Why an Oji-Cree community is trying to rebuild their Catholic church



After the discovery of anonymous graves at former residential school sites this year, churches burned down – part of the calculation, some say, for the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the abuse of Indigenous children in the residential school system.

But it was the residential school survivors who called for the attacks to stop.

Likewise, when the residents of the St. Theresa Point First Nation in northern Manitoba lost their Catholic church to an alleged arsonist weeks before the discovery of potential burial sites, the loss was nothing but devastating.

“Everything we do in our lifetime is part of this church, our church,” Marie Wood, former leader of the Oji-Cree community, told CBC radio. Sunday magazine.

“The blessing of fellowship and baptisms. All of our children were [baptized]the. Even we, when we were kids and it was a brand new church … we did our confirmation and our marriages there. ”

Such an attachment to the Catholic Church might come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the abusive history of residential schools in Canada.

Marie Wood, former chief of St. Theresa Point First Nation, says about 90 percent of residents are Roman Catholics. (St. Theresa Point First Nation)

Beginning in the late 1880s, approximately 150,000 Aboriginal children were forced to attend residential schools over the next century. The Roman Catholic Church ruled over two-thirds of them.

Some of those who lived at St. Theresa Point attended residential schools themselves or had siblings, parents or grandparents who did. Those who were not expelled attended nearby day schools, also run by priests and nuns.

“We have been subjected to as much abuse as any residential school,” said Hazel Harper, a community member from St. Theresa Point who attended the day school.

“I couldn’t believe how helpless we were to say anything. And some of us are still affected that way – our people – in that they can’t do nothing, they can’t do anything. to say.”

Yet, according to Wood, about 90 percent of the residents of St. Theresa Point are Roman Catholic – the faith Christian missionaries brought in the 1920s to the remote community about 460 kilometers northeast of Winnipeg.

She maintains that it was not religion that harmed children in church-run schools.

“I keep telling people it wasn’t God who did this to you,” she said. “These were the people who worked in there… It’s not God.”

A group of students and a nun pose at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Manitoba in a 1940 photo. Children from the Northern Manitoba First Nation of St. Theresa Point also attended residential schools and day schools run by Catholics for decades, but today they maintain their strong Catholic faith. (Canada. Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development / Library and Archives Canada / document via Reuters)

Wood is behind an ongoing effort to raise funds to rebuild his community’s church. Her Catholic faith remains strong, even though she recognizes that the discovery of anonymous graves opened deep wounds. She said it was hard not to have a church to turn to at that time.

“They believe that God listens to their pain,” she said of her community. “This is the place where we go and heal.”

Ray Aldred, director of the Native Studies program at the Vancouver School of Theology, who is Cree, said Sunday magazine that among the young Aboriginals who have left their territories, there is much more anger and a feeling of wanting to move away from the church.

But he says it’s not always a prime situation for those who are older and still live on their traditional lands.

“Probably the best way to describe it, in the recovery business, is ambivalence,” he said. “You know, you feel positive things about the church and your heart being a part of, so at the same time you have these negative feelings because of everything that has happened.”

Traditional worship versus Catholic worship

Hazel Harper and her husband Chris, both in their 60s, still live in St. Theresa Point.

Chris was raised “in a very traditional way,” he said, living off the land, learning from his father and grandfather – but also as a Catholic, with a very strong faith. He learned from the church that his traditional ways of worshiping were bad.

Yet he said The Sunday magazine, he always felt that living his faith meant going beyond Catholicism and including indigenous practices.

His wife, who describes herself as a “devoted” Catholic, says she and Chris have always celebrated both denominations equally.

“If it weren’t for the traditional ways we take along the way, I don’t think I would really feel close to the Creator or to God,” Hazel said.

“We practice both. We do our traditional ceremonies. We practice our traditional ways of praying, smearing and using sweetgrass.”

But they also go to the Catholic Church. “We do all of these and are proud to do them.”

An individual participates in a purification ceremony. Chris and Hazel Harper say they incorporate traditional practices, such as sweetgrass burning and smearing, into their Catholic faith. (Kate Bueckert / CBC)

Chris brought native traditions back to his church.

“We have incorporated this into every mass we have done,” he said. “And we would also do … teachings on the sweat lodge and how that might interconnect with the church … and how … the teachings of the church interconnect with our traditional ways.”

But he says only about a quarter of St. Theresa Point’s 3,200 residents support mixing the two forms of worship, and many Catholics won’t even talk about the abuse at residential schools.

“I think a lot of, you know, strict Catholics don’t even want to talk about it or don’t want to hear about these things because… I guess they don’t want to go against the church and the Roman Catholic faith. And it is difficult. ”

“It’s like denial,” Hazel said. “‘No, the church isn’t bad,’ you know? ‘The church can’t do that.’ “This is the only way we have to pray.”

Call for apologies

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission asked the Pope to apologize to the survivors of Catholic residential schools and their loved ones for the role of the church “in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of the First Nations. , Inuit, and Métis children.

There have also been unanswered calls for the Catholic Church to release full school records that may contain information about how thousands of children died in their care.

Earlier this year, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops called the discovery of potential unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School as “shocking” event, and pledged to “continue to walk alongside Indigenous peoples in the present, seeking greater healing and reconciliation for the future”.

Hazel says that if the Pope ends up apologizing on behalf of the Catholic Church, it will be pointless if there is no recognition of the legitimacy of their traditional ways of worship.

“We have to see these changes, we have to feel them,” she said. “We want to feel empowered and feel that, okay, we’re free to practice whatever we want, you know … if we wanted to have a [traditional]ceremony.”


For her part, Wood remains focused on the long task of building a new St. Theresa Point Catholic Church, inspired in part by something found in the ashes of the lost one.

“This photo was found in the rubble,” she said. “Everything burned. For example, even the bell melted … even the cross. Everything, everything burned.”

But not the photograph of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the very first Native American to be canonized by the Catholic Church.

“I think it was a miracle,” said Wood.

A portrait of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American woman canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, can be seen in front of the remains of the burnt down St. Theresa Point First Nation Church. A devotee says it is “a miracle” that he survived the flames. (St. Theresa Point First Nation / Grandin Media)

Hazel Harper also thinks the portrait has special meaning.

“Why would he survive this fire? That’s the message, you know? Does this mean that we have to go back to our roots as Aboriginal people? This is what I always thought. We need to do more for our Indigenous heritage, our Indigenous culture, our ways of praying. “

Written by Stéphanie Hogan. Interviews by Peter Mitton.



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