Wally, the ever reliable cameraman, and I went with a group of students from St. Joan of Arc Catholic Secondary
school in Mississauga, Ontario, on a mission trip to the Yukon. The plan was to spend the first two days at Camp Braeburn
, north of Whitehorse helping get the camp ready for the summer. The students painted, chopped wood, cleared brush, took out an old wood stove and fixed and painted the dock.
Wally and I stayed at the Oblate House in Whitehorse. We were most blessed to be in the company of three of the pioneer Oblate missionary priests who helped bring Catholicism to the Yukon. Now retired, Frs. Pierre Rigaud, Joseph Guilbaud and Pierre Veyrat, live with Fr. Jim Bleackley, Rector of Sacred Heart Cathedral, at the Oblate House. We also met the famous Fr. Jean-Marie Mouchet
, who started a cross-country skiing ministry in Old Crow, and has left a lasting legacy all over the Yukon.
The diocese of Whitehorse has 22 Parish missions but only 6 priests, and so they rely on lay pastoral administrators to take care of most parishes and to lead lay communion services on Sundays. Two pastoral administrators we had a chance to chat with were Hart and Marilyn Bezner, from the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church
in Teslin. We also met Fr. Kieran Kilcommons, a Madonna House priest who is at Mary House
in Whitehorse. He rotates between six parishes every month. Fr. Kieran spent the Tuesday night with us at Braeburn getting to know the students and sharing in a bonfire.
We spent quite a bit of time with Bishop Gary Gordon
, who has taken up his task of serving the diocese with a fervour that is unparalleled. He is truly an inspiring man (and hard to sit down for an interview!). Bishop Gordon took us to the site where he will build a new retreat centre, on the shores of the Tahkini River. He also has about four acres of farm land, which he intends to put to good use. In fact, while we were there, he had a friend bring a tractor to begin ploughing the land so he could plant potatoes. The bishop's home will also be built on the same property, with construction beginning in the fall.
On Wednesday, after some downtime in Whitehorse, we drove to Kluane National Park
where we would stay for the remainder of the week. On the way there, we stopped in Haines Junction, site of the historic Our Lady of the Way Parish, built by Fr. Moriset, chaplain of the U.S. army, with his own hands, by himself, out of a Quonset hut. There we met Claud and Libby Dulac, part of the pastoral administrator team of that parish. Unlike Immaculate Heart of Mary in Teslin, Our Lady of the Way has a whole team of parishioners who came together to help run the church, in the absence of a priest.
Our home for the next three days was Kluane B&B
, with a most beautiful view of the St. Elias Mountains in Kluane National Park, across from us. On the other side of Kluane Lake could be seen Sheep Mountain. The task for the students was to paint the old rectory at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish in Burwash Landing, one of the churches where Fr. Kieran serves. This church was also built single-handedly by Fr. Moriset, in 1942.
After our job was done in Burwash, our last day in Kluane was spent climbing Sheep Mountain
. We climbed up to over 6000 feet above sea level and could see a most spectacular view. It was an arduous climb, physically taxing yet appropriate to help put us in the mind of all those wonderful and courageous missionaries who came to bring the Good News to this part of the world.
This is a very brief, and perhaps dry description of our trip, but it will do for now.
We had left Toronto on the Feast of the Ascension, when Jesus told his disciples to “go to Jerusalem and wait for the advocate. You will be clothed with power from on high.” He also told them to “take the Good News to the ends of the earth.” We didn’t go quite to Jerusalem, but we did ascend to the land of the north, to the Yukon, seemingly to the ends of the earth. And whether the students realise it or not, they were clothed with power from on high.
We left Whitehorse on the Feast of Pentecost, after having achieved more than was intended. Camp Braeburn is now ready to receive the many campers who benefit from their services every summer. The church in Burwash is now under a fresh new coat of paint – perhaps more people will come to Mass now. In a sense, more importantly, the students gained a sense of accomplishment, not for themselves, but for the glory of God. I truly believe that. It was hard not to feel close to God amidst all that beautiful scenery, but what really got them closer to God was that they forced themselves to get out of themselves. And that is the centre of charity, to get out of ourselves, to focus on the other and to do it for the glory and service of God. Isn’t that what being a missionary is all about? Isn’t that what bringing the Good News is all about?
I can’t end this without saying a few words about Jim McLeevey, chaplain at St. Joan of Arc and leader of this wonderful expedition. He is a truly caring and dedicated man, who loves the students and his work with a passion. I’ve never seen such a committed leader who always put the needs of the students and the greater glory of God first. The group was much blessed to have him as leader and the school to have him as chaplain. I can only hope that when my children go to high school they are as lucky to have such a wonderful chaplain (and teachers, for the five teacher chaperones were wonderful and caring as well) as this group had.
I also hope that my children get to have an opportunity to mission as these students did. I am not putting down the mission trips to the third world. God knows Jamaica and the Dominican Republic need help, but our own country also needs help. We have third-world conditions right here in Canada. There is mission work to be done right here in Canada and who best to do it than Canadians? I highly encourage any teachers and chaplains looking for a mission experience for their students to contact Bishop Gordon and go to the Yukon.
I also want to say a few words to the students. To the girls, Kathleen, Emily, Sarah, Marina, Marissa, Bonnie, Alice, Karen and to the boys: Sam, Amos, Stephen, Chris, Matthew, Martin, Marvin, Cole and Iman: You are a wonderful group of young people and you’ve been blessed. Blessed to be part of such an opportunity, but also to have such wonderful teachers and adults in your lives. Don’t ever forget that. And don’t forget the lessons learned in the Yukon. Don’t forget Fr. Kieran’s words about the “beauty that saves.” It is that beauty, the total and completely selfless love of Christ, that will save the world. And you are part of that, for when we partake in that beauty, when we partake in selflessly giving of ourselves to others, as Christ did, we partake in the salvation of the world.
And you may not know it now, but you have been clothed with power from on high. Whether you like it or not, whether you are Catholic or not, or whether you go to Church or not – you have been called. That “mountain top” feeling that you still have comes from God alone. The feeling that you have for each other, comes from God alone. The memories that you will treasure forever and the difference that you have helped make, comes from God alone. To God alone give glory and service forever.
God willing, in the next couple of months we’ll be able to begin post-production on our new documentary about Catholic Missions in Canada – from the eyes of a group of young people who took a risk to leave comfort behind and do their part to help make the world a better place. We hope to be able to bring this all-new Salt + Light Television documentary to you soon.
In the meantime, don’t stop taking the good news to the ends of the earth!