by Joanne Dionne.
The smell of the sea, the force of the wind, the dust, the huge expanse of the sky. The Canadian North. The Arctic. The territory of Nunavut.
This September, when I returned to the Hudson Bay coast to participate in the 100th anniversary celebrations of the foundation of the first mission in Chesterfield Inlet, memories came flooding back to me.
It was on this shoreline in the Churchill-Hudson Bay Diocese, that I had done pastoral work. I came in 1984, working first in Arviat and later in Chesterfield Inlet. When I left in 1993, it was to join Madonna House.
On September 3, 1912, Frs. Arsène Turquetil (later bishop) and Armand LeBlanc, OMI, landed on the shore of Hudson Bay and promptly began to build the first mission to the Inuit. It took them just three weeks to erect the church and house.
Five years later, they baptized their first adult converts. (These they attributed to the intercession of St Thérèse of Lisieux.) Since then, the Catholic faith has become rooted in the hearts of the people.
On August 31, 2012, I flew into the tiny airport of Chesterfield Inlet and was greeted by friends whom I hadn’t seen for almost twenty years.
"Hi, Joanne, I’m so and so, remember me?"
This was how the encounters went, like a procession of names and faces. Of course, it was more than that. I was meeting old friends, some of whom were children when I left. I did remember each one.
Often what happened was that we met in the middle of the co-op or the Northern stores, face to face in near disbelief! "You have gray hair now?!"
All of them were keen to introduce me to their children—and their children’s children!
These joy-filled encounters were intermingled with the centennial celebrations (the reason for which I was invited) at the church and the community hall.
Though there had been a more important meeting in July with delegates from across the diocese, this simpler celebration marked the exact date of the arrival of the founders.
On the first evening of the weekend festivities, during Mass, I was invited to present to the parish the gift I had brought with me from Belgium, where I am currently assigned. It was a statue of Our Lady of the Golden Heart from the sanctuary of Beauraing, where Our Lady appeared.
It is very significant that she stands with her arms open, revealing her golden heart. It was Gilberte Degeimbre, 89 years old, one of the visionaries, who pointed this out to me, rather passionately, when I asked her a few days before my departure what I should say to my Inuit friends. "Tell them that Our Lady showed us her heart and that she is waiting for us to come to her."
It was a simple message and very easily translated into Inuktitut. After this, people approached the front of the church to look at Our Lady and to have their picture taken with her. What was so moving was that they took her into their arms and held her for the pose.
It strikes me now that one of the messages from the apparitions was that we should come to Beauraing on pilgrimage. Our Lady asked it, but when we can’t go to her… well, she comes to us.
The celebrations included the blessing of the Hudson Bay along with prayers for protection for those at sea and recalling all those who have died in accidents. We also prayed for the ancestors and the faithful departed, walking around the cemetery as the priest sprinkled holy water on the tombs.
There was a village feast, including fish, caribou, seal, and whale—and turkey and ham—liturgies with full-voiced hymns, and the unveiling of a commemorative plaque.
And I drank many cups of tea while visiting with friends, including Bishop Reynald Rouleau and Fr. Greg Oszust, my generous host.
From Chesterfield Inlet, I flew down to Arviat for two days. This time I was made to guess the names of my old friends, which was a lot of fun. There were hugs and Eskimo kisses galore, followed by lots more cups of tea around the kitchen table in the little house trailer where I used to live.
Only rarely did people ask about my vocation and life in Madonna House, but that didn’t matter much. We chatted about children, families, school, hunting, and other village activities, and a little bit about the past but not much.
It was a great experience of "presence" and of "friendship" which is very much a part of who the Inuit people are—and of course, of who we of Madonna House are.
It was a week of joy and thanksgiving, a week that felt like a month.
And when it was over, by some grace it was easy to slip back into the rhythm of life in MH Belgium. But my heart has been pierced by the suffering that people in the Far North are experiencing, especially the children. I can’t get their faces, their hearts, out of my mind.
The words of the visionary, Gilberte, come back to me: "Our Lady is waiting for us to come to her."
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