WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN
Oblate Fr. Mark Blom was the main celebrant at a March 30 Mass at Edmonton's Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples for Catholics attending the Truth and Reconciliation Commission national event. On Blom's left are Fr. Ken Foster, superior of the Lacombe province of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie. On his right are Archbishop Gerard Pettipas of Grouard McLennan and Fr. Andrew Szablewski of St. Joseph Seminary.
Catholics who attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission national event in Edmonton say they were horrified by the stories of abuse they heard from survivors of Church-run residential schools.
"I am horrified by the stories, especially of abuse and violence by the staff who ran the schools," said Archbishop Gerard Pettipas of Grouard-McLennan.
Pettipas said he found it difficult to hear the stories, especially of priests, brothers and sisters, who hurt students at the schools.
"These were people I want to believe who dedicated themselves at some point in their lives to the Lord and to how God would see their mission," he said.
Pettipas was one of several Catholics interviewed by the WCR on March 30, the last day of the TRC event, on their reactions to the testimonies of residential school survivors they had heard the previous three days.
Miriam Stulberg, a member of the Madonna House apostolate serving at Edmonton's Marian Centre, said she was struck by "the overwhelming pain of the people and the need to stand before that pain and let it come in."
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Often, we try to resist pain, Stulberg said. However, one can also stand before the pain of another person and carry that pain. "The force and intensity of it these past days has been, for me, overwhelming."
She wants to atone for the suffering that has happened by giving her life every day. "These are my brothers and sisters, and their suffering is mine."
Janet Bourdet, also of the Marian Centre, added that the centre sees the rotten fruit of the residential schools daily in the people who come there for food and clothing.
"I feel like I've been skinned alive," she said of the testimonies that she heard at the TRC. When one's skin has been peeled off, one is left with no protection.
Bourdet said she feels "incredible sadness at what has happened to Christ's little ones."
Sister Gertrude Sopracolle, an Ursuline sister of Prelate, Sask., said she is consoled by the fact that there was a spirit of prayer at the TRC event.
"I felt unbelievably consoled and relieved at how these events open us to absolute dependence on God working through us even when the cracks for the Spirit's entry are very small."
Sopracolle said she had mainly listened in the TRC sessions and had not spoken much. "In some situations I have felt totally bereft of anything I can do, other than sit there and offer it to God and pray for healing."
At one session she attended, the language was "extremely raw," she said. She felt that she could say nothing on behalf of those who worked in the schools that would be heard by other people. "That gave me an extremely heavy feeling, and I had to go outside for a while."
Looking to the future, she said she is unsure how the situation will unfold, but that it will change slowly and only through the recognition of a higher power. "There is a growing sense that we are one human community. That is the way forward."
Jane Sagar of Newmarket, Ont., said aboriginal people say that if you spend time with a person, you have shared part of your life with that person "because you can never regain that time."
Not only have we shared the past three days, she said, "in a very real way we've shared all those other days" that the survivors described in their testimonies.
Sagar said the federal government also should be held to account. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's 2008 apology for government involvement in residential schools is only as valid as the actions that follow it. "As citizens, we need to say, 'We take this apology seriously; we want you to act on it.'"
Jane's husband Tom, a regional representative for Kairos, the ecumenical justice coalition, said the government subverted the work of the missionaries in many ways. "So many horrible things happened as a result of underfunding."
The country needs to be changed one heart at a time, he said. "The biggest problem is indifference."
Asked whether he accepted all the testimonies at the TRC at face value, Archbishop Pettipas said he wondered about some things that he had heard. "When we're kids, the way we experience things is not always the way that it was."
However, he quickly added, "That is not to let anybody off the hook. That doesn't decrease my horror at the stories."
Pettipas said he has talked with priests, sisters and brothers who worked in the schools who said they didn't witness the abuse described in the testimonies. He has also talked with other native people who had positive experiences in the schools.
"That doesn't negate what I accept as the truth of those who had the experiences (of abuse)."
Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie, the retired bishop of Keewatin-Le Pas, Man., said this is a time of purification for the Church. "The mission of the Church today is to soak up the pain."
Many good things "were happening in the cracks" at the TRC event, he said. "There were also times when it was really difficult to be there."
Lavoie said the Catholic entities have been slow in taking steps to move forward out of the trauma caused by residential schools.
Then, he began to speak of steps that have been taken. In his former diocese, aboriginal people have been sent for healing workshops that have helped them move past their suffering.
As well, the Returning to Spirit program that brings aboriginal and non-aboriginal people together through a 10-day process to build reconciliation has also helped people, he said. "That's a major success story."
The Church, Lavoie said, has also become proactive in dealing with sexual abuse in both the Church and society. "In some ways, the Church now might be leading the way in dealing with sexual abuse from the Vatican on down.
"I think the Church really has learned some lessons."