After almost 11 months without a parish priest, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas has dispatched two members of the Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales in India to serve as priests in Thompson and some of its eight outlying missions for the next two to three years at least.
The appointments of Father Subhash Joseph, who likes to be called Father Joseph, and Father Gunasekhar Pothula, who likes to be called Father Guna, were confirmed by the archdiocesan chancery office in The Pas July 5.
Thompson is by far the largest community in the historic Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) missionary Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas, which takes in takes in some 430,000 square kilometres and stretches across the northern parts of three province – Saskatchewan, Manitoba and a small portion of Northwestern Ontario.
The farthest point west is LaLoche, Saskatchewan, near the Alberta border. The farthest point north is Lac Brochet here in Manitoba and the farthest point east is Sandy Lake in Northwestern Ontario. There are 49 missions in the archdiocese: 27 in Manitoba, 21 in Saskatchewan and one in Ontario.
Les Oblats de Marie Immaculée, or The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), established the first mission at Ile-à-la-Crosse, Sask. in 1860. In its most recent statistical picture released five years ago in June 2007, the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas listed 11 Oblates of Mary Immaculate, three diocesan priests and one other religious priest – for a total of 15 priests to serve all of Northern Manitoba, Northern Saskatchewan and part of Northwestern Ontario. The average age of the clergy five years ago was 69.
What is happening in Thompson at St. Lawrence is part of a historic sea change, happening across Northern Canada, as the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) after 150 years in the North, face the reality of an aging clergy that is dropping precipitously in numbers with each passing year. In a nutshell, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) have had no one of their own to send to Thompson, without in effect robbing Peter to pay Paul, since Father Eugene Whyte, 68, one of the area's longest-serving clergy, left on sabbatical last Aug. 28. A member of the order's Lacombe Province, Father Eugene had previously served in locales ranging from Nova Scotia to Zimbabwe before arriving in Thompson in 2005. Father Eugene, who was in Australia last month, was back in Thompson this week before taking up his new posting in Saskatoon. He is spending the weekend in Gillam with Father Guna and was to leave Thompson July 16.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, a nationally known columnist with both the daily National Post and Catholic Register newspapers, wrote about the daunting challenges facing the Oblates in Northern Canada in a two-part series last month. In his first column headlined, "The challenging capacity of Canada's far north," which ran in the Catholic Register June 5, Father de Souza wrote: "Bishop (Gary) Gordon [Diocese of Whitehorse in the Yukon] speaks about the heroic work done for generations by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the great missionaries of the west and the north.
"The once formidable religious order was a 'conduit of capacity,' bringing personnel from France and eastern Canada to the north, and the money necessary to sustain both missionaries and missions. The Oblates were, in resource allocation terms, an efficient means of transferring capacity from the south to the north. After an impressive run, the Oblates themselves are running low on capacity. There is one left in active ministry in the Yukon, serving as rector of the cathedral. He lives with two others, well into their 90s, one of whom still offers Sunday Mass in a local mission. Unable to attract new vocations for generations, the Oblates now belong to the history of the Church's mission in the north, not the future," de Souza wrote.
The solution for the priest shortage for the Catholic church being embraced in Northern Canada, and indeed much of North America, appears now in large part to turn on the good graces of bishops in areas of the world, especially in African and Asia, where it sent its mainly white European missionaries to in the 18th and 19th centuries, hoping they will now in turn – in the 21st century – send their indigenous missionaries here, a phenomenon that has been explored at some length by John L. Allen Jr., senior correspondent for the Kansas City-based National Catholic Reporter, and one of the leading English-language journalism experts in the world on the Vatican, as well as the author of seven books on the Catholic Church, including the 2009 book, The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church.
