Point, Wasagamach and Garden Hill to Winnipeg and Brandon.
Located approximately 470 kms north of Winnipeg, the Oji-Cree communities are isolated. St. Theresa Point has a small airport accessible to residents via a short boat ride from the community dock. Wasagamach though is without an airstrip; its residents can only reach St. Theresa Point and its airport after a 10-km small boat ride.
Along with residents of their mission communities, Father Messia Vallapadasu SDM of St. Theresa Point and Father Victor Savarimuthu SDM of Wasagamach were part of the difficult evacuation.
The two missionaries were evacuated to Winnipeg, and it was there that Father Victor heard from people of Wasagamach who’d been re-located to Brandon. “My community called me for Sunday service,” he wrote in a September email. “Now I am staying with my community in Brandon.”
He would have it no other way; his response is a theme of his ministry. “I feel that I am one with them. In their sorrows and celebrations, I am with them,” he said in August. “That is our ministry, being with them—not only in weddings and baptisms—but in grieving and whenever we can.”
Father Victor arrived with Father Messia in the Island Lake region of Manitoba in 2010. Originally from India, Father Messia is pastor in St. Theresa Point, while the 44 year-old Father Victor is pastor of St. Marguerite D’Youville mission in Wasagamach and visiting priest in Garden Hill.
Wasagamach has a population of 1,403, with an average age of 24.4.1 Unemployment rates are high; Father Victor estimates only 3% of the community are employed. And with a 2015 median total income of $11,4991, it’s difficult for families to put healthy food on the table. Father Victor notes that a 4-litre jug of milk can cost up to $15.
A small garden behind the church supplements Father’s diet with fresh produce—which he shares with community members. “I share my goods with people,” he says naturally, “and they share moose meet and fish with me.”
When Father Victor first arrived in Wasagamach, he says, “I was a stranger. There was almost no one at Sunday Mass and no altar servers.”
Over the years of his ministry, that changed.
Community Elders, Sidney and Violet Wood, describe the difference his ministry has made. “He provides us with the sacraments, he attends our celebrations and participates in everything. He is a tremendous comfort to all—even non-Catholics. He’s our brother; he is part of our community.”
It’s not a one-sided relationship; community members have been teaching Father Victor too. Since arriving, Father Victor has been learning Oji-Cree and can celebrate Mass in the language of the people. He can even joke in Oji-Cree—much to his delight and theirs!
“Once I started learning their language, it made a great impact,” he says. “The language is sacred to them. When you speak their language, you show that you care for them, that you love them, that you respect their culture.” He adds with laughter, “Even when I go on holiday, I speak their language, I forget!”
“Older people don’t speak English and really enjoy hearing Mass in our language because they understand it,” says one community Elder. “He keeps me going to church.”
Not only are Sunday Masses well attended, but up to 20 people pray the rosary in St. Marguerite d’Youville mission church before the celebration of weekday evening Masses.
Fridays find Father Victor visiting and bringing Communion to the homebound of Wasagamach, while Sundays see him making the boat trip to Garden Hill for the celebration of Sunday Mass—weather conditions permitting.
Even when travelling to Winnipeg, he remembers people of the Island Lake area by bringing Communion to those in hospital. “That makes a difference in their lives,” he says. “They can see someone is working for them; someone is supporting them.”
Something was missing in Father Victor’s early days in Wasagamach: a rectory. Prior to his arrival, the community had been without a resident priest, and so for the first 18 months of his ministry, he lived in the church sacristy—until members of the community pulled together to build a small rectory with support from the band and the Archdiocese of Keewatin Le Pas.
“We went to the band,” remembers one Elder with a smile, “and said, ‘Father’s living in the church. He’s here to help our community. He needs our help.’”
But it’s not just adults and elders who’ve been affected by Father Victor’s ministry. Ten children have been trained as altar servers and attend monthly practice sessions followed by volleyball games.
“You can’t force the children,” he says. “I’m slowly introducing moral training through the teachings of the Ten Commandments: respect your life, respect your elders, respect yourself. I try to just be with them and support them.”
His ministry in Wasagamach, Father Victor explains, is one of “visiting, listening, hearing their problems, standing with them in their suffering. God says, “I am with you, I am with them.”
And for the people of Wasagamach, says one Elder, Father Victor “provides that hope and the spirit that takes care of us. He provides the steady presence. It’s a good feeling.”
Note: An emergency prompted Father Victor’s return to India in late 2017. We pray for his early return to the Island Lake region.