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Reflections on gaining, and then losing, a new pastor

By Sheila O’Kane


Our pastoral lives were turned upside down by an announcement from Rome: “His Holiness Pope Francis today named Rev. Jon Hansen, CSsR, Bishop of the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith. At the time of his appointment, he was pastor of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Inuvik, Northwest Territories.”

Our Lady of Victory is a small little parish situated on the east bank of the “big” or “great” river (“The Mackenzie” “Kuukpak”in Inuvialuktun and “Nagwichoonjik” in Gwich’in). We mostly have had the benefit of a resident pastor — but not always — which means we’ve grown to be a independent and self-reliant little faith community, as have those living in the neighbouring missions of Paulatuk, Tsiigehtchic, and Tuktoyaktuk.

In the summer of 2015, we were on our own again as our most recent pastor, Rev. Magnus Chilaka, was reassigned to Saint Joseph’s Cathedral Parish in Fort Smith. Then we heard that a certain Rev. Jon Hansen, from Saint Mary’s Parish in Saskatoon, was to be our new pastor. Some of us immediately Googled as much as we could about both this Father Hansen and his Saskatoon parish.

Father Jon (“Father John” for those of us whose anglo-tongues have difficulty navigating Danish sounds) arrived early in August 2015 in what has become an legendary manner . . . driving a modest little vehicle with a qajaq, or more specifically a qajavialuk, (translation: kayak) strapped to its roof.

My first impression, past the kayak, was “Wow, this fellow sure knows how to live minimally.” He immediately connected with many of the local citizenry via our local “Inuvik Buy Sell Trade” Facebook page and held a yard sale. A good way to “downsize stuff” and raise a little money for the parish and also a novel way to meet the local citizenry. For several days the rectory yard was full of cars and pick-up trucks with local folk seeking yard sale bargains, and coincidentally meeting the new Roman Catholic pastor.

In preparing to write this article, I contacted a good percentage of the parish and missions faithful, and to a person everyone commented on how they were immediately struck by Father Jon’s easy going, friendly manner (and while everyone is happy to have him as a bishop, everyone expressed how much they will miss him).

As a parish we quickly settled into a comfortable relationship with our new pastor. Same for members of our three neighbouring mission communities, which are also included under the Inuvik pastor’s pastoral care. As someone said, “He fit like a glove.”

Again, and again, members of our local parish and the missions remarked on how quickly Father Jon adapted to the people and the land. Everyone was awed by the fact that Father Jon had actually journeyed North two years earlier, driving the length of the Dempster Highway, up and back, with his father. It is said that as he stood at the ferry crossing at Tsiigehtchic, he looked up at Our Lady of Grace Mission Church perched on a bluff overlooking the Arctic, Red and Mackenzie Rivers and voiced his desire to return — which he did — and now he is leaving.

We recognize the hand and grace of the Great Almighty is leading Father Jon to a higher, wider calling — and we give thanks for being blessed to have him as our bishop. But, oh, are we ever going to miss him as our pastor! Let me “count the ways”:
— his friendly smile, his kindness, his warm and accepting ways, his sense of humour
— his sermons — mentioned frequently and described as “heartfelt,” “inspiring,” “meaningful,” “practical,” “reflective”
— his commitment to the whole region as evidenced by his regular contact with the mission communities, and the way he brought many of his Redemptorist confreres to help in this regard
—the way in which he immediately embraced the land and the people, walking about, visiting and having tea, visiting camps (reminiscent of the old missionaries who embraced local cultures and built inter-cultural bridges)
— the way in which he quietly slipped into the rhythm of the communities, gardening at the local community greenhouse (we won’t go into detail regarding almost infesting the local post office with escaping, mail-ordered, composting worms), displaying his Arctic photos at the Image Festival, visiting camps (he made good use of his kayak and new-to-him snowmobile), advising at the local Emergency Warming Centre, visiting elders in their homes and at the Inuvik hospital’s long-term care unit, maintaining a parish Facebook account and parish website;
— his help with, and support of, our weekend community lunches (Saturday and Sunday lunches for those without kitchens or homes of their own). We’ll especially miss his potato salads!
— his help with, and support of, our local Saint Vincent de Paul initiatives, doing the “heavy lifting” — manhandling the heavy doors of the sea-cans, building storage shelves within the sea-cans; lugging bins in and out of these same sea cans;
— his fundraising initiatives, which really helped the parish pull back from the brink of financial distress.
In summary, “Father Jon was a true gift to the church and the community. He will certainly be missed, but we know he will do a great job in his new position as bishop for the Mackenzie-Fort Smith diocese.”

O’Kane is a parishioner and neighbour.