A Heartfelt Farewell
by Maureen Denis.
A big part of the diocese of Whitehorse, Yukon, is about to depart. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate are saying farewell after 120 plus years in the Yukon.
On June 22, Kathleen LaBrie and I attended the official farewell Mass and evening in honor of Fr. Jim Bleakley, the last active Oblate in the Territory. Along with Fr. Jim, all of the Oblates who have served in the diocese were fondly and tearfully remembered.
Bishop Gary Gordon officiated at the liturgy, flanked by Fr. Jim and visiting Oblates Robert Laroche, Richard Beaudette, Jack Herklotz, as well as Fr. Claude Gosselin. Brother Tom Kavanough, OMI, was in the congregation. Fr. Jean Marie Mouchet (96) had already travelled home to France for the summer, while Fr. Pierre Rigaud (93) joined us in spirit from his room at the Oblate Center across the road from Maryhouse.
Symbols of the Oblates’ presence and work within the diocese were displayed before the altar: an original dog sled (minus dogs), a parka, snowshoes, skis, and an Oblate missionary cross and missal. Before the final blessing, Bishop Gary thanked Fr. Jim and the Oblates in a beautiful tribute to their heroic service to the people of the North.
Following an informal barbecue supper, we gathered for a couple hours of tributes to the Oblates, highlighted by a visual presentation of their life and work here. Long-time Yukoners and parishioners gave moving tributes to these wonderful men and servants of the Church. Our own Trudy Moessner beautifully expressed the gratitude of all who have served in Maryhouse over our 59 years here, and been so closely connected with the Oblates. Various Staff had sent their appreciations, which she gathered together in her remarks.
Fr. Rigaud will leave to live in the Lacombe Centre in St. Albert, Alberta, where many of his confreres now reside. Fr. Jim will be beginning a new assignment in Ottawa. A huge hole will be left in the diocese as this particular missionary era comes to an end.
We at Maryhouse will miss glancing across the street knowing they are there, upholding the diocese with their age and quiet suffering. We say farewell, thanking them for the seeds of faith they have sown in this magnificent land by their own example of faith, and by their toil. Gratitude fills our hearts that they have passed this way.
Memories of Oblate Missioners in Yukon
The first mission of Madonna House, Maryhouse, opened in Whitehorse, Yukon in 1954, with Mamie Legris as the Director. Now 97, Mamie resides with the MH family at St. Mary’s in Combermere. This is compiled by Marian Heiberger from interviews with Mamie and with Janette Hills, who spent 11 years in Yukon as a young staff in that pioneering era.
Bishop Coudert, OMI, first bishop of Whitehorse, was there when we arrived. A short but strong man, he traveled by his own dog team and dogsled all over his vast territory. Often he would come to Maryhouse to visit us—and especially the Indian people who were staying with us; we hosted those who had come from their villages to Whitehorse for medical services.
The OMIs, Oblates of Mary Immaculate—priests and religious brothers—had come from France over 100 years ago to serve in this far North diocese. Given an axe and a saw (and not much more!) and bringing with them the sacred vessels for celebrating Mass, they were sent out to their assigned mission villages, one of the farthest being the village of Old Crow, some 475 miles from Whitehorse. They learned to travel by dog team and sled, obtain much of their food by hunting, trapping and fishing, and to build their own rectory and a church. Most had little or no preparation for these arduous tasks.
They all became our friends, since whenever they had to make a trip back to Whitehorse they would visit us and tell us unforgettable stories. Catherine, our foundress, had the Maryhouse staff go out during the summertime for three weeks to different villages, to visit the Oblates and get to know the native people there in their own milieu. We usually ended up cleaning the rectory and church, and all that would entail, on a yearly basis. (We also were blest to go with the Indian people, for example, when the whole village, including children, would silently rise at midnight—when the fish could not see it) and put their fishing net into the water, draw in the catch, go back to bed until dawn and then rise and begin cleaning and drying of the fish.) We also did get to know the people quite well on their medical trips into the frontier town of Whitehorse; we enjoyed them and hearing their stories, too.
The pioneer Oblates lived hard lonely lives and didn’t see gratifying results from their work. One had been of the minor nobility in France before joining the Oblates, and loved music; another who had also previously known wealth was seen carrying his stove on his back out at his village.
To mention a couple of these heroic Oblates by name: Fr. Joe Plaine always chose to live in strict poverty, even when later in life he could have had more comforts. Known for his intense prayer life, in his retirement he went out visiting people in Whitehorse, and was always available to them. Fr. Rigaud always followed ‘the people’ (the Indians of the village) wherever they travelled on their wintertime hunting sojourns. One midnight as he was following them, using his team of Huskies and sled, he became aware of a pack of vicious timber wolves running along side of him. After two hours of goading his lead dog on without wavering, the wolves finally turned back, an exhausting and terrorizing experience for both man and dogs. If the lead dog had hesitated, it would have meant death for all.
Brother Soucey, like the other Oblate Brothers, did every kind of practical service for the bishop and the priests—chopping wood, baking, household maintenance and vehicle repair, being sacristan, cleaning chimneys. Even in his retirement years, Mamie relates, when she was living as a ‘poustinik’ in Coudert House (our poustinia in Whitehorse) Bro. Soucey would quietly show up and split her wood for heating the house, shovel the snow from the sidewalk and do similar services, without her even seeing when he did them.
Mamie reiterated: My heart goes out to Bishop Gary Gordon, the current bishop of Whitehorse, who had to close this historic era of the Oblates, and has to find replacements for them.
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