Indigenous people make up about 35 per cent of the Catholic population in the Diocese of St. Paul, which covers the northeastern corner of Alberta. Of the 40 communities served by the diocese, 10 are First Nations and four are Métis settlements.
In this three-part series, we meet some of these Indigenous Catholics and learn about both the blessings and the challenges they experience in their relationships with the Church.
As Harriet Favel holds tight to her grandchildren and speaks with a trembling voice, it’s easy to tell her pain runs deep. Since she lost a daughter to suicide last year, Favel has not missed a Sunday Mass at the St. Matthias Church in Goodfish Lake.
Even as she admits that some days she feels too heartbroken to go, in times of such immense loss the Catholic faith is Favel’s place of refuge and her source of healing. The time she spends in prayer and the support of the St. Matthias community are her aids as she mourns her late daughter.
What’s just as important as attending Mass every Sunday is making sure her eight grandchildren are in church with her. Four of them recently celebrated their First Communion.
“I want my grandkids to know their religion, to know that there is a God and that prayer is powerful,” Favel said. “That’s really why I come. My faith is a comfort and God has been a great help.”
In the Diocese of St. Paul, the Goodfish Reserve on the Whitefish Lake First Nation stands out as a beacon of devout faith. The pews of St. Matthias’ Sunday afternoon Masses are crowded with young and old. The church elders gather in the front rows, young mothers clutch their babies, and the teenagers sit together in a pew.
At the back of the church, the bookshelf is loaded with pamphlets, encyclicals and other books on prayer and Church teaching.
Hanging above are pictures of Pope Francis, St. Paul Bishop Paul Terrio, and an icon of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, Canada’s first Indigenous saint.
The reputation of Goodfish’s Catholic community is well known across the reserve.
Florence Castor recalled an ecumenical Unity Prayer Week held at various churches in and around Goodfish Lake last year.
The night came for Goodfish’s Catholic community to host the group, and the packed attendance at their Mass brought one visitor to tears.
“An older guy from a nearby Protestant church was just crying because of how full our church was. He was so happy for us,” she said. “This was an evening Mass on a school night, and they were surprised that there was lots of young people and lots of young families coming. We get that comment a lot.”
There are still many in the community who have strayed from the faith, Castor said, in part because of the history of residential schools. But her persistent prayer is that those people will someday return.
Castor feels the charitable spirit of the Church will help bring many back. St. Matthias parishioners are working to set up a community food bank, and it’s expected to open this summer.
“We’re a family here; we call ourselves the church family,” Castor said. “And I think a lot of it has to do with a sense of identity. You are a Catholic and you understand the need for that spiritual part of your life. And when families start coming here, they too see the need for God in their lives.”
The high attendance at Mass is partly owed to the presence of the Missionaries of Charity sisters in the community. They come to St. Matthias every Sunday afternoon. They teach the catechism and prepare the children for the sacraments, and ensure the church is cleaned before each Mass.
On highways and dirt roads, Sister Dymphna – their Mother Superior ̶ and Sister Alinda routinely travel from St. Paul to visit families in Goodfish Lake. When invited into a homes, the sisters listen to the family’s problems and heartaches, and offer to pray the rosary with them.
The children of Goodfish Lake are typically the first to welcome them in the community, said Sister Dymphna.
When the sisters come walking along the dirt roads in their blue and white habits, many of the kids watch from their windows and shout “The angels are here!”
“The sisters play a big role in our faith – teaching us to remain strong and committed,” Castor said. “Whenever I was going through anything, that’s who I turned to. They would always set me in the right direction. I’m really thankful for them; they’ve done a lot for us and our community.”
The Missionaries of Charity have served the Diocese of St. Paul since 1986. Their presence was spearheaded by St. Mother Teresa’s visit to St. Paul in 1982.
While their mission is based out of St. Paul, the sisters’ efforts largely focus on the Cree communities of Goodfish and Saddle Lake.
A common issue in Goodfish and Saddle Lake is the damaging influence of drugs and alcohol, Sister Dymphna said, and a lack of fathers in the households.
Despite the obstacles, a desire for God and prayer is what fills the pews at Goodfish Lake each Sunday, Sister Dymphna said. The Cree are deeply spiritual people, and prayer is seen as a key source of healing.
