When members of the Sisters of Providence leadership team visited Sr. Una Byrne in her ministry, they found that spiritual life in Northern Ontario is anything but frosty.
The weather, however, was certainly chilly when Sisters Jeannette Filthaut and Sandra Shannon visited Moosonee in January of 2001 as part of their ongoing connection with congregational members in their areas of ministry. Because travel in the North often involves skidoos and ice roads, it is easier to get around when minus 30 Celsius temperatures are the norm and things are frozen solid.
Sister Una ministers in Northern Ontario as diocesan co-ordinator of faith development and director of religious education. Her role involves working with clergy and pastoral workers, the formation of lay ministers, the preparation and formation of people on sacramental preparation teams, and helping catechists work with children as well as developing and implementing programs and policies to facilitate this work. While her “home base” is the cathedral in Moosonee, her work takes her up the coast of James Bay, as far as Peawanuck on Hudson Bay and west to the communities north of Thunder Bay. All of these communities, with the exception of one in the west, are “fly-in” communities.
The leadership team members were deeply affected by the powerful nature of Sister Una’s ministry in the North, especially as it was manifested in an ecumenical service presided over by Sister Una, an Anglican priest, and a Native elder.
“Sister Una is an excellent presider,” says Sister Jeannette. “It is a testament to her leadership skills, and to the way she works to empower people to take ownership of what is theirs to celebrate. Rather than being for others, she is with others.”
Both leadership team members were impressed by the deep-rooted spiritual life of the Native community. “The people most often celebrate in the Cree language, led by one of their own elders,” notes Sister Sandra Shannon. “The blending of Cree and English is very powerful experience, which speaks of the universality of the church.”
“Listening to the language of the elderly people, people of great faith, reminded me of early Christian people coming together,” adds Sister Sandra. “People of various languages join in worship and the spirit is there.”
Sister Una helps facilitate this cultural exchange by making sure things are translated into Cree so all may participate. The Sunday celebration of the Word with communion, for example, was translated into Cree under her direction.
Sister Una faces many challenges in her ministry, but on a personal level her greatest hardship may be living at such a distance from her religious community. However, the leadership team noted that, in addition to the people of the community, she has a strong and supportive diocesan community with whom she works.