LEBRET, Sask. — The school was closing and Bernadette Feist wanted her education, so she decided to run away from home to get it. She was 14 and the term “run away” is hers, although she did ask her father’s permission.
“He said if that’s what will make you happy we’ll let you go,” she said in an interview with the PM.
She grew up with seven brothers and four sisters in Barthel, northwest Saskatchewan, an area of bush and lakes. She joined two of her sisters at St. Angela’s Academy at Prelate, Sask., where she came under the influence of the Ursuline Sisters who operated the academy.
“I didn’t like the town or the country because it’s grasshoppers and crickets and I like bush,” she remembers.
She had “got the bug” to be a teacher when her Grade 6 teacher asked her to teach catechism to some younger children at Loon Lake, a few miles from her home. She pursued that bug at St. Angela’s, obtained a teaching certificate from the University of Saskatchewan, and was sent to La Loche, where she spent eight years in native ministry.
She also took her final vows, which had been delayed because of her youth.
“When I was asked where I wanted to go, I said to the north with First Nations. For whatever reason, I was always drawn to First Nations people.”
It wasn’t until later in life that she realized that affinity had its roots in Barthel.
“People came to the farm sometimes for potatoes or eggs, but I didn’t identify them as First Nations. They were just people, and the children in Loon Lake were also First Nations.”
When she arrived at Valley Native Ministry she discovered that her godmother, whom she had always known, was also First Nations and had a connection to the people in the valley.
“I immediately phoned her and she eventually came to visit her sister. What a way to make a connection here,” said Feist.
She eventually obtained her education degree from the University of Saskatchewan, with a major in native studies, and came to the Qu’Appelle Valley at the invitation of Regina Archbishop Charles Halpin, first in pastoral work in Fort Qu’Appelle then to Valley native ministry in Lebret.
Feist’s 50th anniversary was celebrated May 10 at the request of Valley First Nations so that Rev. Wojciech Wojtkowiak, who worked in the ministry for 20 years before being transferred out, could attend. He celebrated 45 years as a priest at the same time.
Feist is passionate about her ministry and continues to advocate for the ministry to the archdiocese — so much so that the late director of pastoral care, Sister Anastasia Young, just prior to her death presented Feist with a hand puppet of a sister wearing boxing gloves.
As to retirement, she says, “I will retire when all my hopes for native ministry are satisfied.”