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.
Across the Kehewin Cree Nation, Alan Badger is known as a man of faith. He is respected as an elder and pipe holder in his people’s sacred ceremonies. His knowledge of the Cree language, culture and religious traditions leads many locals to him for spiritual direction and insight.
But the deep roots Badger has to the Cree culture is only one side of his spiritual life — he is also a devout Catholic.
“I’m one of those rare people where, if you want to come into my pipe ceremonies, you better believe in the Ten Commandments,” Badger says as he points his finger for emphasis. “You better believe the Bible belongs here just as much as my peace pipe does.”
Hills, lakes and ponds are scattered across the Kehewin reserve Badger calls home, which today has a population of just under 1,000. He has spent his life in this northeastern Alberta community, 45 kilometres east of St. Paul, as part of a family that kept both Christ and their Cree identity close to heart.
When he takes on his role as pipe holder in the sacred pipe ceremony, Badger serves as a holy man — similar to a priest during Mass. The pipe holder blesses the tobacco through prayer and offers words of spiritual wisdom at the end. Pipe ceremonies are typically held four times a year, to correspond to each season.
Ever since he was a child, Badger has also participated in powwows, sweat lodges and sun dances — traditions practised by First Nations across the Prairies. In the sun dance ceremony, people gather around a chief tree to offer sacred dances and songs. What separates his experience from others is the words of his father, who would often tell his son that the stories of the Bible also come through in these ancestral practices.
“There is a chief tree in the middle of the sun dance, and my dad always taught me that this tree represents the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden,” Badger explained. “At the top of that tree we would make a nest using dried branches, and that represents the crown of thorns that Jesus wore.
“It has always been my contention that in both the Catholic Mass and our native ceremonies we put the Creator first.”
In the Diocese of St. Paul, which covers the northeastern corner of Alberta, Indigenous people make up roughly 35 per cent of the Catholic population. Of the 40 communities served by the diocese, 10 are First Nations and four are Métis settlements.
The relationship between the Catholic faith and the Indigenous people of the diocese goes back centuries. In the 1800s, the France-based Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate travelled across Alberta and brought Catholicism to the Indigenous people. The oldest Catholic parish in Alberta, The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin in Fort Chipewyan, was founded in 1847.
“The faith is still alive in the First Nations community. They are very, very religious,” said Rev. Jhack Diaz, pastor of the Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Kehewin. “They have a deep connection to the Creator. It’s an essential priority with them — to acknowledge the divine.”
Given the history of residential schools and colonialism, the relationship between First Nations and the Catholic Church is marked in part by tragedy, abuse and conflict. But in their faith and customs, these two worlds may have more in common than apart.
Across the Diocese of St. Paul, there are people who have a passion both for their Indigenous roots and their Catholic faith in equal measure. Along with the elders of these Catholic communities, many young people share that passion.
The same interconnection Badger has between his Cree and Catholic identity has been passed on to his 31-year-old daughter Allison. As she walks across an open field to the 100-year-old Our Lady of Mercy chapel in Kehewin — a rustic and abandoned church she hopes will one day be restored — she details her devotion to Christ and her Cree ancestry.
“It was really easy for me to stay in line with both. I don’t know how many times my dad has read the Bible and told us stories,” she said. “For me, the Catholic faith and Cree culture are my way of life. I not only help out with our masses and get the word out to the community, I help my kids stay in touch with their culture. I encourage them to learn their language and at the same time teach them about Jesus.”
It’s an identity that both Allison and her father see as complementary. Allison noted that the Indigenous practice of smudging — blessing oneself with the smoke of burning sweetgrass — is similar to the use of incense and the blessing with holy water at Mass. In fact, when Kehewin expanded its cemetery grounds, both Catholic priests and pipe holders were invited by the Diocese of St. Paul to bless the land with holy water and the Cree people’s sacred tobacco.
At the heart of both Catholic and Indigenous spirituality is the presence of God. Before their contact with European settlers and Catholic missionaries, Indigenous people already knew a Creator who was invisible, always present, and maker and authority over all things.
“In the Catholic faith and the Aboriginal community, the Lord is No. 1,” said Phyllis Collins, a Métis Catholic who lives in Elizabeth Settlement, about 30 kilometres outside of Cold Lake.
“We always had that connection to the Creator; that’s been with us forever. I think Aboriginal people were really blessed, because they already had this deep understanding of the Lord before we were exposed to any outside world.”
Gary Gagnon has made it his mission to build a bridge between Catholic and Indigenous spirituality. A former Aboriginal relations coordinator with the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, he works as a cultural facilitator with Edmonton Catholic Schools. He agrees that above all, it is the worship of God that can unite these two worlds in a shared faith.
“The common denominator is the higher power,” Gagnon said. “Whether we call it God, Great Spirit or Creator ̶ that’s where our focus should always be. Catholics and Indigenous people recognize that God is everywhere and He’s with us at all times.
“The journey to recognizing that can be different, but the similarities are there if you have an open mind and open heart to see it. We didn’t always have the Church, but we always had ceremonies and practices that reflected our worship of God.”
That bridge between Catholic and Indigenous cultures is also being built through language. Rev. Manoj Mannakathu, affectionately known as Father Phillip, is the pastor in the Cree communities of Goodfish Lake and Saddle Lake. With the help of elders, Father Phillip is working to bring more of his parishioners’ culture into the Mass.
