NWT slowly getting back to normal; first Mass celebrated

Bishop Jon Hansen of the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories (File photo courtesy of the Catholic Register, CCN)

By Quinton Amundson, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – Mackenzie-Fort Smith Bishop Jon Hansen spoke to an “essentially full” St. Patrick’s Co-Cathedral on Sept. 10, in front of Yellowknife Catholics eager to congregate after nearly a month of being deprived of their home and parish community due to the rampant wildfires.

“It was wonderful to see everyone,” said Hansen, who returned to the Northwest Territories capital on Sept. 8, 2023.

“People were glad to return, and there was a real sense of relief among the people. There were a lot of smiles as they saw friends and neighbours again. We all had a shared experience to talk about.”

The regular pastor for St. Patrick’s, Fr. Marek Pisarek, is expected to return from evacuation in the coming days. As per the phased re-entry plans unveiled for neighbouring Hay River and Fort Smith, the general public — including parish priests — had the green light to return on Sept. 17 and 18, respectively. Fr. Gordian Opera is the pastor of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Fort Smith, and Fr. Innocent Ukaegbu guides Our Lady of Assumption parish in Hay River.

Hansen told The Catholic Register that few parishioners did approach him to discuss their trauma about their financial situation because they could not make a living for a prolonged period. Mostly, the congregants accentuated the positives about their forced sojourns.

“Surprisingly enough, people were overall very positive about the experience,” said Hansen. “They were supported by the communities where they found themselves. Many people were able to connect with family and loved ones they hadn’t seen for some time and rekindled those bonds. In the case where people had to be supported by strangers, mostly I heard about how wonderful these people were with how they reached out and were so giving.”

Hansen stayed with a niece, nephew-in-law and their children in Grande Prairie, Alta. He also visited his father, who resides in the northern Alberta city as well.

The hardest part of exile for Hansen and parishioners “was not knowing when it was going to end.” When a firm return date was announced, the bishop sensed he and others could then treat the remaining days away “like an extended vacation.”

The bishop intends to host forums in Hay River and Fort Smith in October to hear how Catholics in those communities navigated the evacuations.