By Mickey Conlon
A dying man’s vision and his older brother’s promise to see it through have combined to grace the Moosomin First Nation with a new church to replace the community’s aging church that had seen better days.
From a dilapidated, rundown house that in its former glory was once home to Hilliard Paul Kahpeaysewat’s younger brother Jason and his family has risen St. Charles Borromeo Church on this Cree band’s land outside of North Battleford, in the Prince Albert diocese in central Saskatchewan. The church is in the heart of the community, the first thing you see when you enter the community.
The church officially opened in June 2017, and is the fulfilment of the promise Kahpeaysewat made to his brother as he battled cancer. Jason would succumb to cancer in 2013.
“My little brother, before he passed away, he told me what he wanted me to do with the house,” said Kahpeaysewat. “He told me to tear it down, but he envisioned that a church was going to be there. He had a dream that the church was there.”
It was shortly after the elder Kahpeaysewat had returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan with the Canadian military that he and Jason had this conversation. Jason, in the full throes of his cancer battle, just knew there was something about the property, there was something there, said Kahpeaysewat.
“My brother used to say that he used to see things in the house. He had visions, seeing Christ in the house,” he said.
About a kilometre from the new church stands the original church, well over 100 years old and still standing (though it is expected to be torn down in the spring). But it has seen better days and for many years has been showing its age. He recalls going to the old church shortly after his return from
“I could see people wrapping their babies up to go to Mass because it was so cold. You could hear the pigeons in the attic,” said Kahpeaysewat, chuckling. “That’s how old it was.”
Fr. Greg Elder is the current pastor at St. Charles Borromeo, having taken charge in August 2017. But earlier this decade he was pastor of the old church, and he echoes what Kahpeaysewat has to say.
“The old church was literally falling down around us,” said Elder.
Despite his promise to his brother, there were doubts shrouding Kahpeaysewat’s mind that a new church would be built. Sure, the plot of land was central in the community, it already had the infrastructure in place—a natural gas line, sewage lines, power, phone. And it was on solid ground. Still, the doubts lingered.
“I never really thought that the church would happen. Then I got it to (the band) council, the people who were part of the church group put in their request,” he said.
From there, everything just began falling into place.
Members of the community helped Kahpeaysewat tear down his brother’s old house, a job that took the better part of the winter. During the process, a priest drove by, stopped and asked what Kahpeaysewat was doing.
“I told him I’m building you a church, and he just laughed and drove away.”
A joke it wasn’t however. With the community on board, the band council supportive, seed money from the Prince Albert diocese—an undisclosed loan at very favourable terms, a generous donation from Catholic Missions In Canada, and some unforeseen good luck, the process had reached the point of no return.
“Things happened that I couldn’t believe.”
Among these things that were happening was the donation of labour and material, including a local landscaping company that donated gravel and graded the parking lot, on top of other gratuities.
“Things kept falling into place,” said Kahpeaysewat.
Though the new church is now open, with Prince Albert Bishop Albert Thévenot and Fr. Frederick Akah joining Kahpeaysewat, Chief Bradley Swiftwolfe and community elders in officiating at its opening June 3, 2017, much work remains to be done. It’s a modular building that was purchased in North Battleford but modifications have had to be made to the structure so that it looks like a church and not a residence. More landscaping is needed, there are hopes for a paved parking lot, and this spring, a new bell tower is to be erected.
For Elder, the new church is like night and day. It’s not just the structure though. Elder has seen new life breathed into the local church community.
“One thing the church has done is it has given us a concrete focal point for the community where we can gather,” said Elder. “Not only is it gathering us together as a focal point for celebrations, it is gathering us together to get things done. It’s giving us a new sense of pride that God’s house is there for all of us, and it’s not just the (Catholic) Church’s church, but the community’s church.”
And Mass attendance is on the rise.
“It’s going in the right way,” he said.
It’s how Kahpeaysewat envisioned things turning out. He wants it to be a true centre of the community. A place where community members can get married, a place to baptize their children, for funerals, community meetings, and not have to travel to North Battleford or further.
“It wasn’t my church, it was the people’s church,” he said.
“You need the church or where is your faith going to grow.”
For Kahpeaysewat, it has been more than just fulfilling his dying brother’s wish.
“It was a journey for me,” he said. “I believe that I was put on this Earth maybe for that reason, I don’t know.”
His personal journey has had its share of troubles and roadblocks. Alcohol has been a problem for him in the past.
“Growing up here, I saw a lot of alcohol, I drank a lot here in the beginning,” he said. Joining the military was a way to “wake up, I guess” to the problem and get away from the liquor.
His military experience has also left its scars. He was injured early in his deployment to the Panjwai district in southern Afghanistan, taking shrapnel in his knee from a rocket-propelled grenade shortly upon arrival, an injury that eventually led to his retirement from the army. He has also dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder. Five times he drove over improvised explosive devices while driving an armoured vehicle and saw three comrades die.
Most of the Kahpeaysewat family is Catholic, and very involved in the church community. Elder notes “his ladies” who are the backbone of the church community are members of the extended Kahpeaysewat family. But Kahpeaysewat himself has never considered himself devout, though he always has believed in God. That was only enhanced during his deployment in Afghanistan, where he had another awakening, a spiritual one. On patrol, in conditions he had never experienced before, under fire and seeing comrades being shot up, “I woke up,” he said.
“Something protects us out there. There’s somebody who believes in us.”
Kahpeaysewat also saw a cultural connection between his people and the Afghan populace. The similarities were jarring.
“When I was in Afghanistan and you see people praying four times a day, four times a night, and to live in their kind of conditions. That’s the way they live and my people are like that too,” he said.
“We all pray the same, we all have the same God.”
Now back on the reserve, Kahpeaysewat has thrown himself into the community where he now sits on the band council. And the church project has helped him deal with PTSD and his struggle with alcohol.
“I didn’t want to fall back into a life of liquor.”
It’s hard not to notice the pride Kahpeaysewat feels for helping his brother’s dream come true. And it was only reaffirmed when his nephew Jake, Jason’s son, returned to the community after being away for several years.
“He was really happy that it was there,” he said.
But his modesty also shines through. When he says it’s the community’s church, you know he believes it.
“I put pride into this building because I put my name on it. I want it known that this was done in the right way. It wasn’t done just so we could have a church. It was done so the kids would have a place to go, a place to run if need be,” he said.
Mickey Conlon is the former managing editor of The Catholic Register and is now a freelance writer based in Regina, SK