Father Prosper Baltazar Lyimo, a diocesan priest from Arusha in the Archdiocese of Arusha in northern Tanzania in East Africa, who received his doctoral degree in canon law June 2, conferred jointly by Saint Paul University and the University of Ottawa, had been on loan between Feb. 6 and July 3 for a second secondment to St. Lawrence, courtesy of Archbishop Josaphat Louis Lebulu of Arusha. Father Prosper was also here earlier from the middle of last August until last Oct. 2 when he returned to Ottawa for his PhD defence on the topic of polygamy in sub-Saharan Africa. Father Lyimo had spent three years in Canada to study when he got the call to help out at St. Lawrence initially with summer replacement ministry.
Father Eugene interrupted his sabbatical to return to Thompson and St. Lawrence after his fall sojourn in France for the Christmas season from last Dec. 14 until Jan. 22 when he left for San Antonio, Texas and the Pat Guidon Center at the Oblate School of Theology, where he was accepted into the four-month Ministry to Ministers Sabbatical Program, focusing on the renewal of personal and spiritual growth, addressing the needs of body, mind and spirit. The centre was named to honour Father Patrick Guidon, who served as president of the Oblate School of Theology from 1970 until 1995. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate came to Texas in 1849 at the request of Texas' first Roman Catholic bishop. The Oblate School of Theology was founded in San Antonio in 1903 as the San Antonio Philosophical and Theological Seminary.
Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie, the head of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas, who has been on medical leave since last December, said last August the hope was to have Father Prosper for most of the first half of this year while the archdiocese's search for "a more permanent priestly presence for St. Lawrence parish in Thompson and also the surrounding missions that Father Eugene was serving" continued. Prior to Father Eugene's arrival in the fall of 2005, Father Martin Bradbury, who is now parochial administrator of Holy Cross Church in the Archdiocese of Saint Boniface in Winnipeg, served at St. Lawrence for several years.
As well as serving as pastor of St. Lawrence, Father Eugene also travelled, often on at least a monthly basis by road, to outlying mission churches, including St. Michael's in Nelson House; Christ the King in Leaf Rapids, St. Helen's in South Indian Lake; St. Maria Goretti in Lynn Lake, and his farthest destination, Kinoosao, Saskatchewan, about 95 kilometres northwest of Lynn Lake, and just west of the Manitoba border.
In Kinoosao, Father Eugene would say mass on Monday mornings rather than Sunday because of his schedule and the distances involved. Kinoosao is only accessible by Manitoba Provincial Route (PR) 394 and Saskatchewan Highway 994, one of that province's shortest highways at 1.11 kilometres in length, and the only provincial highway in Saskatchewan that requires entering a neighbouring province to travel it. Kinoosao, which means "fish" in Cree, is one of only two communities in Saskatchewan accessible solely by first entering through Manitoba.
He also travelled to Thicket Portage, Gillam and Lac Brochet and Brochet at various times during his tenure here.
Father Prosper was able to get out to Gillam once in February, shortly after his second arrival, but most of the mission churches haven't seen a Catholic priest from St. Lawrence in close to a year now.
The Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales, to which Father Joseph and Father Guna belong, was founded by Fr. Peter Marie Mermier from Vouray in the parish of Chaumont en Genevois in the Savoy region of France in October 1838 for parish mission, foreign mission and youth education. They are also known as the Fransalians.
Pope Pius XI proclaimed St. Francis de Sales in 1923 as the patron saint of writers and journalists. Francis de Sales was born in France and lived at the time of the Protestant Reformation, becoming Bishop of Geneva. He had lots of exposure to Calvinism and predestination and was noted for his diplomacy in the volatile, heated religious climate of the day in Switzerland. He's honoured as one of the doctors of the Catholic Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion.
The French religious order has long had a presence in India. The Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales reached Vishakapatnam in 1846 and from there travelled to various parts of India for new missionary endeavours. From Vishakapatnam they proceeded to central India and established mission stations at Aurangabad, Kamptee, Nagpur and Jabalpur, which led to the establishment of the Nagpur Province. The congregation's missionary activity in the Seven Sister States of Northeast India began at Vishakapatnam.