Among the Indigenous Peoples of Northern Ontario – Fr. Mike Stogre, S.J.

(Article from the “Yearbook of the Society of Jesus 2011”)

The society of Jesus has been present among the indigenous peoples of Ontario and minnistering to them since the 17th century. Our presence was interrupted by the suppression of the Society of Jesus, but began again in 1842.

By 1845 Jesuits took charge of the main mission station in Northern Ontario established by l’Abbe Prolx, a diocesan priest, at Wikwemikong, on Manitoulin island. It had been the goverment plan that all native peoples in Ontario would move to this island because they were now few in number, would soon die out (“vanishing like snow before the April snow” as Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Francis Bond Head put it) and were impeding

European settlement.

Well they didn’t all go to Manitoulin and they didn’t die out. Through the last half of the 19th century and now into the second decade of the 21st, the Society of Jesus has maintained a continuous presence and base on Manitoulin Island.

Modelled somewhat on the Paraguayan Reductions and rooted “perfect society” model of the church, foreign and native born Jesuits accompanied the peoples of the three fires confederacy (Odawa, Ojibwa, and Pottawatomi tribes) through the centuries to our own day. So the Jesuits have been present through significant phases of Aboriginal history. The fur trade era was a stage of relative mutually.

This overlapped the era of military alliance which resulted in a period of treaty making, and the establishment of separate native territories known in Canada as reserves.

The indigenous population greatly diminished and, isolated, entered a period of irrelevancy where numbers continued to decline and the future looked bleak. Finally, after the Second World War, a new and unexpected phase of revival / revitalization took off. Anthony Wallace, an anthropologist, defines the process this way: “Revitalization is a deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture.” Revitalization movements can take various forms including the “nativistic” mode in which the culture tries to eliminate everything foreign from the original culture.

This has proven totally unrealistic in the modern world.

There is also the “revivalistic” mode which tries to retrieve and reintroduce cultural elements and practices that once existed or were thought to have existed in the original culture. Unlike the nativistic movements this type is open to new and imported elements from other cultures. This is what we commonly see among those who are trying to revive indigeous cultures.

Finally, there are movements which are primarily “importational.” Usually it is mostly material elements that are desired and sought after. Witness the “cargo cults” of the South Pacific during and after the Second World War.

Whether it realized it or not, the Catholic Church itself was facing the need for in depth revitalization. Vatican II was the crucial first step in this process. It developed a vision for the future drawing from past treasures, as well as being open to the gifts of contemporary cultures. So the Roman Catholic Church entered a period of revitalization in a “revivalistic” mode. Lately, though, the Church seems to be moving consciously into a “nativistic” period of cultural change.

In the midst of this Church ferment, led by creative individuals like Fr. Michael Murray S.J., the builder and first director of the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre (ASC, www.anishinabespiritualcentre.ca), situated in Espanola, Ontario, our way of being present to the native Church of Northern Ontario changed dramatically. As this process accelerated the Jesuits of English Canada entered into a communal discernment process at Guelph under the  discretion of the late Fr. John English S.J. (1924-2004). At that meeting the apostolate to the native peoples of Northern Ontario was affirmed, and the province allocated significant funds to the ASC to implement the vision of Vatican II.

The Sault Ste. Marie diocese, in which the Centre existed, has already affirmed similar directions at a local synod in which the Jesuits also played a role. Having supported the reintroduction of the diaconate and going further by devising a similar commissioned ministry path for women, the stage was set for similar development in the native sector of the diocese.

Today, After more than a quarter-century of offering a ministries program to the indigenous people of the Sault St. Marie, and other dioceses in which we have worked, we face new challenges as Jesuit personnel are few and far between. Many of our first graduates, both deacons and commissioned women ministers, have died or retired. Despite the difficulties we continue with more than twenty candidates for ministry. Today they are a mostly women. In addition to forming seventeen men for the diaconate, and nineteen women for the Diocesan Order of Service, the ASC has trained two men for the Diocesan Priesthood.

In 1984, at Midland, Ontario, Pope John Paul II met with many of our first deacons where Jesuits and Huron Christians shed their blood for the faith. There in his closing remarks he acknowledged ¬†and affirmed a revitalization process that would bring together the Christian faith and native culture: “Thus the one faith is expressed in different ways. There can be no question of adulterating the word of God or of emptying the Cross of its power, but rather of Christ animating the very centre of all culture. Thus not only is Christianity relevant to the Indian peoples, but Christ, in the members of his Body, is himself Indian.

Michael Joseph Stogre, S.J.

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