By Tim Yaworski
[SANDY ISLAND, Saskatchewan] – In August 2018 I was privileged to spend a few days travelling with Archbishop Murray Chatlain as he visited and celebrated with the faithful of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas in northern Saskatchewan.
While collecting images and footage for a short film about the northern church, I saw parts of the province I had experienced in name alone. Visiting Beauval, Patuanak, Canoe Narrows, Cole Bay and Wollaston Lake, I met people who have lived great joys and hardships in their remote northern communities.
I was a stranger, often only there for a few hours, so the people were shy around me, but their affection for their archbishop was obvious right from the start. Every-where we went – suppers, Confirmations, celebrations of the Eucharist, home visits, pilgrimages – Archbishop Murray Chatlain was welcomed, not just as a spiritual leader, but as a friend.
Travelling to the annual Sandy Island Pilgrimage, I had a small glimpse into the realities of reaching the faithful in this remote area.
I travelled from Saskatoon with the archbishop. Also travelling with us was Fr. Greg Smith-Windsor of the diocese of Saskatoon, who serves at St. Mary parish in Lanigan, SK and Holy Rosary parish in LeRoy, SK. The priest who serves the Wollaston Lake community, Fr. Joji Chandamala, had been delayed in returning from a visit overseas to visit his dying father, and was unable to attend the pilgrimage.
The three-hour turbo-prop flight included stops in Prince Albert, La Ronge, and finally Wollaston Lake.
During refueling in Prince Albert, Archbishop Murray spent time visiting with many of his flock who were on their way home to their own communities in the North. The same scene repeated itself in the wooden shed that is the airport in Wollaston Lake.
Upon our arrival at Wollaston Lake, we squeezed into an open motorboat along with an Elder, and a couple from the community, for the 90-minute trip west across the lake, then dodging the islands in Fond Du Lac River, to finally arrive at Sandy Island, the site of the annual pilgrimage.
As the boat entered a small bay, sounds of drums, cheers, fireworks and rifle shots rang out in welcome.
The shoreline was a wall of joyful Dene First Nations faithful greeting Archbishop Murray Chatlain at the start of his four-day visit.
Once we settled in, it became obvious why Fr. Greg Smith-Windsor was along for the trip. Nearly every spare moment of the four days, the priest from the diocese of Saskatoon and the archbishop were kept busy celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation for a steady stream of the faithful.
After a day of shyly watching me wander around the island with my cameras, the people began to welcome me into their circles.
As we talked, I learned about the faith of their ancestors and the healings that led to the establishment of the annual pilgrimage on this remote island.
They described faith-filled priests of the past who devoted their lives to bring the Word of God to the remote villages and trap-line cabins, often travelling by foot and by dog sled.
Most of all, I witnessed the profound faith of the people at the many Masses, vigils, rosaries and prayer sessions of the pilgrimage.
I was struck by the strength of their devotion to Mother Mary, and learned how Marian devotion strikes deep and reflective chords in the Dene people’s spiritual history and tradition.
One clear night, I headed out on the trail with my camera and tripod to capture the Milky Way.
Under the darkest night sky I have ever experienced, under an endless blanket of stars, on a remote northern island holding a faith-filled and welcoming people and the priests who serve them, I had a hard time remembering when I have ever felt so close to God.
Here is the video about Keewatin-Le Pas: