Srs. Jeannette Berger and  Bernadette Gautreau will retire in August after more than 50 years of missionary work in Northwestern Alberta.

PHOTO SUPPLIED | CATHOLIC MISSIONS IN CANADA

Srs. Jeannette Berger and Bernadette Gautreau will retire in August after more than 50 years of missionary work in Northwestern Alberta.

May 16, 2011
CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Many mainstream cultures have a great need to take the blinders off and experience other cultures.

That is the underlying message of two Sisters of Sainte-Chretienne, Bernadette Gautreau and Jeannette Berger, who have been serving in northern Alberta since the 1950s.

"It's important to look around and see how other people live their traditions, their customs, their mentality," said Gautreau.

"The native people have a very bad image in Canada. You talk to most people and they ask us how we can work with people who are lazy, drunken or dirty? They go on and on with a list of things that we have never really put much importance to."

By spending time at the Little Red Reserve in northern Alberta, they found the soul of the Cree people.

For their outstanding missionary work, they received Catholic Missions in Canada's St. Joseph's Award on May 5.

Berger, from Quebec, never went to school with nuns or even knew any nuns. She heard God's calling to religious life, but the idea of going to missions filled her with doubts.

"I knew of one order where they didn't send any sisters on missions, the Sisters of Sainte-Chretienne, and so I entered there. I didn't want to go on any missions because I was too scared," said Berger.

However, in the 1950s the sisters took on a new role of having missions to the Cree people of northern Alberta.

Berger met the criteria of what they were looking for in missionaries: good health, a teaching certificate and a minimum 10-year commitment. Meeting all three requirements, Berger became a missionary. The woman who did not want to be a missionary has been one for almost 60 years.

"The Lord plays jokes on us," said Berger.

She was one of the founding missionaries who went to Fox Lake, Alta., in 1957. She was sent there to teach, but found herself taking on many tasks the first three years with little resources. She was appointed the superior, teacher, cook and nurse's helper.

Gautreau is an American. Growing up in Maine, she was schooled by the Sisters of Sainte-Chretienne from Grades 1 to 8. By the time she went to a public high school, she was already feeling the call to religious life.

FOUGHT WITH THE LORD

"But being the type of person that I am, I didn't want to go live in a convent. Something about that whole convent lifestyle did not appeal to me. I fought with the Lord because I kept feeling him tugging at my heartstrings, but I kept saying no," said Gautreau.

When Gautreau heard about the mission work in northern Alberta, she felt the calling to missionary life. She joined the sisters in 1958, with the dream that she would get assigned to the Cree people of the Grouard-McLennan Archdiocese.

The novitiate was a big, structured convent, which Gautreau described as "like boot camp when you enter the military. After going to teachers college, right away my first assignment was to Fox Lake. So my dream came true in very little time. I was right where I wanted to be, and I've been there ever since."

She took teacher training, became a vice-principal, then principal and worked as a pastoral minister on weekends.

"The Lord had arranged my calling all along, but I was the one who wasn't seeing it," said Gautreau.

Her first teaching assignment in 1962 was with 23 children in Grades 1 and 2 in a two-room log schoolhouse. None of the children spoke English and Gautreau did not speak Cree.

SIGN LANGUAGE

"It was a lot of fun that first year. To communicate with the students, I did a lot of sign language and drew pictures on the board," she said.

Assisting with Baptisms was part of Sr. Bernadette Gautreau's pastoral work at St. Joseph Parish in John D'Or Praire.

PHOTO SUPPLIED | CATHOLIC MISSIONS IN CANADA

Assisting with Baptisms was part of Sr. Bernadette Gautreau's pastoral work at St. Joseph Parish in John D'Or Praire.

Her second year, 1964, she had 25 students in Grades 3 and 4. In 1965, at a new school on John D'Or Prairie Reserve, she served as a teacher. In 1966, she had 17 children in six grades. She has been there ever since, and the school now has about 400 students.

When the priest died in 1982, the reserve was told it would no longer have a priest. After much discernment, Gautreau left teaching and focused instead on pastoral ministry at St. Joseph's Parish.

"The bishop has given me the authorization to do everything that a deacon can do. I do the Sunday services, funerals, weddings, Baptisms and a lot of counselling," said Gautreau. "The only things I can't do are hear Confessions and say Mass.

"I don't give absolution, but I hear lots of confessions. The people come and somebody needs to be a listening ear."

Taking ownership of the church was important for the native people. Gautreau has always strived to incorporate native spirituality into the church services, including drumming, smudgings, tobacco offerings and statues of Kateri Tekakwitha.

From 1987 until now, Berger has also served at St. Joseph's Parish. She is involved in sacramental preparation for Reconciliation and the Eucharist with children. She also brings Holy Communion to the elderly and shut-ins, and provides counselling.

Since Gautreau and Berger quit teaching, hundreds of other teachers from across Canada have come to teach. Most last a year or two, and then move on, as do the nurses and government employees.

SKEPTICISM

"Native people, in general, are very skeptical about white people because we have treated them so badly over the years," said Gautreau.

"They don't trust us and won't confide in us unless we show them that we are trustworthy and are looking out for their best interests."

Both Gautreau and Berger are set to retire in August. Finding replacements will be no easy task. Laypeople are most likely to take over doing pastoral ministry in their absence.

"It's bad for the people, and it makes them feel very insecure because they keep asking who's going to come when we're gone. I don't know if the bishop is going to find somebody. As far as I know, the factory is broken, and there are no more sisters coming out," said Gautreau.