The parishes of Our Lady of Sorrows (Sturgeon Falls) and Holy Spirit (Garden Village) received a special guest on the weekend of April 28-30 when Bishop Thomas Dowd, Diocese of Sault Ste Marie, made a pastoral visit and was heartily welcomed by the parishioners and local priest, Rev. Amaladhas Tensingh Alexander. Dowd tried to visit last year, but his sojourn was cut short when he contracted COVID. This weekend was a promise fulfilled. “A pastoral visit is an ancient tradition in the church where the bishop… would visit all of the different communities and parishes and spend a more extended time with them to really get to know them and be close to them… observe the life of the neighborhood. …I’m very concerned about the life of our parishes and I really believe that a parish is not supposed to be like a franchise of Church Inc.,” says Dowd.
When he was appointed as Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Montréal in 2011, Thomas Edward Dowd was the second youngest bishop in the world. He is now 52 years of age. Pope Francis named him Bishop of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie in October of 2020, during the height of the COVID pandemic. He will need that youthful energy for such a vast area; he relates that the vehicle purchased in December 2020 has already 70,000 km on it, despite the pandemic.
Bishop Dowd shares his views on what a parish means to the community at large. “A parish needs to be rooted in a local community… It needs to bring the graces of that community, the blessings, and share it with others… My dream is that one day I’ll start getting letters from Protestants and Orthodox Christians, Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Atheists saying to me, you know, dear Bishop, we’re not Catholic, but we’re so grateful to have a Catholic Church in our community. You better not close it. You better keep this place going.”
His vision is world embracing, and he does not hide from the criticisms his church faces. “I want to get to know environments and I want people to get to know me and realize that I’m there for them… Our Lady of Sorrows and also the Holy Spirit Mission in Garden Village; we had a wonderful meeting there yesterday with the community and Garden Village. We talked about how the church can be a partner with the people there as we move forward.” Dowd says he isn’t just concerned about spiritual welfare; he recognizes the struggles small communities in the diocese have faced materially. “A lot of our little towns, they’re really struggling.”
Some parishes have declined, he says, from 500 people to 5. “We know this is part of our history and so I’m trying to get to know what [are] the dynamics of ordinary life. Forget religion, just ordinary life in each place. When I was here last year, there was a different mayor, there was a whole different town council, so that’s part of the change that occurred. And my understanding is there was some division in the town, or at least in the Council. …That’s part of the dynamics … to be aware of. But [we also] had a wonderful tour to see all the artwork that’s being put up in the town as a way of saying ‘No! We’re proud of our community and we want to showcase it and make it beautiful!’ That was the initiative of private citizens who rally together and do something. The Food Bank in Sturgeon Falls started out of this parish, this church (Our Lady of Sorrows), so that’s a sign of an example of how a church should be a lighthouse to a community.” He mentions that OLS also has a pantry to supplement the Food Bank, so if people missed the distribution day, “They can knock on the door and get a little bit of assistance.”
Bishop Dowd was asked to speak to some larger church issues, in relation to past treatment of Indigenous people, specifically to the recent repeal of the Doctrine of Discover by the Vatican. The Doctrine of Discovery was a legal and religious concept used for centuries to justify Christian colonial conquest by advancing the idea that European peoples, culture and religion were superior to all others. It targeted people all over the world. The Doctrine of Discovery allowed the Crown in Canada to claim sovereignty over Indigenous Peoples and lands.
