CATHOLIC REGISTER PHOTO
King's University College students lost their hearts to Fond du Lac Denesuline First Nation reserve children.
By the time Alexandria Lepore was finishing up her honours degree in Catholic studies and history from King's University College in London, Ont., this spring, she knew she wanted to become a youth minister.
So when the opportunity came up to take a 12-day trip to do some youth programming, she jumped at the chance.
"It just sounded like the perfect opportunity to feel out what the job would be like," Lepore said.
But this was no ordinary trip. Lepore and 13 other students, 11 from King's College, two from St. Peter's Seminary, along with Father Michael Bechard and Sister Susan Glaab, headed out on June 28 to the Fond du Lac Denesuline First Nation reserve in northern Saskatchewan, close to the border with the Northwest Territories.
It took three planes from the southwestern Ontario city to reach the reserve, located on Lake Athabasca, 1,275 km northwest of Prince Albert.
Bechard, director of campus ministry and chaplain at King's, had visited the reserve the summer before with Glaab, and decided to organize this trip.
"I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for some of our young people to work with some of the young people up there and be involved in some sort of exchange," he said. "They saw a part of Canada that very few Canadians will ever see."
The group spent the better part of a week on the reserve, getting to know the community and joining its members in prayer.
Then, they accompanied the Fond du Lac people on a 40-minute boat ride to a little island called Pine Channel. It is there that Bishop Murray Chatlain of Mackenzie-Fort Smith – and a graduate of London's St. Peter's Seminary – leads an annual pilgrimage for the Fond du Lac people along with two other nearby nations.
Chatlain, with assistance from Bechard, led the adults in liturgical and devotional experiences while the students from King's focused their attention on the kids, leading activities and crafts, and providing different educational programs.
Lepore, a youth minister at King's, has plenty of experience working with children. But this time, she said, was different – simpler, less structured.
One day, she said, she was trying to lead the children in an activity of making knotted twine rosaries, and instead saw some of them using the twine as a jump rope.
Bishop Murray Chatlain
"It was a little hard to deal with the organized chaos," Lepore laughed. "It was frustrating at first but in the end, that's what we're called to do – love unconditionally and just be present."
Lepore said the children took to the King's students immediately – a sentiment echoed by Jolene Smith, a master of divinity student at St. Peter's.
"They made it very easy (to bond)," Smith said of the children. "They came to us. They were very kind and welcoming."
Both young women say some of the best moments of the pilgrimage were when everyone spent time in prayer together. "They have a really deep faith," Smith said.
Lepore notes that a highlight for everyone was a Confirmation ceremony for 125 young people.
As for Bechard, he couldn't be prouder of his students.
"They did a really, really good job in terms of the program they did for the children," he said. "Kids were there waiting for us when we got up in the morning and we had to send them home at night to go to bed.
"There was a real interaction and mutual respect."
Keeping camp, of course, had its challenges – "I didn't really enjoy my shower in the lake," Lepore laughed.
But Smith notes that they were more prepared than they thought they were, and all found themselves missing the island upon returning home on July 10.
"At the end of the trip, we all still wanted to be together," Smith said. "Four days later, we were having a reunion. The experience really bonded us and it's something that we share with each other.
For Lepore, the trip, which Bechard is hoping to turn into an annual journey, just might change her life's plan.
"Just seeing the genuine love and the faith and the welcoming of the children, it reinforced that this is where I want to be," she said.
"I don't know if there (are) any jobs available but . . . I'd really consider staying there (to work).
"I fell in love with the culture in northern Saskatchewan. I'd really like to go back."