SASKATOON — The Christmas spirit of giving and of thanksgiving was all wrapped up together in a project undertaken this year by residents of St. Ann’s Senior Citizens Village in Saskatoon.
Dozens of wrapped gifts and shoeboxes filled with Christmas cheer were put together by St. Ann’s residents, their families, volunteers and staff over the past month. The gifts were then presented on the Feast of St. Nicholas, Dec. 6, to participants in the Aboriginal Catholic Lay Formation Program to take back to families, elders and those in need in their home communities across the north, on area reserves, and in the inner city of Saskatoon.
Gathering at Queen’s House of Retreats in Saskatoon once a month, the Aboriginal stream of the Lay Formation program includes participants from the Catholic dioceses of Prince Albert, Saskatoon and Keewatin Le-Pas — including some who spend many hours on the road to attend.
Aboriginal stream participants were surprised to receive a visit from Sister Kathleen Bolton, SND, in November, asking them to provide a list of names and ages for the St. Ann’s Christmas project. Presented with the boxes of gifts in December, members of the Year I class expressed delight, awe and appreciation that the elderly residents of St. Ann’s wanted to give gifts to people they didn’t even know.
“The little lady who came to speak to us was so sweet,” said Brenda Montgrand, who travels each month from Sandy Bay, Sask. to attend Aboriginal Catholic Lay Formation. “In our culture, it’s usually the other way around — we give to honour the elders. It was a surprise to us that the elders were giving this to us. And it was wonderful that they were thinking of other people to help, including people in the north.”
The project was initiated as a way for St. Ann’s residents to experience the blessings of giving, explained Carla Bergermann, director of Recreation at St. Ann’s Senior Citizens Village.“These are a group of people who in their lives were always contributing, always doing things for their community — they were involved in CWL and in their churches and communities. Sometimes there is a feeling that they had to lose all of that once they are in long-term care,” she said. “We wanted to find a way to give our residents back that experience of helping others.”
In addition to the nursing home, St. Ann’s also offers independent living and enriched living. The entire St. Ann’s community, including staff and volunteers, participated in the project in many different ways, said Bergermann.
Knowing that 90-year-old St. Ann’s tenant, Sister Kathleen Bolton, NDS, was still actively involved in outreach and various parish organizations, Bergermann asked for her advice about who might benefit from the Christmas project. “Sister Kathleen said that she would think about it, and 24 hours later, she had the entire plan.”
Earlier this year, Bolton attended the Lay Formation missioning celebration, and was touched by the commitment of participants, especially those in the Aboriginal program who would travel long distances and make other sacrifices in order to attend. “These people come to Lay Formation every month for two years, some of them from great distances, to gain what I got for free,” she said. “That was in the back of my mind — I thought, if I ever get a chance to help them, or encourage them, I will.”
At the same time, the idea of Christmas shoeboxes, often sent to children in developing countries overseas, was in her mind. “I always thought: why don’t we do something like that for Canadians?”
Boltopn connected with Lay Formation co-ordinator Mona Goodman at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon to launch the project, and also invited lay associates of her religious congregation, the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, to help in shopping, collecting and wrapping the gifts.
“I think it was in the hands of the Lord, I really do,” said Bolton. “We had no time to waste — we didn’t have time to reflect, and draw up lists, and maybe have six months or whatever to think about it — St. Ann’s wanted to do this right away this year.”
The response was wonderful, she added. “I think we planted the seed and everyone responded.” Residents felt like they accomplished something in helping others, she said.
Bergermann agreed that the response of the St. Ann’s community was heartening. “It was really neat to see the families stopping by and helping out . . . and to see the impact of the residents and tenants knowing that they are giving back, and that they are part of a community that cares for others,” she said.
“Our mission is to live the Catholic tradition to give care the way the sisters started it here at St. Ann’s,” Bergermann noted. “Our vision right now is ‘a place to call home’ — and we are trying to make that happen for our residents in many ways.”
Aboriginal Catholic Lay Formation participants reflected on the impact of the project as they were presented with the gifts at Queen’s House — gifts that included a tin of cookies and a card for each of them as well, along with a photo of some of the St. Ann’s seniors who participated.
“I think it was a great idea coming from the elderly people: it surprised me,” said Alexander Morin of Sandy Bay.
Evelyn McDonald, also of Sandy Bay, added that the families with small children on her list don’t know the surprise is coming.
Alvina Halkett of LaRonge chose children who have just lost their grandmother. “They will be surprised to be getting gifts from Saskatoon. They will be surprised that somebody that they don’t know there is thinking about them — other grandmothers.”
“The family I chose just lost their mom last month, and they all feel kind of lost . . . it’s going to be hard for them. I thought about them, and those children. I don’t know if they ever even had Christmas gifts,” said Virginia Bird of LaRonge.
Veronica Favel of Cumberland House works with 14 families in a Kids First program, as a home visitor. Her list for gifts from St. Ann’s includes two high-risk families dealing with a number of different issues.
Others who will receive gifts from the St. Ann’s seniors: a family that just lost their husband and father; a single dad and his eight children; elders in several of the communities; and a mother grieving the death of her son, who will benefit from knowing someone cares — just as her own grandmother used to care for her.
Sandi Harper of Saskatoon recalled how her mother used to knit and sew gifts for others. “We’d ask her why she did it, and she would say: ‘Part of life is giving.’ Seeing the seniors’ home doing this — they just reminded me of her. It is just an incredible feeling to experience that generosity from people you don’t even know.”
“It’s really about a spirit of love,” said Lay Formation participant Judy Bull.
“It brings up a person’s spirit,” agreed Maggie Hunter. “I hope that they found joy in doing what they did. I will be praying for those who have provided these gifts. I just want to let them know that we will be praying for them.”