Bishop Dowd was made warmly welcome by the parishioners in Garden Village, and he was very blunt about the repeal of the Doctrine on March 30, 2023. “The Doctrine of Discovery, if I can just comment on that, you used the word rescinded. Actually, the Doctrine of Discovery has been repudiated, which is a stronger word than rescinded. Rescinded was like, well, it was there, but you know, times have changed. “Repudiated” is saying it should never have been there in the first place. I am very happy with that. I am of the category of person who thinks, ‘What were they thinking?’ It was the Renaissance; it was not a high point for popes. The pope who put out the original Doctrine of Discovery stuff is widely considered by historians to have been the worst in the history of the Church. …The actual doctrine, as a legal thing within the church, was abrogated a long time ago. Abrogated again means it stops having effect and is replaced, but repudiation is stronger, and I think repudiation was right. I was hoping it was going to come. I didn’t realize it was going to come so quickly. It even took me by surprise. But I’m thrilled. It belongs in the trash heap of history. What effects it’s going to have in the legal systems of different countries? Who knows? I mean, Canada doesn’t usually consult the Pope about its Constitution and its laws.”
As for his meeting with the community in Garden Village, he says it was uplifting and positive, that he was welcomed by local Elders, had the opportunity to sit with them and enjoy conversation. “They had some young women who played the hand drum and sang a couple of songs. We had a feast. You know, you’ve got to have food and just a chance to mingle with each other. And it was good cheer.”
So how did a born and bred Montrealer end up living in Sudbury, serving such a vast territory? Dowd relates how he joined some friends who invited him to hunt on Manitoulin Island on Thanksgiving weekend, October 2020. He made the 10-hour drive, but didn’t have a hunting license, so he sat in a blind all Saturday, meditating. His party split up on Sunday to go to their families for Thanksgiving, and Dowd started to make his way back home. “It was a beautiful, beautiful day, bright, sunny. I got in my car and started driving back and when I got up to Espanola, the road sign [read] left to Sault Ste Marie, right to Sudbury. My mind flashed. I realized I’m in the Diocese of Sault Ste Marie, and this diocese doesn’t have a bishop right now… I took my rosary off my mirror and said, I’m going to pray for these people and I’m going to pray for the next bishop, whoever it might be. Got home to Montreal, the next day the phone rings. It’s the Pope’s ambassador to Canada, the Nuncio saying, Congratulations, Tom, the Pope has named you Bishop of Sault Ste Marie.”
Dowd was stunned, feeling it was divine intervention. He accepted the appointment right away and had two months to move. “I arrived in December; nothing quite like moving to Northern Ontario in December, in the middle of a snowstorm, in the middle of a global pandemic.” The first year was lockdown, a very tough time for all churches, but Dowd says he has an adventurous spirit that loves a challenge. In the past two years he has made his home here, and has felt welcome. He says local churches are still struggling post-pandemic, but because of the church’s involvement in education there is a deep connection with families, the ‘tripod of church, schools and families’.
“I’m from Quebec, where we don’t have Catholic schools. We don’t have a separate school system, so as a priest I am relatively unfamiliar with what it means to be a parish connected to a school,” he relates. “When I did my pastoral visit here last year…we went to the public school and sat down with principals and teachers and they asked me, well, you’re the Bishop, what are you doing in a public school? I said I’m not interested in just the Catholics. I’m interested in the whole life of our community and this school is an important part of the community. They were very receptive. They were very happy to have me there.”
Dowd says that from a Catholic perspective, education is meant to assist in the formation of the human spirit and mutual understanding, and that there’s a very long history of excellent education in the Church under the concept that God gave you a brain and expects you to use it. He points out that, despite the misogyny women have suffered, they were also educated in convent schools, even though they were not allowed to use that education in public life. Times have changed, people have changed, ideas have changed, and something may be breathing new life and new energy into the way the Church is approaching things. “I don’t want to be a Bishop trapped behind a desk. I want to be out there… I also want to rally our parishes. We have to put our minds together to see how we’re going to be church in our local environments. I don’t promise to have the answers to that. I think we’re going to have to put our heads together.”
Bishop Dowd’s pastoral visit to Our Lady of Sorrows and Holy Spirit Mission was the step taken to initiate that dialogue, and to advance the process of reconciliation, renewal and resolve to be of service to the wider community of West Nipissing. “I’m not just here for the Catholics, I want to connect with other faiths,” he sums ups.