“They want to pray whenever they come to the church because their pain is so deep,” she said.
When Rev. Manoj Mannakathu, better known as Father Phillip, began his ministry at St. Matthias, he too recognized that single-parent households were common among his parishioners.
“I had an experience my first or second month here when there was a baptism in my parish,” he explained. “In our register there is a place for the name of the parents, so I turned to the mother and asked for the name of the father. She said, ‘My child has no father.’”
Because of this, Father Phillip he has now made the Sacrament of Marriage a key part of his mission. Since his time as priest, he has married seven couples in Goodfish Lake.
“My experience in India and Africa is working with two-parent families. There the deep richness of the family is molded in church life,” Father Philip said. “But here I am trying to help them to reclaim these lost coins – and that means reclaiming the family.”
“I’m really promoting the Sacrament of Marriage especially for this purpose. The family is the basic structure of our Church.”
Allison Badger of the Kehewin Cree Nation understands the importance of family first-hand.
As she’s grown in her faith, Badger says marriage has become increasingly important for her. It will affirm a permanent and lasting bond between her partner and their four children.
In September, she will be walking the aisle of St. Paul’s Cathedral to marry her longtime partner, Kim John.
Bishop Paul Terrio of the Diocese of St. Paul said he’s thrilled to see Badger getting married and he hopes she can set an example, adding to Father Philip’s efforts to encourage more families to stay together.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” said Terrio. “I’m so grateful and supportive of her. Father Phillip has made progress on that particular pastoral priority as well. Many people have come forward and had their marriages blessed. He’s done very good work.”
Badger said marriage has always been important to her, even as a child.
“Originally I had wanted to get married on St. Joseph’s Hill (in Kehewin) but Bishop Paul Terrio said marriage always needs to be within the church. I said, ‘OK, so long as it’s a priest marrying us.’ That’s very important to me – ensuring that the marriage is blessed.”
“I know a lot of people they go and get married in the outdoors or really pretty places, but for me it has to be in a church. I knew that since I was a little girl.”
As the diocese and her pastor, Rev. Jhack Diaz, help her prepare for the wedding, Badger said the Church can be a positive force in building family and community.
She also hopes to give back to Kehewin’s Catholic community, especially through her efforts to revitalize the annual St. Joseph’s Hill Pilgrimage. It has been a replenishing source of faith for her since childhood. This year’s pilgrimage will be held Aug. 9-11.
During the event, white crosses are placed along the route as pilgrims walk up the hill. At the summit is an outdoor chapel with an overarching view of Kehewin. As the sun sets and Mass begins, a cross decorated with lights illuminates the hill.
Attendance at the pilgrimage has diminished in recent years. But Badger has made it her mission to ensure it remains a source of faith for the reserve’s next generation.
“The pilgrimage is one of the most influential events in my life. I always remember going there,” Badger said.
“My grandma was a very devout Catholic, and since I was young she would take me. Each day we would get 150 people at least. We would have Gospel singing every evening, and there were campers set up all over.
“Then over the years, our pilgrimage got smaller and smaller. Now the most we would get is just under 100 people on the Sunday. So I joined the volunteer group and started to help; I really want bring it back to the way it used to be.”
Badger has helped raise funds for new tables, chairs, candles and songbooks. As well, in the last two summers, Badger and other organizers have provided a free breakfast and lunch.
“It’s been growing and hopefully it’s going to get better and better,” said Badger. “I’ve been able to put more word out to people of my generation to come back. We’re trying to see a turnaround.”
Badger is also working to secure provincial government funding to restore Kehewin’s historic Our Lady of Mercy Church by having it declared a provincial historic site. Built in 1915, it’s grey, worn and condemned. Restoring it key to preserving the community’s Catholic identity, she said.
Despite the sometimes difficult history between First Nations and the Catholic Church, Badger hopes local efforts will help create a better future for younger generations. Badger describes her main motivator in two words: “my kids.”
“I don’t ever want to see the faith die,” said Badger, who raises four of her own children as well as a niece and nephew. “I want it to carry it on for generation to generation.”