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Wednesday, 11 October 2006 00:00
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History of Keewatin-Le Pas Archdiocese 

We are a missionary diocese covering a land mass of 430,000 square kilometers in northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba and a small corner of North-West Ontario. The Métis, First Nations of Cree, OjiCree, Dene and non-Natives make up the richness of a mixed culture.  The territory west of James Bay was called "Keewatin" meaning "North Wind Blowing."

The first Jesuit missionaries who visited the Keewatin Vicariate (established in 1910) came between 1694 and 1697.  Father Alexandre Taché O.M.I. arrived, at Ile-à-la-Crosse Saskatchewan in 1846 and built a small house and chapel in 1847.  The first mission was established at Ile-à-la-Crosse in 1860, by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.  At the same time, the Grey Nuns of Montreal came to help educate" Indian children" and to care for the ill and aged.  The number of sisters who served in Ile-à-la-Crosse between 1860 and 1996 was 160.  In 1887, newly ordained Father Ovide Charlebois O.M.I. arrived from Quebec, to Cumberland House Saskatchewan.  On September 2, 1887 he visited The Pas for the first of his yearly visits and was later assigned to minister there to the aboriginals who wished to embrace the Catholic faith.  At that time, the population of The Pas was less than 100.

In 1897, Father Charlebois O.M.I. built a mission house, a little log cabin chapel, which now sits next to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Cathedral in The Pas.  The logs were cut at Cumberland House about one hundred miles up river from The Pas, and rafted by canoe to the site of the church on the river bank.  The raft then served for the floor.  The window panes and shingles were brought by canoe from Prince Albert, some 500 miles away, down the Saskatchwan River.  Fr. Charlebois O.M.I., with the help of some local people, completed this 22'x 15' building with a crosscut saw and a broad axe in 10 days.  He slept in the tiny attic from 1897 to 1911 while doing his missionary work.  The little white building, with the cross on top, holds within its whitewashed walls, much of the unwritten history of the beginning of Catholicism in The Pas and surrounding area.  Plans for the restoration of the chapel started in 1994 with the work officially starting in 2003. The Charlebois Chapel was designated a Municipal Heritage site in 2005.  The solemn dedication of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart cathedral in The Pas was September13, 1922.  In 1911, a two story building 36'x36' was built.  This was to be the Bishop's residence but soon after he loaned it to the sisters so they could run the first hospital and house a Catholic school.  The bishop and priests lived in the basement until the present Bishop House was built in 1927.

Father Ovide Charlebois O.M.I. was ordained Bishop in 1910.  His motto was "To Jesus through Mary"  Shortly after his ordination, he set out for a Pastoral Visit of his nearly unlimited Vicariate.  He traveled many miles by railroad, by heavy wagon over frightful roads, by canoe, on foot over portages, through forest and often slept on the ground, sheltered only by a little canvas tent.  He had a great sense of devotion to his duties and obligations as a missionary, and spared nothing at the cost of great suffering and set backs.  He was a real pioneer, a saintly man and an arduous worker to save souls.  Bishop Charlebois O.M.I., was a man of vision, a man of God.  Because of his dedication, his cause for canonization is being processed in Rome.

Traditionally, fishing and hunting was how the First Nations people made their living. Ministering to them had to be worked around their fishing and hunting season.  The huge area to be covered and the lack of personnel was always a challenge.  Another stumbling block for the missionaries was learning the Cree, Chipeweyan and Dene language since most priests were French, Dutch, Belgian, Italian, American or French Canadian.  Many mission churches were built over the years along with residential schools to provide for the education of the First Nations People.  One such school was in Sturgeon Landing but it burnt in 1952. Over the years, fire destroyed many buildings which had to be rebuilt.  Today there are 49 missions within the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas.  The priests and bishop continue their appeal to family, relatives, friends and benefactors to help support the missions.  One of the primary benefactors of the northern missions is to this day, "Catholic Missions in Canada."

In the diocese, some health facilities were opened by different religious orders of woman over the years.  The first hospital dates back to 1860, in Ile-à-la-Crosse. Three sisters from the Grey Nuns community opened their own house to look after the sick.  The first patient admitted was a man called Phillip Bekkatla.  The words "hospice" and "infirmary" were used to designate the "hospital".  The first doctor came in 1889, from Regina, to give vaccinations against smallpox.  Other frequently found illnesses at the time were tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia, colds, and tapeworms.  In 1912, four Sisters of Charity from St. Hyacinthe, arrived in The Pas to open a hospital.  The first 10 and then 50 bed buildings were soon found to be too small and another one was built.  The dedication of the new St. Anthony's Hospital took place on May 24th, 1929.  The sisters also ran a School of Nursing for many years.  Although the hospital became government owned and run in 1970, the sisters remained until 1982. The hospital is still in operation today. The Flin Flon General Hospital was built in 1938 by the Catholic Church and operated by the Grey Nuns.  St.Martin's Hospital, in La Loche was started in 1942 and was given that name to honor Bishop Martin Lajeunesse.  At St. Theresa Point,  the sisters worked in a dispensary and the Norway House hospital seemed more like a sanitarium.