Now when the priest raises his voice and sings the Penitential Act at Mass, he sings “Lord have mercy” in Cree: “Manito Kitimakinawinan.”
Father Phillip belongs to the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate order in India. It was there he first experienced how parishes combine cultural traditions and Catholicism.
“In my order, Hindu customs were adapted to the Church — during the holy Mass, feast days, and the procession,” he said. “We decorate with emblems from the Hindu culture, and we bring musical instruments of the Hindu tradition into the Church.”
When Father Phillip first asked an elder of Goodfish Lake’s St. Matthias Church to teach him to sing part of the Mass in Cree, the elder thought he must be joking.
“When she finally taught me these words and I sang them – the response from the people was very positive. They really like to hear the Cree songs coming from me.”
“Soon maybe we will start doing the Our Father prayer in Cree. But only once I master that prayer will we start saying it at the Mass,” he added with a laugh.
Among the younger parishioners in Goodfish Lake, Father Phillip says many do not know how to speak Cree. In some respects, the Catholic Mass may now help them regain some of the language.
The incorporation of Indigenous culture is evident in other parishes of the diocese as well. St. Kateri Tekakwitha, Canada’s first Indigenous saint, has a special place across the St. Paul area. Her icon can be found at the parishes of Kehewin and Goodfish Lake and at the St. Paul Cathedral, where an annual Mass in her honour is held each year. In the Métis Settlement of Fishing Lake, 100 kilometres east of St. Paul, Cree hymns are sung every Christmas and Easter at the St. Eugene Parish.
In recent years, strides have been made to acknowledge and develop the commonalities between Catholic and Indigenous faith practices, said Gagnon. Through his work in the Edmonton area, pipe ceremonies and drum circles are now celebrated within Edmonton Catholic schools.
Some Catholics may worry that ceremonies like the sun dance involve the worship not of God but of nature. But Gagnon says this misrepresents the real meaning of the sun dance.
“God made everything on earth for a purpose — we understand that as Indigenous people,” he said. “The forests and the land provided us with everything, even our medication is diminutive of the earth.
“So it isn’t that we worship the tree in the sun dance, it’s that we honour that tree. What we worship in those ceremonies is God. When we recognize Mother Earth, we’re recognizing the creation that God provided for us.”
Walking the halls of the Sacred Heart Centre in Edmonton, Gagnon passes a portrait of Pope St. John Paul II and walks into the room reserved for Indigenous pipe ceremonies. As well, there is a ceremonial room for Indigenous people at the district’s Ben Calf Robe – St. Clare Catholic School.
Gagnon recognizes these as steps forward in Catholic-Indigenous relationships. Through dialogue and education, he believes the bond between the two religious practices can only grow stronger.
“There’s a long way to go yet. There are still many people whose thinking is this has a negative, almost ‘pagan’ influence,” said Gagnon. “But we’re not here to change canon law. We’re not here to change the prayers of the Eucharist. That is sacred, and we understand that word ‘sacredness,’ We’re just trying to honour our love of God and our relationship with Him.
“That’s why we promote our culture, because what we’re really promoting is God. We’re not forcing our culture into the Church, we’re allowing it to happen and to grow with the Holy Spirit.”
One crucial way that Indigenous culture has grown with the Holy Spirit and forged into their church communities is through the kôhkom, Cree for ‘grandmother’.
Traditionally, the kôhkom is at the centre of the Indigenous family. She is the retainer of their beliefs and traditions and considered a great source of wisdom and values to her grandchildren. In this role, grandmothers have shaped parish life for many reserves.
“Before European contact, First Nations people lived in very matriarchal societies,” said Bishop Paul Terrio of the Diocese of St. Paul.
“Grandmothers continue to be very important now, especially in the raising of children and handing on of the traditions. That tradition fitted into their Catholicism, and grandmothers tend to be very important in the parishes.
“They are the nurturers and guardians of our traditions.”
Across the Indigenous Catholic households of the St. Paul diocese, the kôhkom is the foundational force in passing on the Catholic faith to the next generation. Since childhood, Allison Badger’s grandmother played a vital role in bringing her to church and closer to the faith. Badger still makes an active effort today to visit her kôhkom and pray the rosary with her.
When the community of Fishing Lake celebrated the 50th anniversary of St. Eugene Church on May 26, it was the female elders of the community like Doreen Berlinguette who spearheaded and organized the celebration. Because they no longer have a full-time resident priest, Berlinguette says much of the church activity depends on the passion and direction of their church elders.
“Our church community has to come together to ensure things happen,” she said. “Some of the women here teach catechism and prepare First Communion, and we organize fundraisers like pancake breakfasts to raise money for the church.
“We’re trying to ensure there’s a future. So long as there’s still young people that follow the faith and there’s still the older people teaching it to them, the faith will always be here.”
In Goodfish Lake, church elder and grandmother Florence Castor plays a leading role in keeping the Goodfish community involved with their St. Matthias Parish.
As she speaks above the sound of children running around the chapel before Sunday Mass, Castor details her work preparing the youngest parishioners for Baptism and First Communion.
In the summer she runs a children’s program for all Christian denominations.
Like many other elders and kôhkoms of the Diocese of St. Paul, Castor’s continual prayer is to keep the flame of faith alive in the next generation.
“I try to set an example in hopes that one day other people will do the same, and there will be leaders in this community that will take over,” Castor said. “The elders were always the pillars of our church; we’re just continuing that tradition.”