Religious History Of St. John Baptiste
Obstacles Encountered in the
Ministry of Evangelization.
The geographical milieu itself was an obstacle offering the missionaries nothing but difficulties in their missionary travels and communication; until roads were constructed, all travel was done by canoe in summer and by dog sleigh in winter. There were incredible difficulties to surmount, delays and inevitable losses since little could be transported as cargo. Missionaries had to "paddle their own canoe" (motorboats came only much later as did the pontoon equipped plane); lakes and rivers were the highways and the canoe the vehicle. Father Louis Moraud was the first priest in the area to travel by plane in September 1926. In 1948, the first landing strip was built. Previous to 1954, the only means of travel beyond Green Lake was a winding sand trail over which the first horse-teams and then trucks freighted 150 miles north of the nearest railroad and 200 miles northwest of Prince Albert.
Ile-a-la-Crosse Lake, is the collection of all the lakes and rivers north west and south of the Upper Churchill River Basin discharging the waters in the river proper down to Hudson Bay. By its position, the Lake commands a territory of about a thousand square miles; it is a cross-way, hence the importance of the settlement. Instead of following the course of the waters, west to east, over lakes and rivers, these had to be crossed since the missionary travels were from south to north. Dangerous rapids and waterfalls had to be conquered. Mosquitoes and black flies were the foes. Long cold winters and extremely short summers were liabilities. Delays in their travels often obliged them to camp in the open under the stars because of wind and/or rainstorms.
Between the time of freeze-up in the fall and thawing in the spring, travel was next to impossible, leaving the newly converted to Christianity without a priest's regular visits. The main occupation of the Metis and Aboriginal was to get enough food for the day, fish and venison.
With no schooling of any importance, the abstract truths of faith, intellectual teachings or sayings found a deaf ear, when, for the inhabitants, providing for daily survival was the direst need and interest.
Mail was received only twice a year, but news spread rapidly in the northland; it had a "grapevine all its own"; the news just continued to fan out! It's only on July 21, 1968, that television came to the mission of Ile-a-la-Crosse and in 1973, long-distance phone calls were an innovation! The mail strike of 1975, which lasted several weeks reminded the elders especially, of when daily mail was non-existent.
Language was a stumbling block for the missionaries until they could themselves, master Cree or Chipewyan and even English since most priests were French, Dutch, Belgian, German, Italian, American or French Canadian. And even after 150 years, there will be no Native clergy from Ile-a-la-Crosse and from any of the missions in Keewatin for that matter in spite of the efforts, assistance, encouragement and promotion given. Some of the most renown missionaries in Ile-a-la-Crosse mastered the Chipewyan or Dene language: Fathers Bonnald, LeGoff, and Pénard especially. They have written grammars, dictionaries, catechisms, homiletic compendiums, prayer books, and hymnals which are still being used today. Because of the poverty of the mission, it was called "The Bethlehem of the North".
Because of the poverty of the soil, farming was a very unrewarding task. Gardening was limited, but the potato crops were abundant; the terrain was one of sandy knolls and swamps; the future of Ile-a-la-Crosse certainly could not depend on agriculture itself. The traditional occupation of fishing and hunting decreased as the population increased. Missionaries had to import most of the staple foods for themselves and the boys and girls at school. Around the edges of the lake was some fertile land where barley and potatoes could be grown. White spruce was the only wood suitable for construction.
Forest fires, although threatening, were not as numerous as they are today. At least they did not claim as much attention.
Evangelization was an arduous task accomplished not without tears and at the price of very great sufferings. The missionary's teaching was not always convincing to the incredulous; the missionaries themselves had one ambition to "save souls".
It would take a hundred years to develop an ecumenical spirit among its Catholic population and make peace with separated brothers and sisters.
Initially the lifestyle was primitive and as a result, the aboriginal were nomads which made their absence from the mission for the greater part of the year very noticeable if predictable. The missionary priest had to travel miles to bring help and necessary supplies to families, spiritual assistance to a sick child or a dying elder.
As Bishop Charlebois would often say in speaking of the missionaries under his care: "Their zeal needs more moderation than prodding!" And it was once said: "When in trouble there is always an Oblate to push and a Grey Nun to pull!"
Homage due to the Oblate Brothers
who laboured in Ile-a-la-Crosse.
A novitiate for the formation of young Brother Oblates was opened in 1865; this attracted quite a number of young men. While prayer was an important aspect of their spiritual formation, work was also essential. Brothers have been the greatest support of the mission by their humble and often lowly services. Their commitment as religious and their exemplary regularity at prayer and work became their school. The farm, the gardens, the chickens and cattle, the barn and the flour mill; these were their workshop.
Because of the Brother's, skills and ingenuity in constructing, enlarging buildings or repairing, there were churches, convents, schools, hospitals, and halls.
Because of the Brothers, there was an electrical plant as early as December 1956, feeding electricity to the village for five years. There was also a heating plant, plumbing, tool shops and a root cellar; a skating rink and a hockey team and summer camps.
Because of the Brothers, 120 acres of mission land was well kept and put to great use to support their confrere priests, the Grey Nuns and the children, the sick and the needy.
Because of the Brothers, many fires were prevented and courage sustained by rebuilding new schools, hospitals and houses. They were the indefatigable workers always driving themselves so that they could get on with the next job.
Because of the Brothers, there was progress in the mission of St. John the Baptist!
After 1933, especially, yearly Retreat Days brought all the Oblate priests and brothers of the vicariate to Ile-a-la-Crosse... .and one can imagine what great gatherings these turned out to be!
Visits of Apostolic Delegates.
August 6, 1939, Archbishop Ildebrando Antoniutti, representative of Pope Pius XII, visited the mission of St. John the Baptist. Bishop Breynat also accompanied Bishop Martin Lajeunesse for this event. Father Marius Rossignol, OMI, was the pastor and director of this mission. This was an honour and a joy and a great event for the mission.
June 19, 1965, The Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Sergio Pignedoli visited the people of Ile-a-la-Crosse. Having been appointed secretary of the Propagation of the Faith in Rome, he paid a farewell visit to the people of Ile-a-la-Crosse and those of other surrounding missions, on August 6 1965.
November 19, 1971, Bishop Paul Cheng of Taiwan, Formosa, visited with Father Jean-Daniel, OMI. He spoke to the people who provided a generous collection for the Taiwan missions.