Catholic education in The Pas was organized as early as January 1912 before the northern extension of the Manitoba boundary to the 60 parallel. The Grey Nuns operated it in what th was formerly the residence of Bishop Ovide Charlebois. In December, 1914, forty-six
ratepayers petitioned the public school board for a Roman Catholic bilingual teacher, as allowed for in the Manitoba Public School Act. This request was granted and for over a year the arrangement continued. The next year, however, in a disagreement with the public school principal, the Catholics withdrew their children and began the Sacred Heart School.  

The permanent school structure was built in 1916 as a six-room frame and stucco building. The school cost $30,000 to build, financed by the diocese and operated by the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart parish as no government funding was received. It was enlarged to eight classrooms in 1929. Initially the school was conducted by six Sisters of the Presentation of Mary and this order provided the teachers for decades, but gradually were mostly replaced by lay teachers in the 1960s.

In 1934-35 there were 182 pupils enroled in Grades 1-8, and another 17 pupils enrolled in the school’s commercial course. The provincial elementary curriculum as well as religion
was taught. In the Commercial Course the students were taught bookkeeping, shorthand, typewriting, commercial arithmetic, commercial law, business English and spelling. It was the only Commercial Course offered in northern Manitoba and by 1935 about 60 students had completed it. From the earliest days there had been a very tolerant feeling in The Pas toward the “Separate School.” Students from Sacred Heart School would transfer to the public high school to obtain their matriculation standing. On the other hand, some public school students would attend Sacred Heart School for the Commercial Course program
so they could find employment locally. Hundreds of students were educated at Sacred Heart School in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, and in its later years the school offered Kindergarten to Grade 12. In the late 1960s, due to the difficulty for the parish to finance a school, the school was operated for a time under the auspices of the public Kelsey School Division. Due to a significant increase in student population triggered by the building of a pulp and paper complex in The Pas in 1969, the public system was enlarged and in 1973 the 250 Sacred Heart Students were integrated into the public system. Sacred Heart School sat empty for a year and was torn down in 1974, but on its foundation was built the current diocesan office.

Bishop Ovide Charlebois died in 1933.  His nephew, Bishop Martin Lajeunesse O.M.I. became Bishop of the Vicariate of Keewatin that same year.  His motto was "Against hope unto hope"   His vision for the future was the expansion of the missions.  He managed to expand, all the while being admired for his zeal, his acts of charity and his relentless devotion.  He combined simplicity and dignity all the while being accessible to his people.  He was an efficient and well-liked bishop.  Due to illness, Bishop Lajeunesse O.M.I. resigned in 1954 and died in July 1961.

Bishop Dumouchel O.M.I. was chosen to succeed Bishop Lajeunesse and was consecrated bishop May 24, 1955.  His motto was "I will be like a father to them."  Bishop Dumouchel will be remembered for his foresight in building up resources to bring about a certain financial stability to the diocese.  He was also very interested in developing the spiritual aspect of the archdiocese.  It was important for him to keep in touch with his isolated missionaries.  By 1959, he was able to communicate with 12 different missions using a system equipped with radio transmitters.  With Vatican II, Bishop Dumouchel worked at facilitating the active participation of the laity who needed to become more conscious of their role and responsibility in the Church.  He became Archbishop in 1967, when the Vicariate became the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas.  Due to illness, he retired in 1986 and died in April 2000.

Archbishop Peter Sutton O.M.I. was named Coadjutor April 1986, became Archbishop November 1986 and retired March 25, 2006.  His motto was "My brother my joy" referring to Christ whom he sought to model.  Archbishop Sutton's time in the diocese was marked by his love of people and his outgoing and personable nature.  His compassion, thoughtfulness and sense of humor, made him very approachable and these qualities helped him attract missionaries for the diocese.  He made sure that the buildings were kept in good repair and that the worshipping environment was appropriate.  During his 20 years as Archbishop, many new churches were built all over the diocese.  He encouraged groups of adults from every community to take on a more active role in being church.  In the later years, Archbishop Sutton O.M.I. dealt with the Residential School Issues as they came to the fore and was concerned about using a pastoral approach in his involvement with litigations and negotiations with the government.

Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie O.M.I. was ordained Coadjutor August 2005 and became Archbishop March 25, 2006  His motto is "The kingdom of God is among you."  His first 15 years as a young priest were spent in the diocese where he became well known and valued.  His ministry involved addictions awareness, youth ministry, leadership training, Marriage Encounter and directing a Diocesan Renewal Team (KRT) that crisscrossed the diocese.  His goal is to visit the diocese and to listen to the people.  He dreams of a Church fully alive, healing past hurts and empowering laity to take on greater responsibility.  Bishop Lavoie uses a team approach of shared leadership in the administration of the diocese.  

Dated: June19, 2007 (Source- Keewatin-Le Pas Archives)



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