Lack of public Mass especially painful for Indigenous Catholics

What Candida Shepherd misses the most is community and sacred ceremony.

At Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton, she has always enjoyed greeting elders and other relatives and friends, sharing the smudging ceremony together, and the sounds of drumming and singing. But since the suspension of in-person Mass, the church has fallen silent.

“The hardest part is not being with my community right now,” said Shepherd, who was heavily involved in Sacred Heart, volunteering and planning events as a member of parish council.

“It feels lonely when it comes to my spiritual journey. I miss my elders mostly. We’re an aboriginal church, so I miss smudging with my community. I miss getting hugs from my elders. I miss seeing their faces. I’m not bored, but mostly just lonely and wishing we could get back to it.”

COVID-19 restrictions have temporarily halted public masses and large gatherings at all churches.

Candida and Damian Shepherd say their family misses attending Mass in person.Courtesy of Candida Shepherd

For Indigenous people, it’s a huge change, and one that is felt acutely given their culture and history.

“The whole feel of walking into our community church  ̶  you can’t replace that,” said Shepherd. “That’s the saddest thing about this whole thing and the hardest thing. When you walk into the building, you feel the rush of community, and I know that part is missing.”

“People miss that physical presence,” added Rev. Susai Jesu, the pastor at Sacred Heart parish.

“It’s a community gathering at Sacred Heart where the family gathers once a week. These are the Indigenous cultural practices that they are missing, even though they view it on the screen. They are happy that we have Mass every day, but still they miss the gathering, the spiritual celebrations, the sacred sound, the cultural elements that we incorporate in our Catholic Mass.”

As of April 9, there were 1,423 cases of COViD-19 in Alberta, and 19,774 in Canada. While there is no public information on the breakdown of cases by ethnicity, Shepherd said First Nations feel the effects of the pandemic strongly.

In the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, Indigenous people made up 13 per cent of the 1,276 Albertans hospitalized and 16 per cent of the cases treated in intensive care units, even though they accounted for only four per cent of the general Alberta population. (Pandemic (H1N1) 2009: The Alberta Experience)

“When I think about our community in particular, I think about how strong we have to be in our faith, because disease affected our people hundreds of years ago,” said Shepherd, a Metis-Cree who teaches special education and in the aboriginal program at Bev Facey High School in Sherwood Park.

“We pray very hard for God’s guidance and for him to heal us and help us through this time. In our First Nations culture, this has a cultural bearing to it. When we sit in prayer, when we are doing the rosary, we’re praying very hard for people who are vulnerable and our culture has a connection to that.

“The whole colonializing of North America and how huge percentages of our people died from disease  ̶  that has a cultural bearing on how our people talk about this and see this,” Shepherd adds.

“Aboriginal people, First Nations people, there is a lot of vulnerability when they have to go into the hospital. I think they feel that vulnerability. Our history in Canada has not been great on how we handle and take care of First Nations people, especially with health. I think there is a higher level of fear. It’s hard to self-isolate. It’s hard to feel like a doctor will take care of you. You just don’t feel like you can be vulnerable when it comes to health when you’re First Nations.”

It’s keeping that sense of community that is the antidote to vulnerability, Shepherd said.

Owen Shepherd joins the drummers at Sacred Heart parish.Courtesy of Candida Shepherd

Father Jesu livestreams Mass daily. The April 5 Mass alone was viewed by more than 9,000 people across Western Canada. He also has a list of elders he phones every day to maintain that connection. Parishioners say those calls, and Sacred Heart Church’s Facebook page, have been a faith lifeline.

“It’s our number one connection to staying involved,” Shepherd said. “It’s so much easier to do that with my kids rather than having to force it on them, because I’m having to force so many other things, like no technology and you have to be up at 9 a.m. for school and all that stuff. I feel like I’m in teacher mode for them, which is difficult. My kids are very aware that Easter is coming up. We’re trying to do acknowledge it as much as we can.”

Like most Albertans, Shepherd, her husband and two teenaged kids are self-isolating. Their basement has become a mini-classroom and a miniature church with the livestream Mass on each day.

“Whether they’re engaged at service or not, it was on in the background. The iPad was on. We could hear Father talking. We could hear the readings. Every once in a while, my son would comment on the Scripture,” Shepherd said.

“Even though they’re not participating in the Mass and I’m not forcing them to sit down and watch and participate, it’s on as they are doing their work. It’s subtle, but at least it’s a continual reminder that that is our community and we will get back to that community as soon as we can.”

One addition she’s made to her faith life is listening to a podcast on her daily walk with her dog “just so that I can have a Bible study in midday, and being able to do it while I’m exercising has been really good.

“It’s kind of kept reminding me that I have to do a little more praying and I have to be more diligent in doing it a different way, so I don’t feel so lonely.”

That need for community connection makes Father Susai optimistic the parish is growing.

“People have realized that they need more gathering, more physical presence. When things become normal, I’m expecting that they will bring more people into this family gathering. There will be more people coming together to celebrate the Eucharist.  They’ll be longing to come back and be seated in the pews, and go around the church and smudge and drum.”