FORT SIMPSON, N.W.T. – Forgiveness. It’s a difficult road for most, even longer and tougher for the Dene of Fort Simpson and the surrounding Deh Cho area who survived residential school.
But here they are – men, women, elders and their families, filling seats that spill over into the back kitchen, celebrating the new $1.3-million Sacred Heart Church in Fort Simpson, a village of 1,200 some 600 kilometres west of Yellowknife.
The old church building, built in the 1920, was torn down. The new church opened on Sept. 17 thanks in part to the Archdiocese of Edmonton, which contributed through its Together We Serve annual appeal, as well as donations from the local community, private donors, Catholic Missions in Canada, and the Diocese of Hamilton.
There are high hopes for the future of the new building among the people of the Deh Cho region, including healing the relationship with the Church – in part, by incorporating the Dene language, spirituality and traditions into the Mass and other ceremonies.
“We’re very hopeful that this new church will make it possible for there to be a real, future Dene church,” said Nick Sibbeston, a former federal senator, who is a longtime parishioner at Sacred Heart. “The Catholic Church has to recognize and, just out of respect, incorporate some of the Dene spirituality and practice.”
Sibbeston resigned his seat in November, in part to spend more time bringing Dene traditions into the Catholic Church.
Sacred Heart is located directly opposite an empty lot where the Lapointe Hall residential school was demolished in 2010. The former school, built in the 1950s, had been run by the Oblate Brothers of Mary Immaculate, the missionaries in Fort Simpson and the Northwest Territories.
The new church was packed for the consecration ceremony, but the parish often struggles to have more than 50 people on Sundays. Many Dene people in the community are residential school survivors still struggling with their relationship to the Church and to Catholic missionaries in the North.
Crossing that road to begin healing the relationship with the Catholic Church has been difficult, survivors say, but the new church building is a crucial signpost.
“Thank God. All I can say is thank God. My dad taught me all about my native spirituality, what God really means to him, and this is now brought into the church,” said Rose Betthale-Reid, a former student at Lapointe Hall, tearing up after the consecration Mass.
“We have to learn from our history, our battlegrounds, what we went through – now we’re going through the healing.”
Sibbeston, who attended residential schools in Fort Simpson, Inuvik and Yellowknife, is among the leaders of that healing, by pushing to have the Dene take a greater leadership role in their parishes.
“There’s a kind of a backlash and anger at the Church for putting them through residential school and they have rejected the modern Church,” said Sibbeston. “If we could Dene-cize the Church, we could use our language and we could have songs in our own language, people will come back.”
A small group of parishioners at Sacred Heart Parish, Sibbeston among them, translates the Mass into Dene on Sundays. A birch-bark basket and moose-hide blanket are used to collect the offering and drumming is often part of the celebration.
“This is something I’ve always dreamed about, something that has our culture in it. It’s not just sitting down, kneeling down, praying,” Betthale-Reid said. “It’s hearing our drums and everything, that bring us so much peace with God.
“We are with the land, the animals and the people around our church. That’s where we spiritually grew up and are getting stronger. We’re starting to use our language, our native tongue, and our drums, which is so awesome.”
On Saturdays, Sibbeston attends a Mass for Dene elders at local long-term care facility, translating the Gospel, homily and key prayers into South Slavey, the local Dene dialect.
“Enculturation is a way – most of the Catholics here are aboriginal – of honouring and living the life of the people,” said Bishop Mark Hagemoen, the former head of the Mackenzie-Fort Smith Diocese.
Church leaders say it has been a key message since Pope John Paul II, who visited Fort Simpson in 1987, and locally through Bishop Emeritus Denis Croteau, who recognized the need for local Dene leadership.
“In many communities, the rosary is recited before Mass begins and each decade is led by an elder who may have a small exhortation or a prayer intention to make, and that’s expressed in Dene,” Hagemoen noted. “It’s very moving and very beautiful.”
Nevertheless, Sibbeston said the Dene want more.
Many would like to see the Feeding the Fire ceremony – a traditional Dene practice in which a large fire is built to honour the air, land, water and all of God’s creation. It’s been a part of other services, but parishioners want to see it incorporated into Mass.
“How that’s done is the task of liturgists, bishops, the people to discern what is appropriate,” Hagemoen said. “That’s exciting and important. It’s not open season, and the Dene elders will be the first to tell you what shouldn’t be part of the Catholic Mass, and it’s good wisdom to guide a young bishop.”
Hagemoen said he supports more enculturation, but in the Mackenzie-Fort Smith Diocese it will be for his successor to decide. He has since been appointed Bishop of Saskatoon.
What the Dene want most, Sibbeston said, is the blessing that the Dene traditions can be an integral part of the Catholic Church.
“We almost need for someone to tell us it’s OK,” Sibbeston said. “There are no more priests, no more sisters. It’s either us do something, or there’s nothing. There’s been a slow growth of the Dene people being involved in the Church, participating and leading, and that’s where we are now.”
Sibbeston is hopeful after his own long journey towards healing his relationship with the Church.
He was 5 1/2 years old when he was sent to residential school, coming home during the summer to visit his grandmother who was a member of Sacred Heart Parish.
Sibbeston went on to become a lawyer, Member of the Legislative Assembly, and Premier of the Northwest Territories. But like many residential school survivors, outward success masked inner sadness, depression and loneliness.
“I feel that I wasn’t a very good father. I drank. And I wasn’t able to cope with what a normal family would have been. Because I didn’t know how,” Sibbeston said.
His wife Karen said she and their six children also suffered indirectly from Nick’s years in residential school, combined with his political work that took him away from Fort Simpson.
“I didn’t feel like I could present with them sometimes. There were a lot of times where I was kind of preoccupied with where he might be or what was going on with him . . . I was caught up in that as well, emotionally and mentally.”
Nick Sibbeston went through a period where he hated the Catholic Church, where he could have “burned the church down” because he was so angry, but he credits faith, Marriage Encounter workshops and – most of all – prayer, for positioning him on the road toward healing.
“I turn to God and in my spiritual life, there’s been my grandmother and a number of Dene elders who I really respect. I turn to them and ask them for their help and I talk to them because I know they’re in heaven close to God and Jesus, and invariably I get help from them,” Sibbeston said.
“I recognized that if there’s any badness, it was just human beings that were maybe not very good. I was able to recognize that but at the same time, forgive.”
In spite of his years in residential school and his own past, Sibbeston said the future of the Catholic Church in the Northwest Territories depends on making it much more relevant by continuing to incorporate Dene traditions and getting local people involved.
“Believe it or not, I used to say ‘Let the Church finish. Let the Church burn down, and from the ashes of that, then there will be a local Dene church’ . . . and in my view, this is what’s happening. That’s the true hope for the Catholic Church in the North.”