Fort Smith Catholic parishioners question priest's departure

Some people in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, say they're sad to lose a well-loved priest because he incorporated aboriginal spirituality into his Catholic services.

Some say Father Paul Payyapilly's inclusion of aboriginal spirituality was unpopular with some

Father Paul Payyapilly delivers his final sermon in St. Joseph's cathedral in Fort Smith, N.W.T. July 7. Father Paul opened the church to aboriginal spirituality, but not everyone approved. (Meagan Wohlberg/Northern Journal)

Some people in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, say they're sad to lose a well-loved priest because he incorporated aboriginal spirituality into his Catholic services.

Father Paul Payyapilly, originally from India, spent nearly five years at Fort Smith's St. Joseph's Cathedral.

On Sunday he delivered an emotional final sermon to a church packed with people. He’s says he’s grateful to the town that welcomed him.

“They provided me with their own local food and space and time and taking me to the land and showing me cultural and traditional way of life.”

The town is mainly Métis, so Payyapilly started up an aboriginal mass once a month, bringing in traditional elements like smudging, drums, songs and a prayer led by elders.

Before long, a once dwindling parish was filling up its pews.

But some didn't like the changes.

Mary Bourque sang in the choir and says it was a small minority who objected.

“I don't know why they didn't like him to spend too much time with the native people," Bourque says. "He'd go visit them and do things with them every time there was a function going on. He'd go there because he was invited, everybody loved him.”

Bourque says Father Paul’s sermons were healing for many, and helped connect the community.

“I was sick at home one time and I couldn't go, so he brought me communion at home. He visited for a while… and that's what I thought. He's a really kind person and really trying to make a difference among our people.”

Payyapilly says he left the parish willingly because his contract ended, but his friend and fellow pastor Father Jim Holland says a small group of people complained to the Bishop.

“There was one lady who wrote a letter; it said really mean, cruel things," says Holland. "She passed it around Fort Smith and the bishop just stood by and didn't do anything.”

Payyapilly says although he knew he was well loved by the people of Fort Smith, there were a select few who chastised him for being too involved with the aboriginal people.

Payyapilly says he'll go wherever the Lord takes him next.

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