November 13, 2014, Fort St. James, British Columbia – Recently ministering as “grandmothers” to girls at St. Clare Girls’ Centre in Meru, Kenya, Sisters Maurine Barzantni, OP, and Renee Richie, OP, now play a similar role, offering the ministry of presence to First Nations people on four reservations in British Columbia. They began their ministry on May 1.
“We’re very happy and we love what we’re doing,” Sister Renee said. “And what we’re doing primarily is not so much the action mode as just being – our presence with the people.”
Sisters Maurine and Renee are based in Fort St. James, about a two-hour drive north of Prince George, in the Diocese of Prince George. They serve as pastoral assistants to Father Frank Salmon, OMI, pastor of Our Lady of the Snows Parish in Fort St. James. They live on the Nak’azdli reservation, in community with Sister Divinia, a Sister of St. Joseph of Toronto, in a house established by Sister Divinia’s community. Their ministry also takes them to the Binchy, Tache, and Yekoochie reservations of the Carrier Nation. Traveling to Yekoochie, the farthest of the reservations, entails a two-hour drive on a logging road, which at times drops to one lane.
“When we go to the reservations, we’re still alt the point of just visiting people – knocking on doors and saying hello and trying to engage in conversation” to let the people know of the Church’s concern, Sister Maurine explained. “”They receive us with warm hospitality.”
Sisters Renee and Maurine have taken the opportunity to listen to the stories of the people they visit and to learn about their lives and culture. Although the people they meet are joyful, they also experience deep grief over the loss of their culture and language to the dominant culture.
In this region of about 4,400 residents – about two-thirds comprising First Nations people – the residents have little opportunity for employment. Sister Maurine noted that some of the people – especially the women – engage in home industry, such as beading and making moccasins. Others go through a long and difficult process to prepare hides – which can bring in $1,000 – for use in making articles such as moccasins.
Many of the local First Nations residents also rely on the Earth for their sustenance, living from what they can obtain through hunting, fishing, and trapping. Many of the people “jar,” smoke, dry, or freeze their moose, salmon, and fruits and vegetables for the winter, Sister Renee said. Some of the women in their parish also know how to use local herbs as traditional medicine for a variety of ailments.
The Sisters had the opportunity to observe the people passing on this aspect of their culture to their children. Sister Maurine recalled the local school taking the children – from the age of four years through sixth grade – on a salmon run. The school “took them out to the nets in order to catch the salmon and learn how to clean the salmon, and then they took them to the smoke house to learn how to prepare the salmon for smoking.”
Sisters Maurine and Renee are also learning about other aspects of the people’s culture. “What really attracts me and makes me feel at home is that their sense of ritual,” Sister Maurine said. She gave the example of the community recently gathering to “sing the canoes home” when a set of canoeists were returning after a four-day journey. “As the canoeists rounded the corner, people on the shore played drums and sang the songs” to welcome the canoeists home, she recalled.
Sister Renee explained another ritual, the sweat lodge, a ritual in which a designated leader and participants sit together for several rounds, with each round dedicated to prayer for a particular intention. “It’s just a very beautiful, healing ritual that means a great deal in the culture,” Sister Renee said.
The hospitality and gratitude of the people are also evident in another tradition: the potlatch. “When somebody dies, the whole community helps the family out, either loaning them money or doing whatever needs to be done,” Sister Maurine explained. After the family has had time to recoup their money, they hold a potlatch, a gift-giving feast during which they repay the money that was loaned to them and thank the community for their help and support. “’That’s all part of the grieving process, and it gives them a chance also to reminisce over the life of the person,” Sister Maurine explained.
Sisters Maurine and Renee said they have felt accepted and welcomed by the people of the four reservations where they serve – and even had the opportunity to learn how much the people have come to appreciate them. Sister Renee recalled that both of them had left on Labor Day for a two-day trip with Sisters Kathy Nolan, OP, and Jude Van Baalen, who are ministering in Prince George, British Columbia. When they returned, they received hugs from the people of the reservations, who had been afraid that the Sisters had left them. “They have accepted us totally,” Sister Renee said.
For their part, Sisters Renee and Maurine love the people they serve and their time in northern British Columbia. “For us, it’s a very down-to-Earth time,” Sister Renee said. “We have our feet on the Earth – and that’s important.”