In April 2022, a deadline loomed in the Northwest Territories village of Fort Simpson. Somehow, the community needed to pay back a massive loan for a new church. 

The problem had begun years earlier. Almost a century after it was built, Fort Simpson’s Sacred Heart Church was beginning to fall apart.

Originally constructed in 1920, the building had welcomed generations of residents to be baptized, married and eulogized within its walls. 

It also carried other reminders of the past. 

For decades, the church faced the Lapointe Hall residential school, which carried dark memories for residents until its demolition in 2010. Both the church and school were run by the Oblate Brothers of Mary Immaculate – one of whom, Camille Piché, is now accused of a sexual assault while working in Fort Simpson in the early 1980s.

By 2009, the church itself was failing. Services could no longer be held inside the building because of health and safety concerns.

“It was not habitable,” said Father Macleen Anyanwu, who serves communities across the Dehcho, including Fort Simpson. 

“It was so bad that they couldn’t wash it any longer. And how was the money going to come? It was a big, big task for them.”

In 2013, Sacred Heart Church was demolished.

Bottles, cans, a bike and a building

When a community needs a new church, the money usually comes from donations. But northerners must contend with costs of materials and labour that are far higher than the national average, and often don’t have the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed for that kind of project.

Even so, when Sacred Heart Church came down, churchgoers in Fort Simpson moved their masses to Líídlįį Kúę Elementary School and began raising money. 

One parishioner – William Villeneuve, who taught himself to ride a tricycle as a way to regain mobility after a stroke – is said to have single-handedly raised $80,000 by collecting bottles and cans on his bike. Villeneuve passed away last month at the age of 79. 

By 2017, the community had raised $300,000. A large sum, but nowhere near enough.

The congregation applied for a loan through the Catholic Church, an application accepted by the Diocese of Hamilton in Ontario. The Archdiocese of Edmonton and a number of Catholic Missions also contributed funding. 

At last, a new $1.3-million dollar church was built for Fort Simpson – with the understanding that the loan would be repaid over the next five years.

“We were supposed to start repaying the loan in 2020, but then COVID broke out,” said Anyanwu. “We couldn’t do anything. We were in lockdown, no one was going to church, and that was no way to raise the funds we needed.”

The diocese granted a year-long extension but the village was still in the pandemic’s grip by 2021. Church leaders were now concerned about where the money could possibly come from.

Then, Anyanwu said, an “unimaginable miracle” happened in April 2022: “We got a letter from the bishop that the loan has been forgiven.”

Anyanwu said Fort Simpson residents couldn’t believe it. “People don’t just forgive like that,” they said. But the letter was real, and he remembers the sense of “jubilance” that broke out.

Martina Norwegian, who acts as a lay presider and leads services when Anyanwu is away, said to be forgiven that sum of money was “unbelievable” – and an opportunity for the village to make the church its own.

“Now that we’re debt-free, it’s really our church,” she told Cabin Radio, “and so we have to make it ours. How can we draw people to it? How can we get people to come back who are lost and hurting? A quarter of the medicine wheel is spirituality and, for so many people, that’s missing. What can we do, now, to fill that quarter?”

Norwegian said there are some Catholic rituals that Fort Simpson parishioners “don’t really connect with, but we can’t change them unless the Pope changes them.” Instead, she said, Indigenous people are trying to incorporate their culture – physically and spiritually – within the church. 

“Like drums,” she said, giving examples. “We burn sage. When we have funerals, I always tell people: ‘It doesn’t matter what you want to do, within reason, because this is it. This is the final goodbye. How can we help you with it?’

“It’s the same with prayer. A lot of times things finish at noon, but I’ll stay till three, and it’s amazing who walks in and just wants to talk.” 

Around the building are examples of Dene heritage and tradition that have found a home in the new church, like donated beadwork, birchbark baskets and carved antlers.

Anyone familiar with the Northwest Territories knows this blend of Dene and Catholic spirituality. Drummers make the sign of the cross after singing a prayer song. Elders use “God” and “Creator” interchangeably. 

Mary Jane Cazon, a Dene Elder and spiritual leader, guides ceremonies and culture camps in Fort Simpson. She says this blending between faiths has a long history of churches and Christian symbols appearing in Dene storytelling

“My late father told me how my great-grandfather, when he looked on a very nice beautiful day, he saw a big cross on the sun,” she said. “From that day, they started making a cross on themselves and praying, because they realized there were other things out there that could help them. So that was how they started making the sign of the cross on their body, over themselves, before they started feeding the fire.

“The prophecies and stories of my late mother and father and my grandparents, they always told us that when you go to church, all your deceased family members line up in the back of the church, waiting for somebody to pray for them. And as soon as someone comes into the church, they’re happy because they know that somebody is going to pray for them.” 

Mary Jane goes with Gilbert Cazon, her husband, to Sacred Heart every Sunday. They believe Dene and Catholic teachings are each valuable.   

“We go to church because we want to listen to the messages that have been going through the masses for thousands of years,” Gilbert said. “Those messages have been refined and used for humanity to learn to respect each other, to love one another, and to continue in a wellness way. 

“In our culture and in our way of life, we don’t see it as a bad thing when people come to pass on these messages. We look at the bigger picture. My wife and I accept all ways, and all religions.” 

Does Anyanwu ever experience pushback from the church over the practice of Dene spirituality and traditions in a Catholic place?

“Not from my superiors, no, but sometimes from First Nations people in the community,” he said. “I don’t blame them, because how they were brought up, what they were told in residential schools. They lost their identity, their language, their traditions. 

“But I tell them, even in my community – in my country, which is Nigeria – we do what is called incorporation. We bring culture into the liturgy, and dress, and it becomes spiritual. I don’t see anything wrong in that.

“People can’t be removed from their traditions. The path forward for reconciliation is to encourage the people to worship God meaningfully in their own tradition, and to blend it with the liturgy of the Catholic Church.” 

A feeling that someone cares

A painting on the wall of the church depicts a ghostly pope, eyes closed, bent in an expression of regret, wearing fringed and beaded robes of buckskin. He floats in a setting sky over a tipi camp. The image apparently came to the artist in a dream. 

Norwegian says the church has helped her through difficult moments in life and now, as a leader, she wants to share that with others. 

“I want people to leave church with the feeling that somebody cares, that they are forgiven,” she said. 

Healing trauma caused by the church in a church might seem counter-intuitive, but Norwegian says it’s not really about the building or the rituals. It’s about a shared experience of healing. 

Looking out over the empty pews after Sunday mass, she smiles. 

“Of course, it’s a very complicated place for me to be, an Indigenous woman in a Catholic church,” she said. 

“I’m no theologian, but I’m always trying to get closer to what the Word really means, trying to understand it. And how powerful is that? For me to be a Dene woman, teaching and preaching in a Catholic church, trying to shift it, trying to understand the word of God?”

For generations in the Dehcho, Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ has been a summer gathering place. Dehcho Dene would pass most of the year without knowing how the rest of the community was doing, before finally reconnecting in June and sharing about the past winter. 

“On Ash Wednesday, we finished at eight,” said Norwegian. “I had just had a really busy day so I made coffee, I found some banana bread. Everyone had left and I was just having a snack because I hadn’t had supper yet. 

“And people driving from up north along the winter road saw the lights on in the church and came in, just to talk and share what they did, what happened, what’s going on up north. 

“And I was thinking, ‘This is how we used to get messages before.’ It was beautiful.” 

By Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 28, 2023

This item reprinted with permission from   Cabin Radio   Yellowknife, NorthWest Territories
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