This week’s Prairie Messenger is pleased to focus on a northern diocese that is about to receive new leadership.
On March 16, Redemptorist Father Jon Hansen will be ordained the seventh bishop of Mackenzie-Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories. He replaces Bishop Mark Hagemoen who was installed as bishop of Saskatoon on Nov. 23, 2017.
Hansen has two year of experience in the Territories as pastor of Inuvik, Paulatuk, Tsiigehtchic and Tuktoyaktuk. It is clear that he loves the north and its people. Readers of the PM know him from his monthly articles about life in communities above the Arctic Circle.
The Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith is one of the world’s largest in geographical area (1,523,400 square kilometres). It is home to about 28,000 Catholics — more than half the Northwest Territories population — primarily Dene, Métis and Inuvialuit peoples. Distances in the diocese are great. Travel is expensive, and personnel and resources are limited.
The first missionary outreach to the area of the Mackenzie-Fort Smith diocese was by Oblate Father Alexandre Taché who went to Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta from St. Boniface, Man., in 1847. Ten years later, missionaries had reached as far north as the Arctic Circle.
In 1960, the diocese had 60 Oblate priests, 40 brothers and 112 Grey Nuns. They did everything from staffing hospitals and schools to helping build the infrastructure of northern towns and celebrating their faith.
Today there are two Polish Oblate priests, one Oblate brother, two Canadian priests, three from Nigeria and five religious sisters. There are 35 native missions in the diocese and most have a lay-led celebration every Sunday, with the bishop or a priest being able to celebrate with them only every three or four months.
However, the beauty of the land and sky can be overwhelming. It is the land of the midnight sun in summer and a month of near-total darkness in winter. It is also a territory threatened by climate change and resource development.
The dioceses of the north have limited resources, so they rely on support from southern dioceses, for both finances and personnel. In 2014, for example, the archbishop of Edmonton and the bishop of Mackenzie-Fort Smith signed a covenant to formalize a relationship between the two dioceses, with the goal of sharing their mutual gifts and needs. This helps support positive projects that build the spiritual health of the community, whether it’s building or restoring churches, training and supporting pastoral leaders, or helping to fund programs that bring young people, families and communities together.
As well, Catholic Missions in Canada raises money to support programs and personnel in Canada’s northern dioceses. The CMIC website notes that costly utility bills, leaky basements, mould infestations, and clearing massive amounts of snow are just some examples of how CMIC funding is needed.
Bishop-elect Hansen has chosen reconciliation and building relationships as his priorities. The Prairie Messenger wishes him well and a fruitful ministry.