On Sunday, Feb. 6, Our Lady of Sorrows church celebrated a special mass focused on “Listening to the Voices of Indigenous People”, as part of their 75th anniversary as a parish. Reverend Amaladhas Tensingh Alexander, the parish priest, initiated the process of celebrating “Seven Joys”, each lasting 10 weeks, focusing on the concerns of the community. This particular mass marked the Third Joy, aimed at promoting reconciliation through listening attentively to First Nations friends, family and neighbours. Parishioner Carmen van Empel coordinated the effort and said the mass left her feeling joyful and humble. “It went a thousand times better than I anticipated. It was very well received; the message from Chief [Scott] McLeod was incredible. The message from George O’Handley (Spirit Bear) – there was barely a dry eye in the house. It went really well… The smudging and drumming were very moving; to have them in the church and have them share their traditional ways – we are all related. …Gordon O’Handley’s message was one of forgiveness and starting over. Scott McLeod’s message was of the Seven Grandfather Teachings. I knew very little about it and I feel much smarter…I felt joy and I also felt humbled by the whole experience, that they would open their hearts up, and there were a lot of Native faces and the church was fuller than it was at Christmas.”
Van Empel, in an interview prior to the event, said she was definitely out of her ‘comfort zone’ when Rev. Alexander gave her the project. “When he asked me, that this is what he wanted me to do, a voice said ‘Don’t say no’… It’s been a learning experience. …It’s a sad story the Catholic Church is involved in and was involved in right from the word go. I am a believer that it’s time; as much as we are asking for forgiveness, forgiveness also has to be accepted. I’ve heard that from a few people that I’ve reached out to… It’s a two-way street and somebody has to start somewhere.” In referring to the thousands of children who died at residential schools throughout Canada, van Empel said, “We can feel the sorrow. We can be an open door to receive people, and hope that the message does work. I’ll be honest, it’s been a bit of trip to make sure I’m not saying anything [unacceptable]. …This has been a challenge.”
However, when she reached out to plan the mass, she discovered a responsiveness she was not expecting. “It’s been overwhelming, … Evelyn [McLeod] is part of this, smudging and doing the rosary in Ojibwe for us. Blair Beaucage is drumming… Reverend Sister Priscilla Solomon, an Indigenous nun at the Motherhouse (North Bay), is doing the homily – such a smart woman!… Freda Martel, secretary of Holy Spirit (church in Garden Village) is going to come with the Native saint (Kateri Tekakwitha, Protectress of Canada and the first Native American saint).” The wooden statue will be borrowed from Holy Spirit until Our Lady of Sorrows secures their own statue. Holy Spirit in Garden Village was closed during the first pandemic lockdown and has not re-opened. The parish of Our Lady of Sorrows is throwing open its doors, inviting the people of Holy Spirit to join them. “It’s a small step – nobody’s trying to put a message forward – we are trying to listen. We want them back in a way that’s meaningful to them,” said van Empel.
Reverend Alexander has only been in Canada for two years, hailing from Tamil Nadu, India. He is a community developer who has worked with different populations, different religions, and sees the community as a whole, with his church playing a part in reconciliation. “This town needs a political stand for those who have been suppressed for many years. The church has a responsibility to do that. I’m trying. …Church is like a mother; when she gives food to her children, she doesn’t give food to the good one and deny the bad one. She feeds all the children. This is the way Jesus told us to be – never judge.” He chose van Empel for her communication skills, he said.