Pope Benedict XVI on July 16 accepted the resignation of Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie, 65, pursuant to canon 401, §2, because he had become less able to fulfill his office "because of ill health or some other grave cause."
Lavoie had been on medical leave from the missionary Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas since last December. He was archbishop for almost 6½ years, shepherding a primarily First Nations flock, as he has done for most of his 36 years as a priest.
The Most Reverend Sylvain Lavoie, a professed Oblate from the order Les Oblats de Marie Immaculée, or The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), was ordained a priest in 1974. Eugene de Mazenod from Aix-en-Provence in France founded the Oblates order. Pope Leo XII approved the new congregation on Feb. 17, 1826. De Mazenod served as Bishop of Marseille and was elected superior general of the Oblates. He was canonized a saint by Pope John Paul II on Dec. 3, 1995.
On July 11, 2005, Lavoie was appointed coadjutor archbishop for the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas and in less than nine months fully succeeded Archbishop Peter Sutton, who retired to Ottawa, on March 25, 2006. Lavoie's official motto is, "The kingdom of God is among you."
While there is, truth be told, no easy time to be a bishop in the Canadian Catholic Church, Lavoie's appointment came at a particularly tumultuous time in Canada, especially here in the West and the North.
The archdiocese was involved in four residential schools at Beauval, Sturgeon Landing, Guy Hill and Cross Lake. Through the Corporation of Catholic Entities Party to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement (CCEPIRSS), created in 2006 to oversee the undertakings of the group of 54 Catholic dioceses and religious congregations under the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas has been obliged since September 2007 to provide $1 million in cash over five years, $1.6 million of in-kind services and community work over 10 years, as well as support the fundraising Canada Wide Campaign (CWC).
The archdiocese has been meeting that obligation by paying out $200,000 a year since 2007. The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement ended litigation facing the federal government and the four churches that ran the schools, where rampant abuse occurred, for more than a century, and which Lavoie has called, "a system that is now acknowledged as a flawed policy of colonization and assimilation."
In a Dec. 17, 2009 pastoral letter, Lavoie wrote: " We would encourage those from our archdiocese who attended the schools, or had family members and relatives who attended, to contribute to the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] process, so that the historical record can be accurate. Whereas over the past few years many held back from sharing positive experiences out of fear of being politically incorrect, now is the time to speak your truth so that it is heard and recorded."
Under Lavoie, the archdiocese has also been involved in such forward-looking initiatives as Kateri Television, sponsored by the Building Bridges Project of the Assembly of Western Catholic Bishops, and the Returning to Spirit Residential School Healing and Reconciliation program.
The archdiocesan seat and Bishop's House for the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas is at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Cathedral in The Pas. The archdiocese takes in some 430,000 square kilometres and comprises the northern parts of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. The farthest point west is LaLoche, Sask., 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.
The Pope appointed Father Bill Stang, also an Oblate, vicar general and chancellor for the archdiocese, who is also based at the cathedral in The Pas, July 16 as apostolic administrator during the episcopal interregnum.
There are approximately 37,000 Catholics in the archdiocese which includes 45 parishes and missions, with 15 diocesan and religious priests and seven women who are members of religious institutes. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) established the first mission at Ile-à-la-Crosse, Sask. in 1860.
Lavoie was born in North Battleford, Sask. and raised on a farm in Highgate, Sask., belonging to the parish of St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle in Delmas. He attended White Cap School in Highgate, a one-room schoolhouse 5.6 kilometres from the family farm. In the Highgate M-H Beef Club he won awards for his record book as well as for his calf, recalls his younger sister, Jacqueline Lavoie Little.
She also recalled in a document entitled, Family recounts early years in rural Saskatchewan, published by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas in December 2005, that, "While a teenager and young adult, Sylvain was very sociable, and the life of a party. He put his violin on the shelf but took up guitar. He entertained with both his playing and his singing." Lavoie also owned and rode a Honda motorcycle as a teen and went to high school at St. Thomas College in North Battleford.
The future priest and archbishop, during his third year of university, joined an international cast of Up with People, and toured with them for seven months throughout the United States, France and Belgium.
