Young missionaries discover rich faith and generosity in troubled northern communities
A group of young Catholic missionaries is getting a reality check of what life is like in the North.
And they’re bringing their gifts and testimonies to the youth who need it most.
“I think maintaining hope and bringing the light of Christ into these communities has definitely been what we’re aiming for,” said Avery Burrowes, one of six missionaries in The Pas, Man., volunteering with National Evangelization Teams (NET) Canada.
In Edmonton for training in January, the group members shared insights and the challenges they face as they encourage Dene and Cree youth in the northern Archdiocese of Keewatin–The Pas to love Christ.
The archdiocese has 50 parishes and missions and covers a vast area across northern Manitoba, northern Saskatchewan, and a small corner of northwestern Ontario. The NET group will continue visiting parishes and schools in the Archdiocese until late May.
The NET missionaries are based in Ontario and range in age from 18 to 28. Over a 10-month period, each team meets and prays with young people, distributes Bibles and rosaries, and invites young people to start their own faith journey. In addition to musical and theatrical presentations, they share their own personal testimonies about encounters with Christ.
Many of the missionaries on the Keewatin-The Pas team say they were struck by the faith that already exists in the northern communities.
“Every community has a devotion to Our Lady,” said Catherine Shortell, 20.
“One man didn’t go to church, but he remembered Mary. They find a lot of comfort in Our Lady.”
Emma Sguigna added: “It’s been super beautiful. They’re showing the love of Christ.”
She also discovered the generosity of the people of the North, despite their poverty.
“We drove one woman home and she came back out with wild chickens and bannock for us.”
At a recent stop in Pukatawagan, nearly 900 km northwest of Winnipeg, the team reached out to 80 students from kindergarten to Grade 12. After a classroom presentation with a group of Grade 10 students, one opened up to Burrowes.
“He shared some really intense struggles with family situations, mental illnesses, foster care ̶ the kind of issues most people don’t face, or they face one of these things, not all of them,” Burrowes said.
The missionary group sat and talked with him for half an hour.
Many of the NET missionaries were nervous about being in the North because of the history of residential schools and its effects. But they have been welcomed in the schools, said Sguigna.
“Most 16-year-olds are open to praying,” said Burrowes.
The NET members are welcomed in the North, said Christine Maracle, the healing programs coordinator for the Archdiocese of Keewatin–The Pas.
“I think they do great work because the youth really need it. The communities are pretty broken,” said Maracle, a registered psychiatric nurse who works with young people and elders.
The missionaries say the biggest challenge for them has been adjusting to the slower pace in the North.
Coming from a culture where everyone talks fast, missionary Maria Brown said the team makes a concerted effort to take time to listen, and embrace Northerners’ long pauses of silence.
“Silence is very important, to reflect on everything. We found a lot of peace,” Brown said.
Now that she has spent time in the North, “it’s a culture shock to come back” to big cities like Edmonton.
At the same time, the NET missionaries are not immune to the heavy feelings that come in the isolating landscape of the North, especially at this time of year, when days are dark.
“You feel a disconnect from everyone really, but even in that, in so many ways the Lord is working in that,” said Burrowes.
In The Pas, Maracle helps the missionaries with their own mental health. “It’s a different world. It’s different here. There’s a lot of deaths, things they’re not used to, coming from their homes.”
For Catherine Shortell in particular, being a NET missionary is personally fulfilling.
Born in Belleville, Ont., Shortell was raised Catholic but stopped attending Mass at age 12. She became depressed and battled mental health issues in her teens.
“It was less of a physical illness and more spiritual. A lack of hope.”
During a stay in hospital, Shortell realized she wasn’t alone, and felt the presence of God with her.
Shortell returned to the Church after a faith camp with her family and graduating high school. She felt called to missions, first to Prince Edward Island with NET and now to The Pas.
Shortell said the most fulfilling part has been seeing peoples’ faces light up when she shares how God has worked in her life and “being able to change how other people see their lives.”
Burrowes adds: “It’s been awesome to connect with some of the leaders and empower them and pray with them and encourage them in the ministry that they’re doing in their community.
“So that’s been a really awesome blessing, to be there and to witness the leaders and be that example and share our lives with them.”