Fort Good Hope nuns retire after two decades in N.W.T.

What started as a one year assignment turned in to nearly two decades in the North for sister Joan Liss, who is retiring along with Sister Pauline Girodat. The two nuns have been helping care for Our Lady of Fort Good Hope church, and its people for 12 years.

A 1 year assignment turned into nearly two decades in the North for Sister Joan Liss

Sister Joan Liss talks with CBC North's Joanne Stassen last year inside Our Lady of Good Hope church in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

Sister Joan Liss calls it "a million dollar view:" she works at Our Lady of Good Hope, one of the most beautiful churches in the North, overlooking the Mackenzie River as it bends toward the ramparts.

It's what the pastoral leader has seen from her office in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., for the last 12 years, but she will soon be leaving it, and the people to whom she's been ministering, for a retirement home in Ontario.  

Sister Pauline Girodat, the parish's other pastoral leader, who joined Liss a year after she arrived in the community, is also retiring. 

The two nuns were sent to the North by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Liss is now 73, Girodat, 78.

"A lot of people have thanked us. I think we should be thanking them, " says Liss over a fuzzy phone line from Fort Good Hope.

"We've learned a lot from them, " adds Girodat. "It's leaving friends, that's hard."

When Liss set out for the Northwest Territories, it was supposed to be a one-year assignment. It turned into nearly two decades of service to two Catholic parishes in the North.

After spending eight years in Fort Resolution, Liss was sent further north to Fort Good Hope.

"It's been a good 12 years," says Liss. "We've been with them in the happy times and walked with them in the sad times and the difficult times. And they've let us enter their lives."

Liss teaches preparation classes for First Communion, baptism and marriage as well as some bible study classes. She's also been involved with the district education authority and with programs in the schools.

Girodat plays the organ and takes communion to shut-ins and the elderly.

A big part of their ministry has been what Liss describes as being "present" in the community.

"I have tried, just generally, to be around in the community," says Liss.

"If they have something they want to talk about, you are kind of familiar to them. I do a lot of — I don't like to say counselling. I do a lot of listening."

Lucy Jackson is a lay leader in the church who ministers along with the sisters when they are visiting the sick or dying, and helps with services at the church.

"I think they enjoyed this community," says Jackson, who says she continues to work with the church because it was her people who built it. 

"They did things with people in the schools. Helped with the Christmas concerts."

"It was just such a thrill to go in there and see that beautiful artwork," says Liss.  When you stop and think that church was built before power tools and all modern conveniences. It was a real labour of love for the Lord."

Another thrill, and a memorable experience: the summer she was able to spend a week with people from the community at their camp down the river.

"It opened a whole new vision of the people for me — a whole new aspect," she says.

"They talk about living on the land, and living on the land with them was a unique experience. They are a people of deep faith and a deep love of God. I experienced it in a whole new way."

Both sisters say their time in the North has changed them and that they'll they'll miss the people of Fort Good Hope, as they head to a retirement home for School Sisters of Notre Dame in Waterdown, Ont.

"One part of me says 'Yeah, I know I need to retire.' Another part of me says 'I don't want to leave.'

"The North is a very special place with a lot of very special people. They steal a special spot in your heart."

On their way south they will make a stop in Fort Resolution.

Bishop Mark Hagemoen is expected to speak with the Fort Good Hope parish on Monday, at a special Holy Communion service, about plans to replace the Sisters.


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