“Up North” ministry brings challenges and rewards for Fr. Paul Oshin, who is serving in the Athabasca region of northern Saskatchewan

Parishioners at Fond du Lac organized a celebration for Fr. Paul Oshin on his 15th anniversary of priestly ordination in August. Previously serving as Associate Pastor at St. Paul Co-Cathedral in Saskatoon, Fr. Oshin is now serving as Pastor to three northern parishes as part of a commitment by the Diocese of Saskatoon to assist the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s note: Fr. Paul Oshin, who previously served as the Associate Pastor at St. Paul Co- Cathedral in Saskatoon, is presently serving in the Athabasca region of northern Saskatchewan as Pastor of three parishes: Our Lady of the Cape, Black Lake, SK; Our Lady of Sorrows, Fond du Lac, SK; and Our Lady of Good Council, Stony Rapids, SK.  Fr. Oshin’s appointment as pastor in these communities is part of a commitment by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon to support ministry in the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas. This is an excerpt of an update that Fr. Oshin recently sent to Bishop Mark Hagemoen. )

By Fr. Paul Oshin

Greetings from the Athabasca region.

All honour, praise and adoration to Almighty God for His mercies and love and protection upon us all before, during and after the pandemic that has rendered everyone almost locked up with fear and anxiety.

During the pandemic that forced everyone into lock-down, I experienced a lot of loneliness, I entertained a little bit of anxiety as I was new to the place. The lockdown was declared on the second week that I began ministry here. I had no knowledge of anyone, I only celebrated Sunday Mass and throughout the period, I was alone, coupled with the fact that there was no one to turn to for any direction.

The second challenge was the weather… I didn’t know where the heater gauge was located, let alone how to put it on. I could describe myself at that period as a half-dead living person! This went on for a good week or thereabouts. Inspiration turned my attention to the archdiocesan directory, and I found the contact numbers of some of the parishioners here in Black Lake and I told them “a man is dying of cold here” —  and someone came to my rescue by showing me where the buttons were located to heat the house up!

Fr. Paul Oshin recently reported on a few of his experiences as Pastor to three parishes in the Athabasca region of the province — which has included some challenging weather and the unusual circumstances of a global pandemic. (Submitted photo)

When the Athabasca region health authority mandated “stay home, stay safe” because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it created a vacuum when it came to reaching out to people.

I celebrated daily and Sunday Mass alone in the parish church. With the help of the Chief in Council, I found a man who is very good in computer operation, and I encouraged him to open a Facebook account for the parish so that information and live-stream celebrations of Mass could be accessed by the parishioners in their homes. That idea became a reality, and more than 200 people quickly subscribed to the live-stream:  they were joining the celebration of Mass in their homes and some did provide feedback. This pastoral initiative strengthened communication.

During this pandemic, the health authority in Black Lake provided masks and hand sanitizers for the church. Later, people began to attend the Sunday Mass celebrations at the updated restricted numbers set by the Saskatchewan authorities.

I did take communion to some elders by authorization of the health authority and the Chief in Council, who certified that the people to receive communion were in good health. Also I made phone calls to some parishioners during the lock down. As some parishioners wanted to obtain holy water, I asked them to bring water from home and I blessed the water for them.

The most terrible experience during the COVID-19 pandemic was the issue of funerals. People here are very sympathetically connected or related. Therefore they found it absurd to keep away from the family of any deceased person. Despite the pandemic, they wanted to show solidarity to the family of the deceased person in great numbers. Restrictions created hardships.

The COVID-19 lockdown began as I arrived in Black Lake. In the month of July, I was in Fond du Lac. I am following Archbishop Murray Chatlain’s directive that I should be alternating months in the different communities of the region.

Celebration of the sacraments:

In Black Lake, there have been four infant baptisms and 25 children have received first Holy Communion, while the sacrament of Confession is regularly celebrated both weekdays and Sunday before Mass. Communion is taken to the sick once a week (after Sunday Mass). Sunday Masses are celebrated at 11 a.m. at Black Lake and at 5 p.m. in Stony Rapids. Weekday Mass is celebrated in Black Lake at 5:30 p.m. – at times with only the priest present. Visitation is regularly done here. The parishioners also do visit the priest once in a while.

A plan to renovate the basement of the rectory in Black Lake is underway, courtesy of the new chief (Chief Archie Robillard).

We observed a devotion to our mother Mary on the Feast of her Assumption in August. There was a spiritual walk with the statue from Stony Rapids to Black Lake between Aug. 12 and 15, 2020.

In Stony Rapids, one child has received baptism while 19 children have received their First Holy Communion. Sunday Mass is regularly  celebrated here as well.

At Fond du Lac, the parishioners know the value of a priest living and staying with them. Both daily Mass and Sunday Mass are attended in this community. The sacrament of confession is celebrated almost daily. On Sunday, attendance ranges from between 50 and 90 parishioners.

Renovation is going on in the rectory and in the big church at Fond du Lac, including installation of a new washroom upstairs, fixing of floor plank-tiles in the hall, kitchen and the office. This work is courtesy of Willie John and Chief Louis Mercredi (the Fond du Lac community Chief in Council). Clearing of the bush around the rectory and the big church is also underway. The rectory garden is being managed by the Band office.

Renovations are underway at Our Lady of Sorrows, Fond du Lac, SK. (Submitted photos)

Pastoral challenges

Pastoral challenges include assisting the people in developing an understanding of Christian marriage, and providing funerals for those who have died because of suicide (the age of those who have died within this period range from between 18 and 40 years).

I humbly suggest that a new plan for the youth to come back to the church should be introduced.

Parents should be encouraged to let their children attend church. Some parents find it difficult to talk about church to their kids at home. As is also the case in the city of Saskatoon, excessive freedom without cautions is given to young people, who can prefer to sleep or stay at home on Sunday watching films or playing games. Some young men are involved in consuming too much alcohol or heavy smoking, which is affecting them badly. Some find no meaning in life and consider suicide.

The Church as an agent of evangelisation should not fold her arms in the face of such difficulties – serious investment is needed to save more young people, and to reduce negative and destructive behaviours.

One young man recently committed suicide. In his room, we found a book entitled ‘How to die’ on his bed. Parents of the deceased did not check on what he was doing. I humbly submit that if family, the band office and the Church community can collaborate, we can work to reduce temptations to contemplate suicide, and direct young people toward hope.

Above all, the people in the region are very accommodating and generous. The Fond du Lac community surprised me by celebrating my priestly ordination anniversary in grand style. They prepared a meal and an anniversary cake with many snacks and cookies shared on that day and they attended Mass to thank God with me for the gift of the priesthood.

My personal challenge: it is very hard for me presently to understand the local Dene language. Hopefully, as time goes by, I will try to learn the Dene language.

I am grateful for the fatherly support of Bishop Mark Hagemoen and Archbishop Murray Chatlain. Archbishop Murray contacts me regularly by phone, and I do update him on the developments so far, and I participate in the archdiocesan programs.

The mission is going to be fruitful: nothing is difficult for God.

I thank God for giving me this opportunity. God’s words are so powerful: ‘for those who believe, everything is possible’ (Mark 9:23) I ask for your prayers and moral support to continue to be a friend to His people.