They came for the Lord and they served us,
from Europe and across North America they came.
To this “great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder”
O God! How they stuck on us all.
Apologies to Robert Service, but when he finally got to Dawson City in 1908 the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate had already been there for 10 years.
Actually only a few decades after their 1816 founding in France by Eugene de Mazenod, who was canonized as a Roman Catholic saint in 1995, the Oblates became the first Catholic missionaries to arrive in the Yukon.
Historical records show that an Oblate named Father Gascon arrived in the area around the present-day Watson Lake in September of 1861. A year later, an Oblate named Father Seguin crossed the Richardson Mountains into northern Yukon from the Fort Good Hope mission. These brief forays and those over the next two decades left no permanent imprint.
The expansion of the mining frontier northward into the Yukon during the 1890s brought prospectors and renewed Catholic missionary interest. By the early 1890s Jesuit priests from the United States asked the Oblate Bishop Grouard, then in charge of the Athabaska and Mackenzie regions, for permission to work in the Yukon. The Jesuit’s Father William Judge built the first permanent Catholic church, St. Mary’s, in the territory in Dawson City. He also invited the Sisters of St. Ann to open a school and help at the hospital that he started.
As thousands of people poured into the Yukon following the Klondike gold strike, the Oblates returned to the area as well. Father C. Lefebvre arrived in Dawson City from the Mackenzie Delta area in June, 1898, a week after a fire destroyed the first St. Mary’s church. Meanwhile three other Oblates were trekking over the Chilkot Pass. Fathers Desmarais and Gendreau, along with Brother Dumas, would build the Yukon’s second Catholic church, St. Francis Xavier, at Fort Selkirk during the summer of 1898.
Father Judge’s death on January 16, 1899 left the affairs of the Catholic Church in the Yukon in able Oblate hands. In late June 1900 Father Lefebvre and Brother Dumas pitched a tent in Whitehorse. The Diocese of Whitehorse’s Sacred Heart Cathedral now marks the site of this humble beginning. Many other Oblate priests and brothers from eastern Canada, the U.S.A., France, Belgium, Holland and other countries would come to serve in the Yukon over the next 114 years.
The word “oblate” comes from the Latin word “oblatio,” meaning an offering. The Oblates have a particular call to be “in solidarity with those who are poor and most abandoned in our world.” As the Mission Statement of their Anglo-Irish province reads in part, “We commit ourselves to building a new society in the light of Gospel values – a way of being where justice, peace, love, forgiveness and hope are commonplace.” The Yukon Oblates following the lived example of their founder, Eugene de Mazenod, choosing to offer their lives in service, faith and prayer among us.
While no apology can mute the cries of those who suffered at the Lower Post Residential School or abuse elsewhere, these tragic events perpetrated by a few should not dim our appreciation for those many who faithfully and unstintingly lived their vocation.
Only three Oblates remain in the Yukon today as their mission here comes to an end: Fathers Jean-Marie Mouchet, Pierre Rigaud and Jim Bleackley. They represent the best of what the Oblates brought to the Yukon. Other fellow Oblates from Outside will join the Yukon community as the Oblates’ legacy of well over a century of dedicated service is celebrated this Saturday with a Mass at Vanier Catholic Secondary at 16 Duke Street in Riverdale beginning at 5 p.m. Afterwards a barbecue with potluck salads and desserts will followed by a farewell program at 8 p.m. All are welcome.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact email@example.com.