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Visiting priest wonders how long he can last in North

By Rev. David Reilander

07/29/2015

The following article is from the Spring 2015 issue of Catholic Missions in Canada (cmic.info) and is reprinted with permission.

I’ve never really understood what hoar frost was until I saw it in the Yukon. It becomes so thick that it weighs branches down, bending poplar half over. It’s beautiful in the sunlight. Sunlight in the Yukon during the darkest part of the year is not intense, unless you’re staring straight into the sun. The sun, after appearing at about 10 a.m., rises to about 30 degrees and stays at that angle until 3 p.m. If you’re in hill country, it may be too low on the horizon to see. Colours are subtle or pastel in hue. It’s a different world from Southwestern Ontario, where my parish is.

I’m in the Yukon for a month after arriving on Dec. 26. Rev. Kieran Kilcommons, apostolic administrator for the Diocese of Whitehorse, picked me up from the airport in Whitehorse and deposited me at Mary’s House, part of the Madonna House community of Combermere.

After two days, I drive two hours to Carmacks for mass at St. Jude’s mission. Kathleen La Brie is the pastoral associate there and is part of the Madonna House contingent. She prepares for mass in the rectory (it isn’t worth heating the church). Kathleen protests. “Carmacks is the place I love to be,” she says with enthusiasm.

I look out the window to see a forest of hoar-frosted deciduous and what I think are pyramidal white spruce.

“There are subdivisions here you can’t see from the highway,” she adds.

“Subdivisions huh,” I respond, mockingly.

“Well . . . not subdivisions, but little neighbourhoods in the woods.”

She disappears into the church and I follow. It’s -17° Celsius in the wooden structure. The outside temperature is -28°C.

“You sure you don’t want to have mass in here?” I ask.

“I’ll do whatever you like Father,” she says seriously.

She hasn’t caught on to my wry wit yet.

I go back into the rectory. I’m freezing. She comes back after a few minutes with supplies. “Are you really sure you don’t want to stay in here for mass?” she asks with all innocence. I just look at her, and she laughs. “Gee I thought you were serious.”

A car pulls in beside us. It’s Kathleen’s pillar of faith, Ennia. Ennia enters to a big hug from Kathleen who looks at me and says, “OK, we can begin.”

Begin?!? I drove two hours for one person? Welcome to the Yukon!

So, the three of us have mass celebrating the Feast of the Holy Family. The homily is a dialogue between the three of us. It’s very quaint and intimate. Both women are faith-filled. I find myself inspired by them. I couldn’t be out here like Kathleen, though. It’s too isolated for me. I’m wondering how long I would last. A day — maybe? There’s nothing here — a gas station, highways department and summer campground, plus the church. The hair is standing on the back of my neck as I’m contemplating. It’s only two hours back to Whitehorse, I think to myself.

A couple of days later, I meet with Oblate Father Paul Mariampillai, a Tamil priest on sabbatical for a year. We’re picking Kathleen up to accompany us to Dawson City — another four hours away. We tell each other our vocation stories and how we got to the Yukon. Father Paul just finished being provincial of the Sri Lankan Oblates. He’s going back to teach moral theology in their seminary. I’m here testing out whether I could be in the North.

We get to Dawson City and find the church. Jim McNichol, the pastoral associate here, greets us. There’s two hours to mass, so we decide to check into the “Downtown Hotel” and get something to eat. To my pleasant surprise, the manager tells me our two rooms have been paid for. There’s a perk. I just saved $220.

Kathleen and I register, then meet the other two in the dining room. Jim gives us his story of having left Dease Lake further south in northern British Columbia. Bishop Gary Gordon, the former bishop, told him he was needed in Dawson City because there was no priest.

Dawson is the second largest community in the Yukon Territory. Jim’s a big man of 75. He carries himself well and looks like he isn’t a day over 65. He has a commanding presence with a Herman Munster-kind of gentleness. He is a layman out of Buffalo who is a mover and shaker with definite ideas.

I pay for dinner and we go back to the church with three parishioners who meet us in the dining room. It’s exceedingly cold and time is a factor so we settle for Liturgy of the Word. We are very tired. I need to go to bed. We have to leave by 9:00 a.m. Everyone hugs and we disperse.

It takes a long time before light appears. I have to remember that we are farther north, though still below the Arctic Circle. At about 11 a.m., on our ride back, I stop the car so we can take pictures. It is simply beautiful. I think I can see myself being here. The people are great and hospitable. The land is stunning.

By July there will only be three priests left in a diocese that takes 18 hours to drive across. I listen to Father Paul and Kathleen talk about last night and what happens to a community that has no resident priest. Carmacks, Dawson City, and the other missions get mass only once a month. The rest of the time people like Jim and Kathleen lead the communities in Liturgy of the Word and minister to the local Catholics. There’s a definite need here and I’ve answered the most basic of my questions. The more serious questions will only be answered if I’m living here.

Update: In early July, Rev. David Reilander, pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish of Owen Sound, in the Diocese of Hamilton, was posted in the Diocese of Whitehorse, to join the three priests serving in northern British Columbia and the Yukon.