Rev. Lawrence DeMong, OSB, agreed in the summer of 2016 to go to the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas to serve at Southend and La Ronge as part of a commitment by the Diocese of Saskatoon to support ministry in the north.
“Wow!” was the one word that came to mind as I drove up to the rectory in Southend on Aug. 5, 2016, almost six months ago. It was the most beautiful spot where I had ever been asked to live.
And as I contrasted other commitments I’ve accepted, there was almost no struggle to say yes and to follow the call I felt as I sat with the Liebenthal congregation in the Diocese of Saskatoon that Sunday in May of 2016 (when the move to the northern parishes was announced).
I had already related as pastor to the First Nations folks in Cumberland House over a 10-year period and had served La Ronge as well for a brief time. But Southend, named for being at the southern tip of Reindeer Lake with its rectory planted beside what seemed as the jewel of northern Saskatchewan, was totally new.
On the right side of the rectory, looking northwest out into the lake, was what seemed like a private beach with rocks to the right reflecting the Canadian Shield and to the left a naturally carved slanted rock to protect you for a swim or sheltering a boat. To the southwest was the community’s launching area for the many leisure and fishing boats with trailers parked along the shore.
The people in this northern village, almost all Cree speaking, are, like their natural space, beautiful, friendly and religious. There is poverty, yes, but the band is well organized and people have a good support system, a health centre well staffed and effective in dealing with people’s needs. The school, up on the hill, has all the grades, is available seven days a week and run by the Aboriginal community, reflecting their preferences and values.
One of the first surprises in Southend was an additional symbolic way of dealing with grief at a funeral. I have always been impressed with how First Nations communities handle the experience of death: having a wake that lasts over 48 hours, not having an undertaker involved at the at the wake or funeral, lowering the casket into the grave with ropes, shovelling the dirt over the casket themselves. But the additional even more dramatic symbol for me was seeing family members and even mothers of small deceased children helping to pound the nails to attach the rough box lid after the coffin was placed inside it.
I recently provided a report to diocesan leaders as part of discussions about possibilities for next year:
By way of feedback in response to your invitation to discuss future pastoral involvement, I would begin by saying I have no regrets about having volunteered to work in the North as part of the response of the Diocese of Saskatoon to the critical shortage of resources in the Keewatin-Le Pas diocese. At one point I actually wrote down that I felt it was the action of God’s Spirit that got me involved at this point in my life, that my 53-plus years of priesthood and some 60 years of monasticism were perhaps needed preparation for this endeavour.
On my first day of involvement as pastor of the La Ronge community when preparing to celebrate mass for 11 a.m., I received a call at 9 a.m. that the suicide of a parishioner had just been discovered.
On the morning of Jan. 1, 2017, I got the sad New Year’s news in Southend that one of our parishioners had been murdered, a middle-aged woman, stabbed by a teenage woman, both parishioners. I believe the homily for the day’s feast was able to give some needed help to the grieving community. Several days later in the midst of preparing for the funeral I asked a reliable woman in the parish, a guidance counsellor at the local school who had told me about her efforts to help this teenager, to come with me, not only to find the house, but to guide my feeble efforts to see the mother of the murderer. When we arrived at her house she told us how, lying on her couch, she had been crying and praying that someone would come.
La Ronge is having a local TRC (Truth and Reconciliation) on Feb. 22. This came from a conversation with Jonas Bird, a residential school survivor, who, with his wife, Virginia, told of how a previous pastor used to pick on the boys, especially the Aboriginals. At that point I blurted out, “We need our own TRC!” Jonas immediately took me up on it and, having had the excellent experience of the national TRC led by Murray Sinclair in Saskatoon, I contacted him with the question of whether it was realistic to have this kind of local gathering. Senator Sinclair was very supportive, gave us information and suggested it must be done in conjunction with local First Nations’ leaders. Jonas Bird has himself worked out the details with other band leaders for this upcoming event.
These are a few highlights. The regular pastoral work has been going reasonably well. When Rev. Mark Blom, OMI, came for the funeral of the murder victim in Southend, I saw how competent he was as pastor and evangelizer. Nevertheless, having joked with Archbishop Chatlain about my age, I was quickly told that I was not the oldest, a rather positive way, I felt, of telling me to hang in there. Although I find myself less efficient in getting things done, I do believe the Lord wants me to continue this work and I am quite willing to do so.
Although the First Nations struggles tend to cast a certain shadow over the description I have given here, I would not want to leave the impression that things are grim. Our First Nations sisters and brothers have wonderful traditions, have great respect for the Elders (giving this old fellow a distinct advantage!), they laugh easily and often, they are amazingly welcoming and enjoy moments like when Santa arrived on Christmas Eve by dog team and the folks present persuaded me sit on his knee.
My own private joke was on the feast of St. Lawrence when the only red vestment I could find was an ancient “fiddleback.” For most younger Catholics, this would be an item only found in a museum. A few weeks later I did some cleanup in the sacristy and found a somewhat antique but ample red vestment. If La Ronge has lots of volunteers to carry out the pastoral ministry of the parish, Southend needs an extra prayer to find and support the volunteers who are needed. But their deep spirituality is already the foundation for an enlivened parish life and generous outreach to those in need.