Up with People, with a cast of 70 to 100 students from, on average from 20 countries, was founded by J. Blanton Belk in 1965, as a conservative counterweight to attract young people during the turbulent Sixties. Belk had previously headed Moral Re-Armament (MRA), a religious movement founded by Frank Buchman in the late 1930s, a decade after Buchman founded the Oxford Group in the late 1920s, which would prove influential to Bill Wilson in 1935 and the founding of the 12-step program Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
Belk, looking to channel the idealism and energy being demonstrated by young people in a positive and creative way, received support from such luminaries as former Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and De Witt Wallace, founder of Reader's Digest, in founding Up with People, while numerous critics have ascribed cult-like characteristics to all four organizations – the Oxford Group, Alcoholics Anonymous, Moral Re-Armament and Up with People. The "cult or cure" debate for the organizations has proved largely without resolution.
Lavoie himself has been a long-time supporter of using the spiritual principles found in Alcoholics Anonymous, and as recently as February of last year, facilitated a 12-step retreat, entitled "The Truth Will Set You Free," for about 45 about participants at Providence Centre in Edmonton. He facilitated a similar "Images of Hope" Brother Anthony Local Community Retreat at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta. for 35 participants over eight sessions in May 2008.
Lavoie has often cited the work of Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province, who founded the New Jerusalem Community in Cincinnati in 1971, and the Center for Action and Contemplation and Rohr Institute "in the spirit of a Cosmic Christ" in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1986, which encourages "the transformation of human consciousness through contemplation," and Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk who belongs to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, and is one of the leading proponents of "centering prayer," which places a strong emphasis on interior silence.
Lavoie never served as an altar boy but in 1969, after university and Up with People, headed off to the Oblate Novitiate in Arnprior, Ont. But not before having second thoughts and heading briefly towards Mexico in his Toyota until his engine started knocking for lack of an oil change. He returned to a border town and changed the oil. His engine stopped knocking. Lavoie changed his mind about Mexico and it was onward again to the novitiate in Arnprior.
The archbishop is also an accomplished photographer and has had many opportunities to put his talent in that area to work travelling on pastoral visits throughout the archdiocese.
Lavoie travelled on gravel roads, winter roads, paved pavement, boat, snowmobile and other snow machines and by air when visiting the different missions. The farthest point west is LaLoche, Sask. The distance from the Bishop's House in The Pas to LaLoche, Sask., by car, is 850 kilometres – an 8½-hour drive. Lavoie would have to travel through the Diocese of Prince Albert in Saskatchewan to reach LaLoche in his own archdiocese.
The farthest point east he travelled is Sandy Lake, Ont., a fly-in and Northern Ontario Winter Road Network-only remote Oji-Cree First Nations community in Northwestern Ontario, 450 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg and 600 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.
The distance from the Bishop's House to Sandy Lake is a combined six-hour drive to Winnipeg, followed by a one- hour plane ride.
The farthest point north is Lac Brochet, reached by a four-hour drive from The Pas to Thompson and then an hour flight from Thompson to Lac Brochet. En route to Lac Brochet, Lavoie would sometimes stay at the rectory at St. Lawrence Church on Cree Road in Thompson overnight waiting to catch a morning flight and show up in church to help out the resident pastor here confessions, as he did March 19, 2008 before Easter.
Lavoie is perhaps the only archbishop to have received a photo credit for his pictures appearing in the Nickel Belt News.
Many of Lavoie's photos can be seen his blog, Reflections of a northern missionary: From beyond the Jackpine Curtain, which can be viewed and read at: http://keewatinlepasarchdiocese.blogspot.ca/
The archbishop began the blog on Nov. 10, 2009 and the most recent entry is from last Oct. 27, recapping a weekend workshop and retreat a week earlier on Oct. 21-22, 2011 at St. Lawrence in Thompson, led by Armella Sonntag, regional animator for Saskatchewan/Keewatin Le Pas for the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP).
Lavoie has also been known for his support of the annual Lac St Anne Pilgrimage in Alberta, about 75 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. This year's pilgrimage runs from July 22 to July 26. "First called Wakamne or God's Lake by the Nakota First Nations who live on the west end of the Lake and Manito Sahkahigan or Spirit Lake by the Cree, the lake was renamed Lac Ste Anne by Rev. Jean-Baptiste Thibault, the first Catholic priest to establish a mission on the site," says the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage Company, the lay board the Oblates turned over the management and operation of the pilgrimage to a few years ago.
"The pilgrimage grounds had been sacred for generations of peoples and had become widely known as a place of healing. Aboriginal peoples camped on the site prior to contact with European fur traders and settlers," the board says. The pilgrimage was founded in 1887 by missionaries of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. It has become the largest annual gathering of First Nations people in Canada. Last year close to 55,000 pilgrims, mostly aboriginal and Métis, made the Lac St Anne Pilgrimage.