By Kiply Lukan Yaworski, Catholic Saskatoon News
Saskatoon’s Indigenous Catholic parish held a four-day memorial wake Thursday, June 3 to Sunday, June 6, 2021, for children who died at residential schools, following news of ground-penetrating radar detecting 215 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops residential school in British Columbia.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, which serves First Nations, Métis, Indigenous and non-Indigenous parishioners in the heart of Saskatoon, organized the event in response to the heart-breaking discovery of the graves, which has caused trauma throughout their community and reopened wounds for survivors and their families.
Held on the grounds of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Saskatoon – where a teepee was set up near the church building at the corner of Avenue O South and 20th Street West – Our Lady of Guadalupe’s memorial “Wake Honouring the Lost” opened each day with a 6 a.m. sacred pipe ceremony and a sacred drum song.
Beginning and ending with Mass celebrated by Bishop Mark Hagemoen June 3 (Vicar General Fr. Kevin McGee was also present for the opening Mass) and Sunday, June 6, the wake also included morning and evening prayers for the dead from the Liturgy of the Hours, lighting of vigil candles (one for each of the children found at Kamloops), intermittent prayer throughout each day, smudging, sacred drum and honour songs.
But most of all, the four-day event provided a prayerful presence to those struggling with the profound grief, anger and hurt of the recent discovery at a residential school run by Catholics from 1890 to 1969, when the federal government took over until the school closed in 1978.
Parish elders Irene Sharp, Sharon Genaille, Dianne Anderson, and Gayle Weenie joined Parish Life Director Debbie Ledoux, Our Lady of Guadalupe pastor Fr. Graham Hill, CSsR, Deacon Paul Labelle and St. Mary pastor Fr. Mick Fleming in praying with and listening to those who came forward to share their grief and their anger.
Elder Rod Stone, who led the pipe ceremony on three of the four days of the wake, spoke at the end of the closing Mass June 6, speaking in his own language before addressing the crowd in English.
“Stories have been told. Now we are on a healing journey, and that involves everybody,” said the Elder, recalling the devout Catholic faith of his own parents, who were residential school survivors. He also expressed disappointment that he did not hear an apology in the recent statement from Pope Francis about the discovery of the 215 children at Kamloops.
“So, I think it is up to the individual churches, if they have the will, to bring people back in a good way. What I see (in the celebration) today, in terms of what has happened – the smudge, the tobacco, the cloth, the sweet grass, the pipe – I never thought I would see that,” Elder Stone added, thinking of how proud his father would have been to experience these traditional elements in a Catholic celebration.
“I think we are starting a journey here, and I think that journey is looking to the next generation… my children, my grandchildren, my great grandchildren,” said Stone, who attended the closing Mass with three of his six great-grandchildren whom he has raised from birth.
“It is a beautiful feeling… loving a child, to watch them grow up to be happy, to play like a child, to show them the love and care because they are the next generation,” he said, recalling those who did not have that experience because of the residential school system.
“There is always the opportunity to change,” he added, pointing to traditional teachings as a way to heal such great loss and overwhelming grief. “Healing is right here — look at the pipe. When the elder is praying, he lifts it up, he brings his heart and his mind together,” he said. “It is a way to release the poisons.”
Parish Life Director Debbie Ledoux, who herself attended residential school in Saskatchewan for nine years, also spoke about the impact of the recent news about the 215 children – most especially for residential school survivors and their families.
“We all share the pain and the sorrow, the hurt, you name it,” she said at the conclusion of the closing Mass June 6. “It has been a very, very difficult week since the news of these babies, these children, being found.”
In the face of all of the grief and anger, the parish elders led the way to envisioning and holding the wake, along with pastors Graham and Fleming, and Deacon Labelle, she said.
The pain of the recent discovery of the children’s bodies is particularly deep because it was “caused by our Catholic Church, caused by supposed reverential leaders…. This is what they did to us, and they are supposed to be servants of our Creator God,” she said. “And we wonder: what happened? What happened? How can you hate someone so badly that you could do that to our babies – our kids? That is so evil. That is sin.”
She continued: “I cried and I cried and I cried when I heard the news. I thought of my own babies, of my grown sons now that have babies. It is painful. It’s painful. It’s so painful.”
For those who don’t “get” the hurt, she described the encounters with just two of those who stopped by at the teepee during the days of prayer – a 60-year-old man and a 19-year-old woman, who were both devastated by the recent news, and filled with anger and pain.
“I just had a 60-year-old man standing at the fence, I was talking to him, a residential school survivor. He told me that he could not stop crying when he heard the news. He said: ‘All those things that happened to me at the residential school came back. ‘They came back and it hurts,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what to do….I am sorry,’ he said, ‘if I hurt you, but it was the Church. Weren’t they supposed to love us?'” she said, describing her own deep hurt and conflict as an Indigenous person who works for the Church and tries to bring her people back to the Church. “What do I say? What do I say?”
She also tearfully recounted the encounter with a hurting, angry young woman of 19, whom she listened to and encouraged to pray in her own language.
“Then I had to explain to her why I was still here. And why am I here? Because I am here to serve Creator God, and without Him in my life, I would not be able to try and help my people. That’s the reason I am here.”
Ledoux asked for prayer and solidarity from non-Indigenous people. “It is very painful, there’s a lot of anger out there. We need to help each other. Don’t say ‘I’ll pray for you’, say ‘I will pray with you’. Walk with us. Be with us.”
During the closing Mass, expired candles that burned throughout the four-day vigil were placed near the altar around the statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha (an Indigenous woman canonized as a saint of the Catholic Church in 2012).
“They represent the 215 young lives whose graves we are holding this wake for,” explained Fr. Graham Hill after the prayers of the faithful during the closing Mass held on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ.
“On the beginning of this journey together we asked the bishop to bless a fire from which we kept the light burning,” said Hill, before inviting the bishop to share the same light, by lighting a single candle in front of a rock placed in front of the altar, with the word “hope” written in both forms of the Cree alphabet.
At the conclusion of Mass, Hill invited those present to take a candle with them: “take it home and pray for one child – not as a statistic but as a person, a life, and to keep that memory alive.”
Later Fr. Hill also shared words from the residential school survivor who created the star blanket that decorated the altar.
“As I put this star blanket together, I felt all the areas of the medicine wheel: emotional, physical, mental spiritual,” she wrote. “When I was eight I went to the residential school By making this blanket, I was able to heal and release my past, the hurt. With every stitch I said prayers for our people, that everyone who looks at it or walks past it will feel God’s peace and God’s love and joy.”
Bishop Mark Hagemoen presided at Mass for both the opening (outdoors on June 3) and the closing (inside the church building on June 6) of the memorial days of prayer.
“I am very grateful for the teepee – the tent – that is beside the church,” he said in his June 6 homily, before pointing to the scriptural story of the tent that carried the Covenant, the Word of God, on the journey of the people of Israel, until the temple was built to contain it.
“Let the tent teach the temple, and may the temple be able to hold the journey to an uncertain future,” he said, admitting he does not know what the future holds. Even so, he affirmed trust in the abounding love, mercy and presence of God as tent and temple, teepee and church, move forward together.
“On this day that we celebrate Corpus Christi, we pray that God’s real presence will continue to bring blessing, bring strength to those who mourn, and to be able to take us on a new journey together,” Hagemoen said.
Photos from June 3 opening ceremony:
More photos from June 6 closing Mass:
Video of the closing Mass June 6: