by Alison Bradish, a member of St. Joseph’s Parish in Moose Jaw. This summer was her first time visiting St. Gertrude’s in Pelican Narrows.
August 7th, 2017, a small group of people bow their heads. They pray for a joyful and safe trip as the early morning sun previews a beautiful day ahead. They are about to make a clothing drive personal.
“As far as I know this is a pretty unique situation. It is so easy, so possible,” says Fr. Rick Krofchek while driving a truck with a trailer hitched to the back. He is followed by another truck and trailer. This is the fifth time he is leading a small caravan from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to Pelican Narrows part of the Peter Ballantyne First Nations.
Fr. Rick is talking about an annual clothing drive that has blossomed into a relationship between two parishes that otherwise may have never known about each other.
The story begins in 2010 at a social justice committee (SJC) meeting in the basement of St. Joseph’s church in Moose Jaw. The committee has the unusual blessing of having more funds than they are used to, thanks primarily to Fr. Rick who donates his priestly salary to charity. Fr. Rick gets by asking parishioners to leave spare change in the “pastor’s pot”, small baskets left at the entry way of the parish before weekend Masses. The SJC has the task to divvy up the monies into three categories of action, local, national and international.
To help decide what they should do with the monies put aside for national initiatives a call is put into Catholic Missions Canada, an organization whose mandate is to support mission churches in Northern Canada. It is suggested that St. Joseph’s parish contact the community of St. Gertrude’s Parish in Pelican Narrows and see how they could help.
“The first year we sent up some money to help shingle the roof,” Fr. Rick Krofchek explains. The SJC then asked Fr. Jesus Susi, stationed there at the time, if there was something else his community needed. Fr. Susi requested good used winter clothing for the people he served.
Th request was put forward to the parishioners of Moose Jaw. “That first year we asked for winter clothing and everything came,” says Fr. Rick. So they opened up the clothing drive for all good used clothing, emphasizing the need for children’s winter clothing.
Over the last five years 10 trailers of clothing have made it to Pelican Narrows. And every year a group of five or more parishioners of St. Joseph’s have been able to accompany Fr. Rick to distribute the clothing personally.
That is an essential element of the clothing drive for Fr. Rick who is sensitive to the attitudes behind the giving. He is always sure to be invited into the community and to ask if they truly would like the clothing that is being offered. Before the clothes are loaded into the trailer in Moose Jaw they are sorted into different colored bags depending on they type; children’s clothing, women’s, men’s, shoes and bedding.
Upon arrival at St. Gertrude’s Parish, the crew from St. Joseph’s is helped by members of St. Gertrude’s to unload the trailers into the Kateri Centre near St. Gertrude’s Parish. From there it is up to the discretion of those from St. Gertrude’s to decided how the clothing is distributed.
This year when the trailers arrive around 5 p.m. a crowd is there within minutes to help unload the trailers. The yard to the rectory and the Kateri Centre (a garage like structure used as the parish hall) are then flooded with clothes and people from Pelican Narrows. During the evening people come and go for hours until the extra clothes are put away into the centre to be distributed later. During that time the crew of six from St. Joseph’s Parish are invited into the rectory to a meal prepared by the parishioners of St. Gertrude’s which included fried and baked bannock, a moose meat dish and fried chicken. For dessert, there is fresh fruit and whipped cream delivered with laughter from another parishioner. Afterwards Fr. Subhash Joseph, (he goes by Fr. Joseph), gives a short tour of the community. Asked what other help the parish needs, Fr. Joseph says they struggle with resources for Catechism, programs for the children. Fr. Joseph’ also sees how difficult it is to get the men involved, noting it is the women who are the educators and the ones stepping up at the parish.
Valerie Morin is one of those women. A widow and mother of eight, she along with Frances McCallum, another woman in the parish are organizing a Walleye Fish Derby for St. Gertrude’s. Morin talks about how her she has been encouraging parishioners to step up and take care of their parish. She laughs as she recalls how one Sunday she led lay service and felt like she got through to the people. “Everyone brought baking to the bake sale, we only made $28 but I feel like they got the message,” she recalls with a twinkle in her eye. She talks about the struggles common to many Catholics, keeping their children engaged in the faith, developing healthy relationships, and having the experience of knowing Christ’s unconditional love, not matter what our life situation.
For Brian Harrison, this was his fourth trip to Pelican Narrows. Harrison is an active member of St. Joseph’s Social Justice Committee however he firmly believes that “every member of our parish is a member of the Social Justice Committee.”
For Harrison, the clothing drive is one example of how the parish comes together and engages actively in a social justice project. “Everyone steps up…. It is the one thing in year where people will ask ‘are you doing the Pelican Narrow trip again.”
The first year Harrison went North with the St. Joseph’s crew one of the Elders asked if he was American. “The only white men they had met were men from America who came fishing,” recalls Harrison who is passionate about forging ties with the community, calling it a symbiotic relationship. The gratitude, joy and welcome of the St. Gertrude’s and Pelican Narrows community is a witness of faith to the people of St. Joseph’s.
“If nothing else there is a lot of clothing in those trailers but hopefully a lot of hope as well. Just for them to know there is a group of Southern Saskatchewan people who care for them, who will come out year after year,” reflects Harrison.
For Rick Diacon and his brother Michael Diacon this year’s clothing drive marks the third year they have donated their time to make the trip to personally deliver the items.
“It’s just a great thing to do. They appreciate it so much what we do for them. It’s heartwarming but hard to see the despair they live in. But it is a good thing to do. Even if one person comes to get clothes and it makes their life better, it’s worth it,” says Rick on the trip back from Pelican Narrows driving his truck which he donates for the trek up North.
For Michael, the first year he came to Pelican Narrows he was curious to see who it was the parish was reaching out to. He also wanted to see if the what he had heard about the conditions of the reserve were true. For him the current trip to the Northern community made him wonder how the people of the community viewed him and his peers. “We are the outsiders….but you walk through the community and people stop and talk to you, they wave, they say hello.”
What both Diacon’s did notice was the lack of visibility of young men. It was the elderly and the children they saw the most of in the village of nearly 2,000 people.
With the trailers empty the crew from St. Joseph’s makes the 737 km journey back to Moose Jaws. The hope is next year they will be back, trailers full again. But until then it will be their spiritual closeness they desire to leave behind the knowledge that they desire and are willing to take steps towards mercy and reconciliation.