Mary Pendergast, RSM (from Rhode Island) and I are on a one-week ‘Athabasca River – from mountains to Oil Sands’ pilgrimage – starting from Star-of-the-North Retreat House in St. Albert, AB. We left there on Monday morning. But before we left I wanted some quiet time in the cemetery, located just beside the retreat house. Within it, surrounded by the graves of many other people, the Oblate Fathers and Brothers are buried. I was looking for the grave of Father Georges Begin. He was the beloved ‘Father’ who lived as a missionary in Fort McKay – among the Cree, Chipewyan and Metis – for almost forty years of his life. From my Cree-Chipewyan elder friend, Celina, I had learned how this man would raise pigeons for food and how he would, at times, share his pigeon meal with the people who came to visit him. I had learned how heart-centered a person he was when Celina recounted the funeral of her Auntie Rosen, and how Father cried at it (and made everyone cry with his sensitivity) because he was so deeply affected by the beautiful and persevering faith of her Auntie. Another little story that I had learned from Celina’s niece was that Father Begin would bring cases of pop from the Pop Shoppe in Edmonton, to be shared with the young people for a few pennies at his back door. He truly cared for and loved his community in Fort McKay. The people named one of the Fort McKay streets after him: ‘Begin Ave.’
As I searched among the Oblate graves I came upon Father Eduard Rheaume, also beloved among the indigenous peoples of northern Alberta. He had learned the Cree language to be able to communicate more effectively. I knew him when he was already advanced in years, but still vibrant in spirit. He was chaplain at the Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton, with a sideline of missionary work among the non-Treaty Cree near Grande Cache, AB. As a young woman in my early 20’s (and who was seriously thinking about giving my life in service) I had accompanied two Grey Nuns and Father Rheaume to Suza Creek to be a presence among this Cree community for several days. This was the summer of 1980. I would assist in a pastoral and spiritual way, but primarily in the way of friendship. Stopping at his grave provided a few moments to reflect on that time, and on his presence that was so welcomed by the Cree in Suza Creek. There was mutual respect and love that was so evident in the relationship that had grown over the years.
Then I found the grave of Father Georges Begin. I stood there with gratitude for his loving presence among the indigenous peoples of Fort McKay. And then I took pictures of his gravestone to show Celina. He had died in 2001.
We left the retreat house and travelled through the beautiful farmlands on back roads north and west of St. Albert through the area of Onaway, AB. We eventually located the Oblate’s land and St. Ann parish where Catholic indigenous peoples from all over Alberta and Saskatchewan converge at the southern edge of Lac St Ann for their annual spiritual pilgrimage. I was looking forward to connecting with Cree-Chipewyan elders from Fort McKay who were planning to come, as was their tradition for many years. It was a ‘first’ for me, and so inspiring to witness the beauty of the people – from old to young – and the very special experience of seeing them walk into the lake, praying with silent gestures and soft voices as they walked.
The Mass later that morning was also special with the theme of ‘one body in Christ’ … and the heartbeat sound of the native drum during Communion touched me very deeply.