The Sunday Magazine

Why an Oji-Cree community is trying to rebuild its Catholic church

Despite the scars left by church-run residential schools on members of the St. Theresa Point First Nation, many in the community are devoted Catholics. So there was devastation when their local church burned in suspected arson last year, and now they're trying to rebuild.

People of St. Theresa Point remain devoted Catholics, despite First Nation's history with church-run schools

St. Theresa Point Catholic Church burned down on Easter Sunday 2021, hours after services. Many in the remote First Nations community are devoted Catholics, and missing their gathering place, despite their history with church-run residential schools. (Submitted by Marie Wood)

After the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential school sites this year, churches burned — part of the reckoning, some said, for the role of the Roman Catholic Church in abuse of Indigenous children in the residential school system.

But it was residential school survivors who called for the attacks to stop

Similarly, when the people of St. Theresa Point First Nation in northern Manitoba lost their Catholic church to a suspected arsonist weeks before the potential burial sites were found, the loss was nothing but devastating. 

"Everything that we do during our lives is part of that church, our church," said Marie Wood, former chief of the Oji-Cree community, to CBC Radio's The Sunday Magazine.

"The blessing of the communion and baptisms. All our children were [baptized] there. Even us, when we were children and it was a brand new church ... we did our confirmation there and our weddings." 

Such attachment to the Catholic Church might surprise anyone familiar with the abusive history of residential schools in Canada.

Marie Wood, former chief of St. Theresa Point First Nation, says about 90 per cent of residents there are Catholic. (St. Theresa Point First Nation)

Beginning in the late 1880s, about 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools over the next century. The Roman Catholic Church ran more than two-thirds of them.

Some of those living in St. Theresa Point attended residential schools themselves, or had siblings, parents or grandparents who did. Those who weren't sent away attended nearby day schools, also run by priests and nuns. 

"We went through as much abuse as any residential school," said Hazel Harper, a St. Theresa Point community member who attended day school. 

"I couldn't believe how powerless we were to even say anything. And some of us are affected that way still — our people — in that they can't do anything, they can't say anything."

Yet according to Wood, about 90 per cent of the people living in St. Theresa Point are Catholic — the faith Christian missionaries brought in the 1920s to the remote community about 460 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. 

She maintains it's not the religion that harmed the children in the church-run schools.

"I keep telling the people, it's not God that did this to you," she said. "It was the people that worked in there…. It's not God."

A group of students and a nun pose at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Man., in a 1940 photo. Children from the northern Manitoba First Nation of St. Theresa Point also attended Catholic-run residential and day schools for decades, yet maintain their strong Catholic faith today. (Dept. of Indian and Northern Affairs/Library and Archives Canada/Reuters)

Wood is behind an ongoing effort to raise money to rebuild her community's church. Her Catholic faith remains strong, though she acknowledges the finding of unmarked graves opened deep wounds. She says it was hard having no church to turn to at that time. 

"They believe that God is listening to their pain," she said of her community. "This is the place that we go and heal."

Ray Aldred, director of the Indigenous Studies Program at the Vancouver School of Theology, who is Cree, told The Sunday Magazine that among younger Indigenous people who have left their territories, there is much more anger, and a feeling of wanting to move away from the church. 

But he says it's not always an either-or situation for those who are older and still living on their traditional lands.

"The best way to describe it probably, from the field of recovery, is ambivalence," he said. "You know, you feel positive things about the church and your heart being part of it, then at the same time you have these negative feelings because of all the stuff that's happened."

Traditional vs. Catholic worship

Hazel Harper and her husband Chris, both in their 60s, still live in St. Theresa Point. 

Chris was brought up "very traditionally," he said, living off the land, learning from his father and grandfather — but also as a Catholic, with a very strong faith. He learned from the church that his traditional ways of worshipping were wrong. 

Still, he told The Sunday Magazine, he always felt like living his faith meant going beyond Catholicism and including Indigenous practices.

His wife, who describes herself as a "devoted" Catholic, says she and Chris have always celebrated both faiths equally.

"If it wasn't for the traditional ways that we pick up along the way, I don't think I would be feeling really that close with Creator or God," said Hazel.

"We practice both. We do our traditional ceremonies. We do our traditional ways of praying, smudging and using sweetgrass."

But they also go to Catholic Church. "We do all of those and we're proud to do them."

An individual takes part in a smudging ceremony. Chris and Hazel Harper say they incorporate traditional practices, such as burning sweetgrass and smudging, into their Catholic faith. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Chris brought Indigenous traditions back into their church. 

"We incorporated that in every Mass that we did," he said. "And we would also ... do teachings of the sweat lodge and how it could interconnect with the church ... and how ... the church teachings interconnect with our traditional ways."

But he says only about a quarter of St. Theresa Point's 3,200 residents support mixing the two forms of worship, and many of the Catholics won't even talk about the abuse in residential schools. 

"I think a lot of the very, you know, strict Catholics don't even want to talk about that or don't want to hear about those things because... I guess they don't want to go against the church and the Roman Catholic faith. And that's hard." 

"It's like denial," said Hazel. "'No, the church is not bad,' you know? 'The church cannot do this.' 'This is the only way we have to pray.'"

Call for apology

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on the Pope to apologize to survivors of the Catholic-run residential schools and their relatives for the church's role "in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children."

There have also been unanswered calls for the Catholic Church to release complete records from the schools that might contain information about how thousands of children died in their care. 

Earlier this year, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops called the discovery of potential unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School a "shocking" event, and pledged to "continue walking side by side with Indigenous peoples in the present, seeking greater healing and reconciliation for the future."

Hazel says if the Pope does eventually apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church, it will amount to nothing if there is no acknowledgement of the legitimacy of their traditional ways of worship. 

"We need to see those changes, we need to feel them," she said. "We want to feel empowered and feel that, OK, we're free to practice what we want to, you know ... if we wanted to have a [traditional] ceremony."

From the ashes 

For her part, Wood remains focused on the long task of eventually building a new St. Theresa Point Catholic Church, inspired in part by something found in the ashes of the one that was lost.

"This picture was found in the rubble," she said. "Everything burned. Like, even the bell was melted ... even the cross. Everything, everything burned." 

But not the photograph of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first ever Native American canonized by the Catholic Church. 

"I think it was a miracle," Wood said. 

A portrait of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, is seen in front of the remnants of the burned-down church on St. Theresa Point First Nation. One congregant says it is 'a miracle' that it survived the flames. (St. Theresa Point First Nation/Grandin Media )

Hazel Harper also believes the portrait has special meaning. 

"Why would it survive in this fire? It's the message, you know? Does it mean that we need to go back to our roots as Native people? That's what I always kept thinking. We need to do more about our Native heritage, our Native culture, our ways of praying."

Written by Stephanie Hogan. Interviews by Peter Mitton.