Sister Mary Jeanne Davidson, right, was honoured with Catholic Missions In Canada’s St. Joseph Award for her work in Canada’s mission territories. She is pictured here with former Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion at the annual Tastes of Heaven dinner April 6. Photo courtesy of New Paramount Studios
Before taking action, one must learn to listen when it comes to mission life in Canada.
That’s a lesson that Sister Mary Jeanne Davidson has come to embrace after working for 15 years with three Cree communities surrounding Peace River, Alta.
“Missionary life today in the church, we are being called to walk with, to come to know, one another,” said Davidson, a missionary with the School Sisters of Notre Dame. “We need to be in dialogue, we need to listen. They know what they need and they know what they want.”
On April 6, Davidson’s work was recognized with the St. Joseph Award at the Catholic Missions In Canada’s annual Tastes of Heaven dinner in Vaughan, Ont. The dinner serves as a platform to recognize the work of missionaries, as well as help raise funds for Catholic Missions.
“The indigenous people I’ve come to know, they’re desiring to become responsible for their families,” Davidson said. “They have a profound love for their families in spite of all that we hear about the tragedies that have happened because of addictions and alcohol. Their families mean everything.”
Most of those Davidson ministers to aren’t able to provide for their families due to widespread unemployment on the reserves. The solution, however, can’t simply be another course of social handouts, she said.
“It is not good for us to always be a giver,” she said. “Welfare makes them passive; it is not good.” They also need more than money to be good spouses, parents and children. “It is not only material things,” said Davidson.
“No matter how much love we receive we will still long for more. This is the infinite world created for that love.”
Years of cultural oppression, forced assimilation and living in communities plagued by abuse has left its scars on First Nations.
“How deeply they suffer,” said Davidson, who also served Peru’s indigenous from 1979 through 1984. “There are so many tragedies and unexpected events that have happened and yet there is so much love in the people as I came to know them.”
Being a representative of the Catholic Church, which operated more than 60 per cent of Canada’s residential schools, made gaining the trust of the First Nations people a challenge.
“One thing that I had to learn and overcome is the native people take a long time to grow in trust,” said Davidson.
“It really does take time to really grow in trust.”
Catholic Missions In Canada is Davidson’s primary financial support, which allows her to keep in touch with the Cree communities she serves, about a 45-minute drive from her Peace River home.
“I wouldn’t be able to cover gas, upkeep on a vehicle and be out there,” she said. “I don’t like to be asking for a whole lot.”
The dinner, which includes a silent auction, is vital to Catholic Missions on several levels, said president Rev. David Reilander.
“It is a time that we can invite potential donors to come and find out about who Catholic Missions is, what Catholic Missions is, what we do (and) how we go about it,” said Reilander. “It is important for fundraising and it is also important for networking. It is a way for us to project our message and elaborate on the need to help mission dioceses across the country.
“From there they can judge whether they want to become involved with us.”
For many of the about 700 attendees, that means becoming a benefactor.
“Through our gala we will net probably a quarter of a million dollars and it is a tremendous effort to get all of that. You can only have that in a major city like Toronto,” Reilander said before the event.
Catholic Missions In Canada expects to spend $4.6 million this year on missionaries and the maintenance of missionary dioceses. A portion of the funds also subsidizes the formation of seminarians. Currently there are 39 seminarians being supported, according to Reilander.
“There used to be an Oblate priest in every parish (but) now we are drastically lacking in priests,” he said. “That is what are lacking today, an essential resource that we don’t have.”
There has been a gradual disappearance of the Oblate priests in Canada’s remote northern parishes, some of which are only accessible by air. Not only has the workload on missionaries increased, but so too has the scope of their work.
“They are dealing with things that missionaries of the past never dealt with,” said Reilander, who served in missions in northern British Columbia and the Yukon. “The role is probably more as social worker today.”
Tastes of Heaven helps bring mission work into the spotlight and is “an opportunity for Canadian Catholics to really realize what is the Canadian Catholic Church,” said Reilander.