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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.”
In November 2013, the Philippines suffered the effects of the massive Typhoon Haiyan, which killed thousands and cost countless others their homes and livelihood, especially in the central provinces of Visayas and Leyte. The Sisters in the Congregation’s Our Lady of Remedies Mission Chapter, based in the Pampanga region, responded to the disaster by providing the survivors with as much direct assistance as possible.
The Sisters’ relief efforts included transporting by bus about 1,000 seedlings of fruit trees, provided by the Department of Agriculture of the Philippines, to the islands affected by Haiyan. The people were also given seeds for various vegetables—which produced quickly and in enough abundance to allow families to sell some in the market and earn money.
The Sisters’ relief efforts also included working with other agencies to provide for the people’s immediate material needs, as well as offering pastoral and grief support to the people who lost loved ones or who were in any other way afflicted by the typhoon.
The Remedies Sisters have not only worked hard to help their people through the crises caused by Typhoon Haiyan, but also with an eye toward building a sustainable future. Sister Myra Dalisay, OP, Director of Holy Rosary College in Tala, near Manila, and her predecessor, Sister Cora Quiambao, OP, hope to transform a vacant lot at the school into an ecology park. The park would take advantage of an abundance of trees to provide food for the people; work for the local farmers, who know more about the soil and the types of plants that grow well in it; and an opportunity for people to appreciate the garden.
Sister Myra hopes the project will also bring in a small income for Holy Rosary, which was founded 60 years ago by the Dominican Friars to teach the children of people with Hansen’s disease. While those students receive a free education, Holy Rosary has earned a small income from other students from the nearby village, who pay a low tuition.
Sister Cora also plans a similar project at the Dominican School of Angeles City, in the Mining area, where she currently ministers as the principal. She envisions fruit-bearing trees to complement their current guava, cashew, and banana trees. The fruit would provide extra food for teachers and parents, and some employment for people who live nearby.
In addition, as educators, both Sisters hope to provide religious formation and to teach their students about sustainable methods of growing trees and vegetables and about the need to care for the environment. Sister Cora, who is dedicated to teaching street children as well as the students at her school, hopes to improve the students’ living conditions and help them to become responsible, aware citizens who have a positive influence on their country and on the world.