Last week I participated in the Rose Prince Pilgrimage at Lejac on Highway 16 in northern B.C. I was at the pilgrimage because I am a member of the organizing committee for the Directions in Aboriginal Ministry Program, a program initiated and supported by the Western Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Directions program seeks to support aboriginal and non-aboriginal ministers working within aboriginal Catholic communities.
In previous years, meetings were held at Newman Theological College or at Star of the North Retreat House. This year we were challenged to travel outside the city to join in with a major faith celebration of a local aboriginal community.
The pilgrimage was centred on the life, death and legacy of Rose Prince, a member of the Carrier Nation. Rose attended and later worked at the Lejac Indian Residential School.
She was known for her strong Christian faith and her concern and compassion for her fellow students and coworkers. She died of tuberculosis at the young age of 34 in 1949. She was buried in a cemetery near the school.
Two years later, it became necessary to move this cemetery. The coffins were dug up and carried on a stoneboat to a new location which was not too far away. During the move, Rose's coffin was opened up. Her body was discovered to be perfectly preserved.
Over the centuries, Catholics have seen this as a special sign that recognizes that the deceased person lived a life of great holiness.
During our time at the Rose Prince Pilgrimage, members of our program were able to get deeper and deeper into the story of Rose Prince by talking with local community members associated with the life and legacy of Rose.
We spoke with an aboriginal man who worked at moving the coffins back in 1951, and was an eyewitness to the incorrupt state of Rose's body. We spoke with the nurse present with Rose at the time of her death, who remembered that Rose's body did not stiffen with rigor mortis that normally occurs in the hours after death.
We spoke to members of two families who had a family member healed of serious medical conditions through prayers invoking Rose and the application of dirt from her gravesite.
As we got deeper into Rose's story, one member of our group spoke of "brushing up against holiness." This sense of encountering the holy is shared by the several hundred pilgrims, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, who gather annually from across Western Canada to participate in this pilgrimage.
The pilgrimage brought a deep experience of shared Christian community. The local Carrier people hosted the pilgrimage on their land, offering welcome and generous hospitality.
Over the three days of the pilgrimage, aboriginal and non-aboriginal participants shared worship, meals, campsites and often deep conversations together. However, the pain and suffering of many of the local aboriginal families became visible in the prayers of intercession during the "Living Rosary."
The pilgrimage is held on the site of the former Lejac residential school which operated from 1922 to 1976. We spoke with former students, including a classmate of Prince, who spoke of the painful and difficult life at the residential school - being separated from family at a young age and being thrust into a strange and intimidating environment.
We also spoke with members of the religious community of sisters who served at the Lejac school, and heard about the commitment of the sisters to assist and support the students at the school.
I found my time at the Rose Prince Pilgrimage to be a powerful and transforming spiritual experience. All that I experienced there does not fit together into a neat, cohesive package. There were real tensions and at times apparent contradictions in the midst of God's special presence in mystery and abiding love.
These are significant conversations in the life of the Canadian Church today. Another quite different public conversation on the legacy of the Indian residential schools will be taking place at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission community hearings on July 24 and 25 in Hobbema.
The hearings will take place at the site of the former Ermineskin residential school, which was staffed by members of Catholic religious orders. These important community hearings are open to members of the public. Everyone is welcome to attend.
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)